The Borat Show
The man who would be Kazakhstan's man of the moment.
Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Borat: Cultural Learnings
A cheap-looking and extremely strange movie with an even stranger title--Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan--is opening in a few weeks, and it will make a sensation. Columnists will write op-eds about it. Talking heads will try to dissect it on chat shows. Already, several months before its release, two rather dissimilar institutions--the government of Kazakhstan and the Anti-Defamation League--have issued statements of concern about Borat's potential to do harm.
Ham-handed responses like those just play into the glorious and very tough-minded comic sensibility that animates Borat. This movie is satire in its truest, most courageous, form. Oxen are gored right and left. America is savaged. The Third World is savaged. Feminists are savaged. Evangelical Christian tent shows are savaged. Frat boys are savaged. Political correctness is savaged. The attitude that says political correctness is humorless twaddle is savaged. This is one of the four or five funniest movies ever made.
The movie follows Borat Sagdiyev, a news reporter for Kazakh television, as he journeys from his small village to the United States and travels around making a documentary intended to explain America to his countrymen. Borat isn't real. He's a character invented and portrayed by the British comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen. But most of the people in the movie are everyday Americans who have no idea Borat is a fictional character being played by a British comedian. They believe there is an actual Borat Sagdiyev and that they are being filmed for his documentary.
Cohen pioneered this form of kamikaze interviewing with his character Ali G. Cohen's producers would call up celebrities and politicians in Britain (and later here) and ask if they would be interviewed by a young journalist from the BBC or HBO. They would agree, and then find themselves face to face with a tall white Rasta doofus asking them the dumbest questions ever devised. The comedy came not from Ali G's dense queries but from the reactions of the celebrities and politicians, who could not believe what they were hearing and yet had to stay cool and collected because they knew cameras were rolling.
When Cohen created Borat, he took this brilliant concept to a new level. For while Ali G is just a well-meaning idiot, Borat is something else entirely. He's cheerful, friendly, and outgoing. He is also a crazed anti-Semite, racist, and misogynist--not because he's chosen to be these things but because everybody he has ever known shares the same prejudices. When Borat interacts with Americans, he presumes they believe what he believes. Most don't, and watching them react with growing horror and disbelief at Borat's grotesque beliefs is hilarious. It's even more hilarious--and discomfiting, as true satire should be--when Borat finds secret allies in the American heartland.
The genius of Borat is that it works on you in all sorts of different ways. In one sense, it's a raunchy comedy in the tradition of Animal House whose highlight is a crazed and enraged wrestling match between Borat and his obese producer. They wrestle in a hotel room, then in the hallway, then in the elevator, then through the lobby and into a ballroom where an actual, real-world convention is having its annual dinner. The wrestling is wild, violent, cartoonish--and both men are naked. The sequence is a classic piece of slapstick--as indelible in its way as the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera 70 years ago.
Like Chico Marx, Cohen is an old-time dialect comedian, and Borat mines its title character's mangled English for everything it's worth. But here again Cohen and his collaborators take things a step further. If you listen carefully you will discover that when Borat speaks Kazakh, he is actually speaking a combination of Slavic-sounding nonsense and conversational Hebrew. (Cohen's mother is Israeli.)