The intervening months since Borat's theatrical release have made it a bit easier to examine Sacha Baron Cohen's insane, politically incorrect film that generated all kinds of controversy, lawsuits, and forced the country of Kazakhstan to blow a small fortune on a media campaign to let the world know their culture doesn't practice the Running of the Jews, ban the congregation of more than 5 women at any given time, and export pubic hair to clean intractable gunk in skillets.
It's absolutely stunning that a film so up front in its satire (not to mention full frontal male & backside nudity) and jokes steeped in Wrongness would get a studio's green light, and yet the sequences that string together the film's road movie structure often manage to evoke painfully funny belly laughs – and the second viewing's even better.
The country of Kazakhstan has every reason to be horrified, but by going so over the top – as in the hideously uncomfortable Running of the Jews montage – it's clear Cohen's version of the small, far eastern country is a work of warped fiction. You can't possibly live in a house with a full-grown cow (okay, you could; but why?) and if Borat's insular village was taken for real, he'd have been dragged into the backwoods and dealt with for shagging his sister on a regular basis.
Once he travels to America, Cohen follows the Peter Sellers template of ‘being' the character, and drops himself into the real world to elicit shock and horror from regular humans. The results: Borat offends a rodeo audience by branding fervent nationalists as warmongers; a gun dealer doesn't bat an eye when Borat wants to purchase heavy gauge protection against Jews; and drunken college morons share their primeval views on the value of women and anything ethnic.
The rodeo stadium owner states his own displeasure with homosexuals, and advises Borat to shave his moustache so people won't treat him like the suspicious terrorist that apparently any Muslim is apt to be. He opines that, sans facial hair, Borat would just pass as an average Italian- or Greek-American, which is apparently OK.
The vignettes with Borat and his producer Azamat play like staged TV segments, but it's when Cohen eggs on his unaware victims that you have to wonder whether he's intentionally trying to make a sharp social comment about America, or picked the right conservative locales to offend purely for shock value.
Each ‘live' moment with Americans is a calculated deception: his appearances at insular venues were surreptitiously booked as a kind of goodwill venture, under the guise of a funny foreign guy making a documentary no one will ever see in the U.S.
But the shock sequences are precision, calculated strikes. Moreover, the stunts used to appall conservative small town, rural, or middle America obviously won't work as well in a big town like Washington, so Cohen attacks that city's sense of security by encircling the White House in his ice cream truck with the suspicious camera crew, knowing local security will flag him and force a confrontation; latent racism in New York City might require more poking and probing, so his games shift to the use of nudity, vulgarity, and invading the sacred personal space bubbles of NYC subway riders by attempting to kiss quietly seated men when not chasing after his red Kazak rooster.
The banal fears and hatred residing in Cohen's selected victims could also have been extracted before 9/11 just as easily, but because of 9/11, his confrontations obviously expose a more contemporary enemy figure. By exposing the current ethnic enemy, it's an added bonus that's makes Borat a disturbing snapshot of what it's like in a nation living with the lingering effects of a terrorist assault on its own soil.
Unlike the more genial shocks typical of Candid Camera – filming people a bit embarrassed by a talking mailbox, for example - Borat reflects the contemporary influences of Jackass and the rubbish reality TV product that place people in uncomfortable situations designed to cause stress, upset, and fury. A moron always attracts attention, so Cohen's gimmick can't possibly lose.
But like Jackass, there's usually some segment or stuffy group that we can't help but laugh at – and maybe that's what makes Borat a more successful stunt film (albeit at the hands of mislead conservatives). Borat's fear of Jews is so paranoid and cartoonish, it's the perfect contrast to the real racism Cohen unearths in his victims. He also aims his satire at groups urban audiences love to see humiliated, like fundamentalist preachers, or pneumatic icons like Pamela Anderson, who runs from Borat and his post-dated ‘marriage sack.'
And between the many uncomfortable sequences, Cohen also practices a bit of classic vaudeville, giving a new spin on a bull in a china shop, and some brilliantly executed Simpsonian idiocy. The deleted scenes gallery contains material that would've slowed down the film's simplistic structure, but on their own, they're often hysterical vignettes. In addition to the Washington sequence, Borat becomes Bart Simpson when he visits a southern grocery store, and ask the world's most patient clerk to identify every package in the cheese section (“that's also cheese”) for what feels like five minutes… and then they switch to the milk section. It's a contest of conspiratorial patience and willpower, and the clerk's steady, militaristic deadpan is clearly a challenge Cohen relished.
Fox' DVD doesn't contain any commentary track (maybe in the inevitable Special Edition), but the DVD's art direction and production are absolutely superb. Menus are pseudo-Kazak newsreels with screeching music; the English translations of each section are clumsy but readable; and the disc itself resembles a homemade burn on Demorez media (“Is Life? No. Demorez.”).
Also included on the DVD is a media montage of Cohen's appearances on talk shows and film festivals. The footage hasn't been truncated into fast-paced set-pieces, and we can watch the comedian remain in character the whole time (though you can spot a bit of a crease midway through his Conan O'Brien appearance). Also on the DVD is a music video with Borat, and Borat in his own fantasy Baywatch credit sequence.
And while it's late in the game, Erran Baron Cohen's version of "Born to be Wild" deserved an Oscar Nomination for Best Song (even though it's an adaptation). Borat's soundtrack is a perfect mix of high-strung Eastern exotica, with bubbly performances by the musicians. The film's closing song a work of demented genius. Who knew Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild" could work as a Yiddish party song?
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan