Academic Writing

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - 11/9/06

Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Why is America so enthralled by Borat? He has been a star of the small screen for years and now he has been selling out theaters across the country. The people in those audiences spend an hour and a half rolling in the aisles. It is safe to assert that he is becoming a national phenomenon.

The types of laughter explosions throughout the movie vary. You have your nervous laughter – is it ok to laugh at Borat’s footage of the “running of the Jew?” You have the shocked laughter when people he interviews openly admit to racism, misogynism, homophism, and anti-Semitism. Then you have the uneasy laughter as you ask yourself, “Why am I laughing as two men were wrestling naked throughout a hotel?”

British (Jewish) comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is responsible for invoking all these different types of laughter. He has come up with what seems like a new type of ironic humor. Posing as a Kazakhstanian journalist who travels to America to make a documentary about America for the ministry of Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen interacts with all sorts of Americans and reveals interesting side of our culture. He comes to America completely ignorant of American social norms. He doesn’t know that African-Americans don’t go by “chocolate face” or that kissing strangers on the subway is not an acceptable form of introductions. He begins his journey in New York before he convinces his producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) to travel to California to search out his secret obsession in Pamela Anderson.

In a series of hilarious events, Borat tries to acclimate to American society. What makes him so charming is his endearing innocence. We can forgive his social lacking after seeing him mistake the elevator for the hotel room or when he complains to the bell boy that the American television hasn’t changed programs in 3 hours (it is then revealed to us that he is watching the hotel’s service channel). Borat knows not what he does wrong. And with that conceit, we can travel with him throughout the country to see what he has to reveal about ourselves. The pair buy the cheapest vehicle they can find (an old ice cream truck) and set out for the American West. This trip proves that the old fronteir is still, in a lot of ways, the great unknown.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the movie is the ease in which people accept Borat’s ridiculous statements. While still in New York he has a driving lesson before buying a car. When a driving instructor tells him women can have sex with any one she wants, he exclaims “WHAAAAATTT?” While seemingly dismayed, the driver almost had a look of slight agreement on his face. As he travels south he stops at a bed and breakfast which turns out to be owned by an older Jewish couple. In fear that they have tried to poison him and want to kill him he escapes. The next day we see him at a local gun store. When asking a gun salesman which would be the best to use to protect himself against the Jew, without missing a beat the man hands him a .40 millimeter pistol. After leaving the store Borat explains that he could not buy a gun there because he is not from this country (but it wasn’t a problem that he wanted to use it to protect himself from the approaching Jew). By posing as a culturally and socially backwards ignoramus, the same is revealed about American society.

Then there is the matter of the audience rolling in the aisles. As I sat in the Times Square theater, I am almost certain the majority of the audience saw the irony in the situations. However, is that the case nationwide? It is almost a certainty that when this movie shows plays for an audience in some of the regions which Borat visits on his journey, the irony is lost on a lot of the theater. So many people he encounters readily agree with his backwards mentality and it would be interesting to see their reaction as they watch themselves on the big screen.

What Baron Cohen, a Brit who is an outsider himself, reveals is an interesting look at American culture. As a country, there is a lot of talk these days about blue versus red states, pro-war versus bring our troops home, and about religious right versus liberal ideals. We have not been a nation so divided in decades, and this movie brings that division to life with a touch of ironic humor. While in the South, he visits a group of socialites and the camera notes that they live on “Secession Dr.” In Dallas he explores an antique shop filled with Confederate memorabilia which the owner boasts as artifacts from the nation’s heritage. How much of our country still values Confederate ideals? Should that be a national concern? It is probably not limited to Dallas, not even to Texas.

Another point this film aims to make is that those in the “blue states” have a warped sense of the demographics in this country. Those in the blue probably don’t realize the extent to which those in the red states disagree with their ideologies. And it works both ways. Beyond the laughter and the shock, audiences see another part of our country which rarely gets noticed. We make fun of Borat whose cultural sophistication is so backwards, when we are the ones who need to be examined through a microscope. Are those who agree with him any different? From the sexist frat boys who don’t think there’s anything wrong with leading women on to the general manager of the rodeo who encourages Borat to stay away from “the gays,” there is a whole underbelly of backwards thinking we associate with Borat, when we should be looking to ourselves.

It is not a new idea that it takes a stranger to reveal things about ourselves that we didn’t see before. Borat takes a new spin on it by not just telling us, but showing us. The credo of a journalist is to show and not tell, and that is exactly what Baron Cohen does. He uses our own prejudices and intolerances and puts them up to a mirror and shows us exactly what it is we as a country should stand up against and of what we should take notice. We laugh at him, but we are also laughing at ourselves. We are disgusted by him, but we should also be disgusted with our own behavior. Is our laughter nervous because we are scared to admit our own shortcomings? Probably…but hey, it’s also funny to watch a grown man make a complete ass out of himself. It’s ok to laugh, just make sure you know why you are laughing.

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