The Current Cinema

In Your Face

“Borat” and “Volver.”

by Anthony Lane November 6, 2006

Who is Sacha Baron Cohen? We know that he is British, that he is Jewish, and that he studied history at Cambridge, where his cousin Simon is a professor of developmental psycho-pathology. Sacha has entered a no less delicate field. He is a squirmist: a master of SECS, or Socio-Ethnophobic Comic Simulations, in which he adopts fictional personae and then marches briskly into the real world with a mission to embarrass its inhabitants. His first coup was the invention of Ali G, a would-be rapper from the London suburbs, who inveigled celebrities—first in England, then in America—to trip themselves up on camera. He realized that, under the rules of international tolerance, they could not be seen to ignore the earnest entreaties of a young man in a gold tracksuit and wraparound shades. The definition of a clever stunt is one that tempts no less a personage than Noam Chomsky (or, as Ali G calls him, “my main man Professor Norman Chomsky”) to join the ranks of stooges—remaining thoughtful as the sexually bullish Ali inquires of him, “How would you like it if I called you bilingual?”

Next up, and more addictive still, was Borat Sagdiyev, the bony and wire-haired journalist from Kazakhstan. Unlike Ali G, who found only a televised niche, Borat is, as he would boast, becoming huge. Uncontainable on TV, he has swelled into cinemas, his wooing of America aided by the simple trick of filming him in America—on a coast-to-coast pilgrimage, with Pamela Anderson as his Holy Grail. The resulting film is titled “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” and it purports to be a documentary showing Borat lurching gaily from one instructive fiasco to the next. These include a driving lesson, a meeting of veteran feminists (“I could not concentrate on what this old man was saying,” he complains of one woman), a babble-tongued Pentecostal service, and a demure Southern dinner, at which one of the guests claims that, with a little training, Borat could be “Americanized.” Fat chance.

“Borat” is in part a feat of smuggling. The accepted view is that the Ali G phenomenon was bent on lampooning the piteous efforts of British white boys to sound and act black, but that was not the whole deal; it was also, at a subtler and less mentionable level, mocking some of the extremes of black culture itself. And so it is with Borat. On the one hand, he invites us to feel superior to the crudities of the Old World, as when he arrives in New York, mistakes the elevator for his hotel room, and pronounces himself quite happy with the accommodations. On the other hand, he sneaks in a volley of low blows against the America he claims to revere. Gasp as he incites a rodeo crowd to applaud his plan that President Bush should “drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child” in Iraq! Shudder as he boozes with a batch of true-life college boys, who share with him their modest thoughts on women!

This defense of Borat as an unwitting scourge of the reactionary—unearthing Midwestern beliefs no less parochial than those he left behind in Kazakhstan—is sound as far as it goes. But the movie goes further. It is equipped, like an F-15 Eagle, to engage multiple targets at once. If you can’t bear to hear Alan Keyes—whom Borat interviews, and who, like most of the participants, has no idea what he is dealing with—described as a “genuine chocolate-face,” then for pity’s sake stay home. As for the scene in which Borat smooches a blond woman before introducing her as his sister, the “number-four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan,” it is, like most of the film’s lavatorial gags, both daring you to gawk and forcing you to look away. What does Baron Cohen’s cousin, an expert in autism, make of all the retard jokes? And what game is Baron Cohen playing, exactly, when he shows mock footage of an annual Kazakh ceremony known as “the Running of the Jew,” in which children kick a giant egg to bits, to stop “the Jew chick” from being hatched?

Baron Cohen is one of the few British Jews to venture successfully into the comedy of shock. It was somehow both shameful and predictable that when Lenny Bruce was invited to appear in London for the second time, in 1963, he had no chance to perform before he was taken to the airport, deported, and banned from ever disturbing the British peace again. More recently, the case for disturbance has been made by the novelist Howard Jacobson, who has insisted, both within and beyond his books, that comedy is not just enfeebled but put to sleep, like an unwanted animal, once it discards its right and duty to offend. That is certainly the spirit of “Borat,” which may lack all narrative shapeliness, but which offers comfort neither to Baron Cohen’s onscreen victims nor to his audience; it is as if he were outraged by the business of our being human—as if, in laying bare our follies, he were just quickening the process by which we already make fools of ourselves.

So why send his characters here? Because America, to any filmmaker, is where the money is, but also because, to the connoisseur of hurt pride, it is where the sore spots are. When Borat laughs at the notion that you can be against cruelty to animals, you can hear, at his back, the snicker of Baron Cohen as he takes his cleaver to another sacred cow. His task is not so much to insult his fellow Jews, or the African-American community, as to register amazement at a culture that turns race relations into an article of faith—that seems to believe, against the run of history, in legislating our lower, more brutish instincts out of existence. In the mind of Sacha Baron Cohen, they are here to stay.

“In Your Face” continues
10 15, 2007
In the News
Spots by Pascal Lemaitre
Q. & A.

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