Borat: BG (Before Giuliani)
Keeping in the spirit of Borat’s return, here are a few words about his debut feature.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2005)
Remember when enlightened comedy meant playing to the brightest bulbs in the room? By 2005, it had been four decades — way back when when Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and a pre-MPAA John Waters began convulsing audiences — since there had been cause for such ground breaking and side-splitting laughter in movie theaters. Albert Brooks returned to form with the Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and Kevin Wilmott introduced himself to moviegoers with CSA: Confederate States of America, a pair of dead-on anti-racist satires, period. Then came Borat, a film that had both the Iranian government and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calling for its boycott. High five!
Billy Wilder said it best: “If you want to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they will kill you.” The ADL issued a statement on September 28, 2006, voicing concern over “one serious pitfall… the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.” So much for encouraging smart shooting.
Borat arrived on the biggest wave of internet hype this side of The Blair Witch Project. Two months before opening, news of free screenings began appearing on MySpace. Before all but abandoning the process entirely, studios once held numerous “word of mouth” advance screenings. There were so many sneaks of Borat that it was the first time in my life I saw a film five times. Before it opened!
A 70-year-old retired principal from Brooklyn joined me for a packed preview at AMC Mission Valley; my rib cage is still bruised from all the elbowing it endured. When asked his opinion on the car ride home, he could barely get out a “Shameful!” or “Disgusting!” “Antisemitic!” before I pointed to the fade-in to fade-out laugh track he provided. “That was nervous laughter!” he angrily fired back. My lungs filled with the kind of oxygenic boost that could only result from the perfumed scent of a great comedy’s serious ability to piss people off.
Why the agitation? Because the filmmakers chose to document the ceremonial “Running of the Jew” through the streets of Kazakhstan? Or was it the elderly Jewish proprietors of a bed and breakfast, blessed (as all Jews are) with the ability to shape-shift? (When the couple transforms into a pair of cockroaches, Borat wisely wards them off by showering them with money.) And who can blame our otherwise plucky hero for insisting on traveling by car? Is he the only one terrified that the Jews will “repeat their attack on 9/11?” Funnier yet was the lobby chatter that invariably found someone stating, “He’s Jewish, so he can get away with it” in defense of the racist blather. Sacha Baron Cohen’s genius lies in his ability to make audience members stop in mid-guffaw and mutter to themselves, “What am I laughing at?”
Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen), Kazakhstan’s second most successful journalist, is sent by his country to the “U S and A” to “make reportings” that would promote their leading export: ignorance. (Borat shares with Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Stan & Ollie, Monsieur Hulot, and many who came before him a disinclination towards style, choosing instead to express a fashion statement by sporting one trademark set of duds.) After offering us a hilarious introduction to his native land, Borat lands in New York and is instantly smitten by a Baywatch rerun. Whatever thoughts he had about documenting America are quickly supplanted with dreams of “making sexy” with the Pamela Anderson. Why not invent a country, like SCTV did with their beloved Leutonia, the land of the Schmenge? Because just as film noir came about in response to World War II, 9/11 brought Americans horrifyingly close to realities that had been mercifully out of mind since the Vietnam war. Leutonia, Freedonia, or Sylvania would no longer do.
Accompanying Borat is Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), his ineffectual, dumpster-sized, and inordinately bushy producer. Azamat is not crazy about moving the shoot to Los Angeles, but eventually caves in to Borat’s unremitting pleas. Fed up, Azamat briefly quits his job to play Stan Laurel’s partner Adolf Hitler outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Much of Da Ali G Show’s humor was confrontational, and a lot of that hidden camera hilarity finds its way into the feature. Cohen has a set of cojones on him that make Stuttering John’s look pea-sized. During his cross-country joyride, Cohen finds new meaning in Alan Funt’s old catchphrase, “People caught in the act of being assholes.” He loves placing the unwitting in an interview situation, turning on his candid camera, and making them sweat. According to the press notes, aside from the filmmakers, no one was in on the joke. This is certainly true of Illinois State Senator and “man with chocolate face” Alan Keyes, who has a spirited but all-too-brief exchange with Borat concerning the homosexual. Still: the security guards that flanked her might have pleaded ignorance, but surely Pamela Anderson had to be in on the “kidnapping.” This type of guerilla-style filmmaking, particularly with a “person of interest” at its center, is bound to be met with more than a sideways glance. Several townsfolk brought the FBI on the production’s tail after they reported the crew as suspected terrorists. Baron Cohen had a warrant issued for his arrest in New York, the same city that forced executive producer Monica Levinson and first assistant director Dale Stern to spend a night in jail for “borrowing” items from their hotel to use as props.
Even though advance word was through the roof, the ADL’s admonishment caused 20th Century Fox to scale back the release from a couple thousand screens to a scant 837. The generally dependable boxofficeguru.com predicted an $11 million opening weekend. Borat took in $26.3, which at the time made it one of Hollywood’s most successful modest wide releases. Why is it so hard to make an anti-racism film while avoiding self-righteousness and finger-wagging? As much as I admire Bamboozled, it at times buckles under the weight of its own preachiness. As with any great satirist, Cohen asks nothing more from a viewer than an open mind and an ability to face the screen; he’ll fill in the rest.