On Borat

Members of a group or nation become trapped within their own cultural worldview unless they find a way to transcend their own discourse. But it is fiendishly difficult to be both inside a situation and transcend it. Satire is an attempt to enable those locked into group-think to step outside themselves and imagine how their culture looks from a distanced vantage point. This is comedy that finds detachment from a subject and provides a viewpoint as if from the outside. Satire tricks us into seeing familiar things as if for the first time. It is a means by which a culture from the inside gets outside its own perspective.

Step forward Borat.

The moustachioed, grey-suited, mankini-wearing, pigeon-English mangling, Kazakhstani TV journalist Borat Sagdiyev, and his heavy human-hairball producer Azamat Bagatov, slipped in 2006 stealthily across the border into the United States. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan purports to be a film that explains American culture to the Kazakhstans. Instead they made a film that explains American culture to the Americans. 

Borat a fictional character intruded into a real world, holds conversations with real people who don’t know that he is counterfeiting. The conceit is: the film shows clueless provincial hicks who could learn something from a different culture. Borat is a bumbling, crass, offensive, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, incest-loving, rape-excusing idiot. Played by British, Cambridge-educated actor-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, he is the disguised, counterfeiting, witty, all-licenced Fool.

Ministry of Interior have decide to send me to US and A, greatest country in a world, to learn a lessons for Kazakhstan”. This is no inter-cultural encounter between representatives of a nation; this is engagement by those who boost their own sense of cultural superiority by electing to believe the caricature of the backward, idiotic foreigner. Borat’s interlocutors smile broadly and patiently explain, as if talking to a child, while resolutely shielding their disdain. Borat deploys Socratic dialogue to penetrate their prejudice cloaked behind coded language and soft tones. He is the well-intentioned, dim, patient, harmless eiron who, playing stupid, asks increasingly outrageous and obnoxious questions. The irony-free participants are lulled then skewered on the lacerating satire of his guileless guile.

To the gun shop owner: “What is the best gun for hunting Jews?” “That’s the 9mm or the .45”

To the car salesman: “What car will attract a woman with shave down below” “That will be the Corvette” 

To the frat boys from South Carolina University in the RV: “Do you have slaves?” “I wish”.

To the rodeo manager: “In Kazakhstan we hang gays” “That is what we are trying to do here”

To the audience at the Rodeo: “May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq” Cheers.

There are foolish people on display, but it is not the Fool. There are cultural mores being decoded here, but they are not Kazakhstani.

Diogenes the Cynic set out to expose herd morality and reveal people were ashamed of the wrong things in life. Borat takes a Diogenesian approach to scatology. We see him defecating in front of Trump Tower, handing out cheese made from the milk of his wife’s teat, masturbating on the sidewalk outside a Victoria’s Secret store, washing his face in the toilet bowl of a hotel, presenting at a dinner party a doggy-bag of his own excrement. When he and Azamat wrestle naked at a formal mortgage brokers’ convention/dinner disrupting the prize giving, they are detained by security. But it was the sub prime mortgage scandal that led to a world recession four years later. Who should be more ashamed? It is not the brandishing of the bag of faeces at the Southern dinner that leads to Borat’s expulsion from the party but the arrival of a black friend: “there is no way you can stay for dessert”. Who should be more ashamed? Diogenes used his scatology to unmask the bad manners of the polis inverting the social order: by not concealing what others regarded as shameful he exposed the shame lurking at the heart of time-honoured things.

In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) Maria Bakalova, playing Borat’s 15 year-old daughter Tutar, provides the Fool function of the film (Borat is now too famous to operate clandestinely in America). Tutar’s scatology is deplored while misogyny flourishes. A plastic surgeon accepts he would have sexually assaulted Tutar had her father not been there; a woman teaches Tutar how to secure a sugar-daddy: ‘as a woman you have to be weak’; a father at the Macon Debutant’s Ball agrees a price with Borat for Tutar; a woman in a shop contentedly picks a dress from the ‘no means yes section’; a Christian pastor at the Carolina Women’s Health Center turns a blind eye to criminal incest; a creepy 76 year-old Rudy Giuliani comes on to Tutar in a hotel room. But when Tutar opens a beer bottle with her anus, shows her pubic hair in public, proudly opens her legs at the debutant ball revealing her menstrual blood or gushes forth about her recent masturbation at a meeting of a Republican’s woman’s club (‘we don’t talk about that in public’), her audience are appalled. Civility and bigotry are shown to march hand in hand. The sexual availability of women for men is encouraged while the functioning of a woman’s body reviled. Who should be more ashamed?

Borat in the 2006 film signs up for some comedy lessons from humour coach Patrick Haggerty. Mr Haggerty subduedly explains to Borat that Americans would not find funny the story of the rape of Borat’s sister by their caged retarded brother Bilo after she taunts him with her vagina. Except in Borat’s troubling telling it is. Mr Haggerty demonstrates how to time a ‘not’ joke while making it toe-curlingly unfunny. Only in Borat’s mistiming does it become comic. There is a comedian in the room, and it’s not Mr Haggerty.

Borat’s Kazakhstan does not exist. The language, rituals, people, music and customs depicted in the film are a complete falsehood. Borat speaks Hebrew- Polish to Azamat who speaks Armenian to Borat; in the second film Tutar speaks Bulgarian. The Kazakhstan village scenes were filmed in Romania, the folk music is by a Serbo-Croat composer. The offensive opening scenes of incest, prostitution, rape and child terrorism play to the stereotype of a caricature of the post-Soviet foreigner from state-run media with a squawking chicken in his suitcase. 

At about the time of the film’s release in 2006 an unsuspecting Kazakhstan president came to the United States to visit George W. Bush. A four page advert taken out in the New York Times, and another on CNN, to coincide with the visit was pounced upon by Borat. He called a press conference outside the Kazakhstan embassy in Washington DC: “recent advertisements on television and in media about my nation of Kazakhstan, saying that women are treated equally, and that all religions are tolerated – these are disgusting fabrications…part of a propaganda campaign against our country by evil nitwits Uzbekistan…I must further say on behalf of my government, that if Uzbekistan do not desist from funding these attacks…then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapults”.

Borat’s positing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as adversaries is a parody of the hatred of the US towards Iraq. When Borat, wearing an American flag shirt, sings the Kazakhstan national anthem (words by Baron Cohen) to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner about Kazakhstan being the greatest country in the world things turn confusing. The rodeo Cowboy hat-wearing crowd’s cheers turn to boos, a horse falls down throwing its rider and Borat has to flee to avoid a lynching. One of the problems with setting a moral value on patriotism is that it never extends to other people’s.

When Baron Cohen did the rounds promoting the film he refused to come out of character. David Letterman on The Tonight Show and Jay Leno had to pretend they were asking questions of a real Kazakh journalist knowing he was an actor. They were unable to successfully negotiate the irony. Leno: “What do you say to claims that your film was racist, homophobic and misogynist?” Borat: “Thank you”. 

Borat: “Please come to see my movie, if not success, I will be execute”. When a Kazakh US embassy spokesman, Roman Vassilenko, sought to correct some of the film’s errors (Kazakhstan is not the Number 1 exporter of potassium; neither archery nor rape are popular pastimes) Borat denounced him as an Uzbek imposter. When the Kazakhstani government asserted the right to take legal action against Baron Cohen, Borat supported them in their decision to “sue this Jew”. Over-dignified Kazakh officials removed the website from the internet, and Borat came out in defence of the country “Kazakhstan is as civilised as any other country in the world. Women can now travel on the inside of the bus, homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats, and the age of consent has been raised to eight years old. Please, captains of industry, I invite you to come to Kazakhstan, where we have incredible natural resources, hard-working labour, and some of the cleanest prostitutes in whole of central Asia.

At a screening Borat explained that the Kazakh censors had nearly banned the film because of anti-Semitism but then decided that there was just enough. Like Swift (in W.B. Yates’s words) Baron Cohen is always just round the next corner.

In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Borat finds that the bigots he dallied with fourteen years before are now running the country. The flat-footed among them have not learnt anything from Borat’s serpentine stratagems. Rudi Guliani: “At not time before, during, or after the interview was I ever inappropriate. If Sacha Baron Cohen implies otherwise he is a stone-cold liar”. Borat: “What was innocent sexy-time encounter between a consenting man and my 15 year-old daughter has been turned into something disgusting via fake news media”. At least the Kazakhstanis have in the intervening years learnt one lesson to Make Benefit of Glorious Nation. Instead of complaining about the second film they have initiated a tourist campaign using the tag line ‘Very Nice’.

Borat is a fictional character loose in real America whose stupidity is reversed by comic brio onto others. He sidles up to and then tramples upon sacred cultural taboos. The characters on display are clueless, and it isn’t the man playing Borat. He is a homophobe who kisses men, an anti-Semite played by a Jewish actor, a dimwit who is the wittiest person in the room. There is a socially backward culture on display here peopled by credulous, xenophobes and naive yokels, and it isn’t Kazakhstan. Borat is ignorant, misogynist, anti-semitic, racist and homophobic, and he finds that he fits right in. Baron Cohen’s wolf in sheep’s clothing executes a scalding merciless Swiftian satire that comprehends an American culture that misunderstands itself. 

The film shows clueless provincial hicks who could learn something from a different culture.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

During the Covid-19 lockdown my family each evening has been watching a film together. Last week included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), inspiring me to re-read the novel it was based on, published in 1962, and led to this blogpost.

One flew east, one flew west, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Cuckoos have a practice of laying an egg in another bird’s nest. The newly hatched cuckoo chick throws out the other eggs and live chicks and by this act of displacement asserts power and control. Cuckoo’s nest is slang for the madhouse, and female genitalia. Continue reading

Absurdism, Film

Woman in the Dunes

In the 1964 film Woman in the Dunes a man spends seven years trapped in a sand pit. That summary and the film’s running time of two hours and twenty minutes may put some viewers off, but that would be a mistake. This is a beautiful film with a mesmerising minimalist soundtrack, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, that became a Japanese New Wave classic. Andrei Tarkovsky included it in his list of the best ten films ever made. Like Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel the premise may be balmy, but the consequences that flow from it takes us to the heart of what it means to be human.

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Absurdism, Books, Film

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

‘Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness

A J P Taylor

In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) a US General is so upset about the fluoridation of water he starts a nuclear war and destroys the entire human race. It is on one view an excessive reaction. The paranoid and zealous Brigadier General, Jack D. Ripper, who thinks that communists are conspiring to pollute the precious bodily fluids of the American people becomes unhinged and (without authority) orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. ‘I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the International Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids’.

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We played with life and lost

Jeanne Moreau, one of the iconic French actresses of her generation, has died today in Paris. She had the fortune to be at the peak of her powers during one of the great ages of cinema. She acted in films made by some of the best post-war directors: Antonioni, Welles, Truffaut, Bunuel, Fassbinder. I want to write about three of her films (all shot in black and white): Lift to the Scaffold (1958, Louis Malle), Jules et Jim (1962, François Truffaut) and Diary of a Chambermaid (1964, Luis Bunuel).

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Books, Film, Rhetoric

Rats in a cage

Question: is it better for a human to choose to be bad than be conditioned to be good?

The American psychologist B. F. Skinner believed that human behaviour was determined by environmental variables rather than free will, and that by systematically altering those variables human behaviour could be modified. In this way humans could be conditioned to display good, rather than bad, behaviour. He developed his theory of applied behavioural analysis from experiments he conducted in the 1930s on rats. He invented and constructed an enclosed soundproof cage with food dispenser that a rat could operate by pressing a lever, called a ‘Skinner box’. Continue reading

Art, Film

Barry Lyndon*

What is luck? The dictionary definition is “success brought about by chance rather than by ones own actions”. To the religious mind nothing can be occasioned by luck because all is within the compass of a providential God. In Christianity what others call ‘luck’ is instead called ‘grace’. The Greeks believed in the randomness and pointlessness of luck, but they ascribed it to the capricious will of the Goddess Fortuna. Fortune was experienced as capriciousness but lay ultimately in the lap of the gods. To the secular mind the possibility of chance is an affront. To surrender to the idea that life is underscored by meaningless, pointless contingency is, for some, too brutal to be contemplated. Therefore instead, for the secular mind, providence is smuggled back in and called behavioural determinism or karma or destiny or fate or some such retrospective self-deceiving comfort. Let us steel ourselves and remain with the definition of luck as nothing more than pure mundane chance. Continue reading

Film, Photography

Faye Dunaway’s post-Oscar breakfast 29th March 1977

Faye Dunaway won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in the 1976 film Network at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles. This is her at the Beverley Hills Hotel at 6.30 in the morning of 29th March 1977, the day after the ceremony. With a doleful, faraway look of world-weary ennui, in silk gown and heels, she is breakfasting alone on fruit juice and Earl Grey tea, slouched poolside in the hazy Southern Californian dawn light. The morning papers are strewn about her and the Oscar is not far out of reach. She has recently risen from bed, or maybe she never went to sleep at all. This classic shot manages to capture the allure and loneliness of celebrity. Continue reading

Film, Law

Bomb the ban

In Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy Dr Strangelove (1964) a US General is so upset about the fluoridation of water he starts a nuclear war and destroys the entire human race. It is on one view an excessive reaction. He could instead have petitioned the lawmakers to oblige suppliers to purify water. I see that Stop the Fluoridation of UK water supplies is one of the 4079 petitions currently open on the website. The justification given is: “a study has revealed the dark relationship between lower IQ levels and sodium fluoride consumption”. There is no mention of General Jack D. Ripper so I have assumed that the petition is not ironic. At the time of writing it has 452 signatures. Continue reading