Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan came out 10 years ago this month, and it doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly that long. Sure, people parroting Borat quotes (“Mah wahfe!”) has gone from ubiquitous to obnoxious to ironically funny in a remember-how-obnoxious-it-was-when-people-were-quoting-this-all-the-time kind of way. But all that proves is that Borat has never been far from our collective consciousness. And I’m glad that it was released a year or two before it could’ve become some thinkpieced-to-death cultural battleground that we’d be tired of fighting about on Twitter before it even came out, because there’s legitimate greatness in this movie.
Borat began as a character on the British version of Da Ali G show, a few years before creator Sacha Baron Cohen brought him to the U.S. for HBO. Which makes it something of a happy accident that he ended up touring America. Because just as Donald Trump is the perfect avatar for the “ugly American,” all the worst stereotypes other countries have about Americans made flesh — a gauche, loud, ignorant, money- and status-obsessed teetotaler always shouting about having the “classiest” of everything despite having no discernible taste, in food, clothes, architecture, books, music, business or people — I can’t think of a more perfect character than Borat for getting at what makes Americans uniquely us, for better and for worse.
It’s a bit that plays on the fact that Americans are, by and large, both shockingly insulated from the rest of the world and almost inhumanly accommodating. That we can be easily convinced something is a custom in some random ‘stan we never learned about in our underfunded public school and yet will bend over backwards to accommodate it, no matter how ridiculous (simultaneously bighearted and patronizing), is a fascinating phenomenon. Truly, I never get tired of it.
The dramatic tension of Borat comes from the way he puts viewers in a “What would you do?” mindset, where we’re both laughing and doing a bit of soul searching, wondering how we might look if this grinning, stinking (rumor is Cohen never washed the Borat suit nor wore deodorant and smelled terrible) human monkey wrench put us in the spotlight.
To be sure, some of the more prank-y elements of the Larry Charles-directed film feel a little dated now, or at least a little less fresh, the novelty chiseled away by a decade of uncreative and mean-spirited YouTube pranksters. The Pamela Anderson kidnapping is kind of cringe-y, both because it feels (and partly was) staged, not to mention dangerous. (If it had been any less staged Cohen probably would’ve gotten shot.) And there are certain scenes that feel to me too mean, like during the dinner party when Borat insults the pastor’s wife (“In my country they would go crazy for you… You, not so much”), or when he starts breaking things in the antique shop. (Breaking antiques? Come on, man, not cool.)
It’s no surprise that a guy who spent years training to be a clown (give Cohen’s episode of WTF a listen) would occasionally go too broad. (I still hate the Speedo-thong scene.) But you forgive him the occasional stumble, because Cohen seems to have ice water in his veins. It’s like he’s always just sitting on the perfect response to a reaction absolutely no one could’ve expected, the Lebron James of riffing.
The cross-country road trip conceit is transparently a conceit, but it’s the perfect one, because Borat was perfect for defining Americana. Everyone who encounters the character becomes our de facto cultural ambassador. Oh, there’s this gauche foreigner from a backward land and he needs my help learning how things work here. Part of the fun of watching it is getting to Monday morning quarterback those newly deputized. Oh God, he’s making us look terrible, or Yep, that’s what I would’ve said. We can pretend we would’ve set Borat straight when he said something horribly anti-semitic, but probably we would’ve just laughed uncomfortably and made a point to tell our friends later (perhaps I’m projecting).
In Felix Biederman’s recent essay on 9/11 cinema, he writes of some of our baser reactions to 9/11 (the PATRIOT Act, racist anti-Muslim sentiment, etc.):
We look at this behavior now as if recovering from a severe hangover. We speak like a guy apologizing for how he got drunk and did something either racist, horny, or both. That wasn’t the real us, we rationalize. The real us was not the still-raging civil war in Iraq, or the ongoing hate crimes against Muslim Americans.
That element runs throughout Borat. We look at certain people reacting to Borat and go “That’s us!”, or “That’s not us,” even though, obviously, they both are. Some of it is cringe comedy that comes from seeing people act out our worst impulses, like Imperial Rodeo general manager Bobby Rowe, the worst person in the movie and hopefully the state, who tells Borat to “shave that dad gum mustache,” so he doesn’t look like so much like a dad gum Muslim (but maybe “a nice eye-talian” instead). He tells Borat “you probably aren’t Muslim, maybe that’s not your religion,” to which Cohen delivers possibly my favorite line of the film, “No, I am a Kazakh, I follow the hawk.”