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.”
Later the same guy tells Borat “take ’em out and hang ’em, that’s what we’re trying to get done here,” about homosexuals. Despite the fact that he’s wearing a leather blazer and yellow neckerchief. Seriously, f*ck that guy. That’s not us.
Nor, I hope, are the RV full of South Carolina frat guys, who explain to Borat that it would be better if we still had slaves, and that in America women and minorities have all the power. Even still, it’s their inherent phoniness, their constant awareness of being filmed that makes them hard to watch, much more so than their performative homoerotic sexism (and this is coming from someone who bros out homoerotically on the reg).
But part of the beauty of Borat is that it’s not at all a feel-bad exposé of flyover state shittiness. Every racist rodeo fop is balanced by a nice Alabama Jewish couple who just want to feed Borat some sandwiches at their BnB, or a group of Pentecostal tent revivalists who are as kind to Borat as they are hostile to the concept of evolution. The improvised call-and-response when Borat finally takes the microphone (“My friend Azamat, he take my money and my bear and he leave me alone”) is still a perfect comedy sequence. (“Do Jesus love my neighbor Nusultan Tuliakby? Nobody love my neighbor Nusultan Tuliakby!”)
Which is why, on the 10th anniversary of Borat, I think there’s one man in particular deserving of special recognition. I’m speaking, of course, of Baltimore driving instructor Mike Psenicska, the best cultural ambassador the USA never knew we had. Clad in a utilitarian polo shirt tucked into khakis, Psenicska exudes a matter-of-fact air of officious competence, unadorned with false cheer or phoniness. And yet he’s such an eminently accommodating goddamned peach that the first thing out of his mouth is “Welcome to our country.”
When Borat kisses him on the cheek, Psenicska says “Well I’m not used to that, but that’s fine.”
They get in the car and it’s game on. In a world where no one seems especially competent at anything anymore, nothing can take this man off his game. He acknowledges Borat’s constant attempts to get a rise out of him (“But then it look like I’m holding a gypsy while he eat my chram!”) but stays firmly focused on the task at hand: Keeping this stinky man from killing anyone. (“Watch the children. You must not hit the children.”) It may not be a the most glamorous job, but it’s Mike Psenicska’s job, dammit, and he’s going to do it right.
The best thing about this man is that he’s clearly amused by Borat’s antics, as the smirk he can’t quite disguise betrays, but he never sanctions Borat’s bad behavior nor lets a rude comment go without correction. “Look, there is a woman in a car,” Borat says. “Can we follow her, and maybe make a sexy time with her?”
“No no no,” Psenicska gently corrects. Asked why not, he says “Because in this country, a woman has a right to choose who she has sex with.”
What a beautiful, succinct, non-patronizing, unself-congratulatory answer. To which Borat responds with shock, “What?!”
“There must be consent,” Psenicska continues. “That’s good, huh?”
“Is not good for me,” Borat mutters.
This scene is everything that’s beautiful about Borat and Mike Psenicska is everything that’s beautiful about America.
BORAT: I like you, do you like me?
PSENICSKA: I do like you. You are a nice young man and I am your friend.
BORAT: You will be my boyfriend?
PSENICSKA: Well I won’t be your boyfriend–
BORAT: Why not, you don’t like me?
PSENICSKA: Well, okay, boy friend, yeah, I can.
I was disappointed to hear that Psenicska had sued following the release of the film, because I was thinking, essentially, “That’s not us! We don’t try to milk our 10 minutes of fame for money!” (That totally is us, but that doesn’t mean I want it to be.) But that’s not really fair. The film was a huge hit, and the guy contributed much more to that than the $500 he got paid. Here’s what he told The Daily Telegraph in 2009.
‘I remember sitting in the car. It was 90 degrees, they were late and I was ready to leave. Then this young guy jumps in and thrusts $500 in my hand. Unfortunately I took it. Then he gives me this piece of paper. He told me it was a release form. I’m not an idiot – I have a masters in mathematics – but I’m thinking that it was a public service-type documentary so I didn’t read it. I trusted this guy.
‘The next moment he was looking backwards, purposefully driving badly, taking out a vodka bottle, calling one guy a chocolate man. At one point he nearly ran over some kids.
‘I was trying to treat the guy with respect. I knew there was a camera in the car, and I didn’t want to create an international incident. But I didn’t appreciate him bashing people and I’m not afraid to tell someone if they’re wrong.
‘I still get recognised but I don’t lose sleep over it. I’m not traumatised, I’m not a prude, but I was ticked off that I was deceived.
‘Is there a social reason for doing it?
‘I suppose so. But as soon as I signed that piece of paper they didn’t care. They told me it was a documentary. But documentaries are about the Industrial Revolution, global warming, Winston Churchill, not what the hell he did. They could have said that if this goes big time we’ll do such and such for you but they didn’t. It’s a bit like Slumdog Millionaire, the kids who were the big stars got nothing.’ [Daily Telegraph]
Yep, still the same plainspoken salt-of-the-Earth son of a bitch I fell in love with a decade ago. In perfect world, Mike Psenicska wouldn’t have to sue the makers of Borat to get his due. In a perfect world, Mike Psenicska would’ve been named the US ambassador to the UN. When people think of what an American is, it’s Mike Psenicska I wish they’d see. He truly was the best of us.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.