Coming to America!
To start by oversimplifying--and why not, in an election year?--movie culture has forever been split between Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. From Griffith we get the aspiration to grand scale and elevated tone, massed armies and multiple story lines, with the director's visual power integrating personal narratives into historical simulation. The Chaplin tradition also has its artistic ambitions, despite being raffish and outwardly improvisational; but it focuses less on the creation of a cinematic world than on the realization of a star performance that never fully abandons the joy of a swift kick in the pants. For the moment, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers is the most notable descendant of the Griffith line. The Chaplin line--as carried on by another English comedian sporting curly hair and a funny mustache--is currently represented by Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
The public has now chosen between these traditions, as it does from time to time; and for this round it has decided the question by an epoch-defining majority. In one weekend, Borat grossed a reported $26.4 million: as much as Flags of Our Fathers took in during its first seventeen days in release. I am not such a fool as to think that immediate ticket sales determine a film's worth; nor would I judge a movie's social impact by its usefulness to op-ed commentators (who for the moment cannot live without Borat). That said, I can recognize a cultural turning point when it smacks me in the kisser. Griffith has been trounced. Chaplin rules.
And Borat is the movie of the year, the picture that makes all other films irrelevant. Do I like it? In my office as cinematic guinea pig of the American left, do I approve? Yes, but so what? I look upon Borat in awe, as I would gape at the sublimity of a tidal wave sweeping everything before it. Public solemnity? Obliterated. Displays of craftsmanship? Drowned. Respect for any authority, any institution, any individual (other than an impecunious Alabama call girl)? You've got to be joking.
Mere anarchy is loosed, and its name (bless him!) is Borat.
For those readers who have been studiously ignoring the world around them, I should explain that the title character, Borat Sagdiyev, is not so much a persona as an imposture, foisted on unsuspecting people by his creator, Sacha Baron Cohen. Supposedly, Borat is a broadcast journalist from Kazakhstan, which is here depicted in prologue as a life-affirming rural shantytown, vibrant with rape, incest, arms-dealing, neighborly ill will and festivals of Jew-hatred. (Is the depraved, mostly toothless populace meant to be Muslim, by any chance? "No," says Borat. "We follow the Hawk.") This nation, though glorious, knows that it might yet have room to make benefit; and so Kazakhstan's Ministry of Culture, or something, has sent Borat to the United States to shoot an informative documentary about life in a different part of the world.
The gag--unstated, but unmissable--is that the film you are watching really is a documentary of sorts, shot by director Larry Charles, about an America that mirrors the imaginary Kazakhstan. Our nation, too, proves to be a place of race hatred, arms-dealing, seething hostility and unrestrained horniness, where the populace seeks to justify itself by appealing to a very Hawk-like religio-jingoism. The major difference between the two countries (other than the indoor plumbing) is that America is an actual site of these grotesqueries, as revealed through the unscripted interactions that Cohen, in the guise of Borat, enters into with real people, from subway riders in New York City to an alarmed team of security guards in Orange County, California.
Because Cohen has a daredevil's nerve (he never stops being Borat, no matter how much trouble he gets into), and because some of his adventures were shot covertly, Borat might be likened to a combination of Jackass and Candid Camera. But to say this is merely to acknowledge that Cohen remains true to his roots in television comedy (as Chaplin did to the music hall) and appreciates the disruptive potential of a live chicken, when it's released in the wrong place at exactly the right time. The more important point about the performance is that Cohen's Borat is a guileless man (almost)--naïve, certainly; stupid, without question; but enthusiastic, ingenuous and eager to please--so that the audience instinctively warms to him and even wants to protect him, the most obscenely offensive movie character of our time.
The effect is not just double- but quadruple-edged. Double, because Borat's apparent harmlessness highlights a corresponding goodwill, or even innocence, in many of the racist, chauvinist fools he meets and makes fun of. Maybe, if you are strenuously correct in your attitudes, you assume there must be something monstrous about drunken white frat boys who believe that "minorities" are keeping them down; or self-styled Southern gentry living a fantasy of antebellum elegance; or right-wing politicians working the crowd at a Pentecostal church. In their own eyes, though, these people are kind, decent, generous and patient--qualities that Borat in fact elicits from them, even as he slips in the knife.
The third and fourth edges come flashing from Cohen's aggression, which Borat's sweetness does not conceal. Consider the scene in which he visits an antiques shop in Dallas, where items of Confederate memorabilia are on display--"to celebrate our heritage," the proprietor explains. Borat, being a clumsy fellow, soon trips over his own feet and smashes some pieces, then falls backward while trying to right himself and smashes some more, then fails to steady himself with an awkwardly outstretched arm and so forth, until he's reduced an entire aisle to shards. On one level this is classic slapstick. On another it's punishment, meted out (with breathtaking peremptoriness) for the crime of complacency about slavery. You or I might dream of exacting such payback. Cohen actually gets it.