When Sacha Baron Cohen sprang Borat on the American public in 2006, a midterm election year, I thought I was clever to observe that nimble, improvisational, disrespectful laughter had won a landslide victory over the deep emotions and classical filmmaking of Clint Eastwood’s World War II diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Like a blind seer, I had no idea how horribly right I was.
Since then, vast sectors of the audience have abandoned the movies—superhero sagas excepted—for the rapid, random snickers of meme swapping. Meanwhile, the kiss-my-ass attitude that I detected in the public’s embrace of Borat went on to transform the political landscape, though not as I’d hoped. It was Donald J. Trump, rather than any tribune of The Nation’s fed-up legions, who rose to bestride our narrow world like a Colossus of the Raised Middle Finger.
For these reasons, the release of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, 11 days before the 2020 elections, posed sharp questions. In a political landscape where the presidency had become a 24/7 Don Rickles set, was Cohen’s insult comedy a weapon against Trump’s or more of the same? And could any movie—even if perpetrated with jumpy rhythms and delivered digitally—compete in a new audiovisual environment made for 60-second attention spans?
To ask these questions is to fall, understandably, into the mountaineering fallacy: the notion that all works of art must rise to the challenge of their time. In defiance of this error, I will later recommend three fascinating pictures that could be made to speak to the present moment only if subjected to critical torture. For now, let me acknowledge that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is focused so intently on the 2020 presidential election that its end credits include the admonition, in the title character’s phraseology, “Now Vote. Or you will be execute.” These are words to live by, always, but when read after November 3, they stamp a best-if-used-by date on a production that was conceived to mock Trump and his allies during the campaign and then marketed so that its culminating gotcha scene, a humiliation of Rudy Giuliani, was revealed as a teaser shortly before the final presidential debate. I imagine Borat Subsequent Moviefilm might retain some life in years to come. All the same, it’s a hybrid: part rollicking mockumentary and part get-out-the-base video, of a piece with Samuel L. Jackson’s “Vote, dammit, vote!” ad for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Cohen remains as savvy as ever about reaching audiences where they live, so it’s no surprise that discrete chunks of the movie can be plucked off like grapes from the stem. Within a day of the release, clips were already circulating on dozens of YouTube accounts and beyond, with leave from Amazon’s promotional department and to the benefit of the film’s electioneering. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm proved it could fit easily into today’s smartphone competition for eyeballs, but if this picture is to be judged by mountaineering standards, let’s note that it does not have the field to itself nor is it alone in trying to win hearts and minds through transgressive laughter. As Borat Subsequent Moviefilm acknowledges, in scenes about digital crap slinging and grassroots calls for violence—hey, can’t you take a joke?—Trumpworld has its own memes and sense of humor.
As a reality check, you might watch Daniel Lombroso’s documentary White Noise, produced by The Atlantic as a feature-length exposé of the alt-right and its normalization (kind of) through the rise of Trump. Released on multiple streaming platforms a couple of weeks before the elections, the film offers a prolonged, close-up look at three of the movement’s young social media adepts and self-promoters: white-power loudmouth Richard Spencer, conspiracy theory peddler Mike Cernovich, and anti-feminist, anti-immigrant YouTube poser Lauren Southern. I doubt you will think these specialists in short-form outrages are funny, but their followers do, finding mirth in the trio’s assaults on liberal propriety (or, as you and I might put it, human dignity). Unfortunately, I also doubt that you will learn much from White Noise, assuming you’re aware of basics such as the Unite the Right rally and Pizzagate, or that you are likely to fall in love with the film’s shambling narration and editing. The main achievement of White Noise is to engender a sense of dismay—as if you needed that.
Still, the film’s study of alt-right zanies has its uses. It can confirm for you, by means of comparison, that Cohen’s insult comedy is not just more of the same.
Directed valorously by first-time-filmmaker Jason Woliner after a long career in television and scripted more tightly than the original Borat despite having been written by Cohen with eight others, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is at heart a tender story of father-daughter love. Never mind that the semi-feral Tutar (Maria Bakalova) is discovered under a layer of straw, rags, and facial grime in the corner of a barn, where Borat is astonished to learn she’s part of his, as he puts it, livestock. When he undertakes his ensuing knockabout journey through America, unwillingly accompanied by the adolescent Tutar, the incidents may be designed, one by one, to deride Trump’s supporters, but the plot is machined to forge emotional ties between father and daughter, until the two transform Kazakhstan into “a feminist nation, like US of A and Saudi Arabia.”
What unites the loose string of sketch-comedy episodes with the steady emotional arc? Satiric rage against the belittlement of women, which Cohen identifies as central to Trump’s strongman cult. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm scatters its assaults against other targets, too—assault rifle enthusiasts, casual racists, Jew haters, Roma haters, and coronavirus deniers all get their lumps—but the main enemy throughout is male supremacy, whether in the imaginary Kazakhstan or the America whose attitudes Cohen prankishly exposes.
Among the actually existing people who are played for suckers this time by a disguised Cohen and Bakalova: a coach for young women who want to sell themselves to sugar daddies, the operator of one of those “crisis pregnancy centers” that intercept women seeking abortions, a plastic surgeon who proposes making Tutar’s “titties” monumental, the guests of a debutante ball in Georgia (whose gentility in declaring young women marriageable is mugged by a traditional Kazakh fertility dance), and for the finale, old lech Rudy. The orange Sun King who reigns over this realm of pussy grabbing remains unseen, except for a Kazakh animated movie in Disney style and a full-body disguise worn by Cohen. Trump’s influence, nevertheless, is omnipresent.
Which brings me to a contradiction. The trick of the first Borat was to concoct an impossibly crude, depraved Kazakhstan and then, through the title character’s adventures, show America as its mirror image. The new Borat takes the same approach, but past a certain point the pattern breaks down. Even the QAnon adherents who shelter Borat in one sequence insist that women in America have the same rights as men and can’t simply be sold or gifted. Even the members of a Southern Republican women’s club, whose evening meeting is interrupted by a wandering Tutar, welcome this strange, uncouth figure with gentleness and respect, until she drives them to wonder if they shouldn’t call her an Uber. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm lays bare an American culture of misogyny, except when it doesn’t.
And then there are Jeanise Jones and Judith Dim Evans.
The first, who works as a babysitter, is hired by Borat to kennel Tutar for a day but instead decides to educate the young woman, convincing her with infinite patience that she is an independent human being with a mind of her own. The second, encountered in a synagogue, is a Holocaust survivor who offers Borat food and a kiss, while gently informing him that his Jew disguise is a little off. (The talons, for example—too much.) Watching these scenes, which provide contrasting images of a decent America, you might feel that middle-aged Black women and elderly Jews have problems of their own and should not bear the burden, as they do so often, of being deployed as exemplars of charity and understanding. Yet these are the real Jones and Evans (to whom the film is dedicated), responding as themselves to ridiculous, constructed circumstances, and though they are far more developed in their fellow feeling than most butts of Cohen’s impostures, they don’t stand alone in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
This is where Cohen’s insult comedy departs from Trump’s and the alt-right’s. (I should add Bakalova’s comedy as well. Though seemingly runtish next to the elongated Cohen, she thwacks herself off him and everybody else in sight with a headlong mummer’s energy that knows no embarrassment, only joy.) One side thinks it funny to demean and dehumanize. The other gives people latitude to shame themselves but also allows glimpses of the better angels of our nature.
I’m not going to kid myself that audiences are watching Borat Subsequent Moviefilm for the sake of its passing visions of kindness. People want to laugh their asses off at the dumb, the rude, and the grotesque, and they’re getting their money’s worth. What will be left of the movie, though, now that its electoral purpose is obsolete and even the most prominent of its political targets, such as Mike Pence and Giuliani, begin their inevitable fade-out from popular memory? After rising to the challenge of its moment, must this film fall off the peak and be forever buried in snow?
I think something does remain alive after November 3: hope in the power of decency, hope in women, and pride in constructing a fully thought-out 97-minute film, even if a lot of people no longer want anything but clickbait. That’s hardly enough of a foundation on which to rebuild America, but it’s more than we were owed by a British comedian and a young actress from Bulgaria, home of the world-famous Museum House of Humor and Satire.
If you cannot remember the last time a film deeply excited you, please do yourself a favor and watch Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, now available through various virtual cinemas, including Film at Lincoln Center’s. Marcello and his co-screenwriter, Maurizio Braucci, claim to have based their film freely on Jack London’s semiautobiographical novel, but except for relocating the action from Oakland, Calif., at the turn of the 20th century to Naples, Italy, in the 1970s (more or less), they’ve been stunningly faithful to London’s story of the intellectual and emotional awakening of a young proletarian writer and the personal and artistic catastrophe of his failure to awaken politically as well. By cleverly mixing tinted archival footage from London’s time into the re-creation of 20th century Italy, Marcello implicitly expands the title character from an individual case to a recurring type: the working man of exceptional talent and energy who struggles against all odds to educate himself and win a daughter of the bourgeoisie, only to discover in the end that “the world is stronger than me.” Marcello deserves credit for the bold conceptual move, but the true author of the movie might be Luca Marinelli, who plays Martin. With shoulders broad enough to bear the yoke of a two-ox team and a loose, slant-lipped smile that invites and offers confidences, Marinelli charges not only the character but the entire film with power, intelligence, and an allure that ultimately turns tragic.
Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come, available at virtual cinemas such as the Metrograph in New York and the Acropolis in Los Angeles, is a film of changing seasons and impressive yet fragile landscapes—including the facial topographies of the nonprofessional performers Amador Arias and Benedicta Sánchez, who play the main characters. Amador, in the story, is a taciturn, middle-aged man with sorrowful features that could have been carved with a pocketknife. Released from prison after serving a sentence for arson, he returns to his 83-year-old mother and her three-cow farm in the mountains of Galicia in Spain and settles into the annual round, meanwhile suffering abuse from townspeople who regard him as both an idiot and a threat. In the first half of the film, the neighbors get ready to accuse him of starting the next of the devastating fires that rage each summer through the woods. In the second half, as the screen explodes in flame, you hold your breath shot by shot to see Laxe and his crew daring to capture this inferno—while you wonder how any one man could be blamed for something so overwhelming.
Finally, moving on from the transhistorical drama of Martin Eden and the ecological cycle of Fire Will Come, you can go all the way to Neverland, otherwise known as the Three Treasures Temple, thanks to the new restoration of King Hu’s 1979 Raining in the Mountain. One of only two films that the master of martial arts sagas made in South Korea, Raining in the Mountain places Hsu Feng, as a thieving adventuress, amid towering vistas, labyrinthine architecture, balletic chase sequences and fights, and massed ensembles in color-coded costumes, all assembled for the sake of a folkloric fable and synchronized to a bang-up musical score by Ng Tai Gong. The experience is no more substantial than our transient world (to adopt the viewpoint of the story’s Buddhist monks), so why not escape to it? Raining in the Mountain is streaming exclusively at the virtual cinema of New York’s Film Forum.