Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for an American

BORAT IS A RORSCHACH TEST. Judging by the reactions of most urban/blue state critics, it'll be a one and a half hour masturbatory fest for certain demographics. They'll scratch one another's backs and exclaim how "progressive" they are.

To me, however, it's just indicative of how uncultured of an American I am.

But the truth is sadder than it may seem. To quote Aaron Gell of Radar Magazine, the comedy "only works because we know practically nothing about Kazakhstan ourselves."

An IMDb poster by the name of Russell Solomon expressed befuddlement over Sacha Boran Cohen's physical features. "Borat does not look Kazakh at all," he exclaims. "Kazakhs are Eurasian folk. Their features are similar to Mongolians and Chinese. They appear to possess more Asian features than Middle Eastern. I know this because my sister is married to a Kazakh!"

Solomon had the privilege of getting acquainted with the people and land of Kazkakhstan. Before Borat, I think I have only vaguely heard it once or twice. In fact, I experienced a priceless Joey Tribbiani moment before the screening. "Kazkahstan's a country, right?" I asked myself as I looked at the poster. I mean, it must be... it sounds like it.

To thoroughly engage and play along with the film, you have to be ignorant of the fact that Kazakhs do not look anything like Sacha Baron Cohen, a British Jew of Middle Eastern descent. But played along, I did, and I have to admit, even after seeing the film, I wasn't aware of my ignorance - aware of the fact that I was just another stupid-ass, geographically-challenged American lost in my own bubble.

BORAT HAS EVERYTHING to do with American culture and how it reflects privilege and power. It has to do with the cult of celebrity (i.e. the obsession Borat has for Pamela Anderson), twisted male heterosexuality (the popularity of homo-erotic, "Jackass"-like shenanigans, as referenced here in Borat's relationship with tubby pal, Azamat), persisting racial divides in socio-economic lifestyles (Borat dines with white Southern folks in their fancy, schmancy estate; the only black folks he meets along the way are either male youths in a housing project or a prostitute used as a running gag on the white Southern elite), masculine fear of emasculation (one of the South Carolina frat boys on the California bus tells Borat "Don't let them [women] OWN you!") and other minorities (another frat boy touchingly reveals how sometimes he wishes he could be a minority to get an upperhand in society) in a post-Affirmative Action age, and last but not least, the problematic nature of nationalism (in the rodeo scenes, Borat offends the American crowd by singing a paen to Kazakhstan, to the tune of an American anthem).

BY TURNING HIS LENS on American culture, Sacha Baron Cohen illuminates everything that is empty and ultimately, wrong, with the U.S. It's as if we're too in love and defensive with our own sub-cultures, to acknowledge the existence of other cultures. As a Vietnamese-American, it never fails to fascinate me whenever a person hears mention of Vietnam, and the only words he/she can utter is, "ohhh, the VIETNAM WAR!!!" Nothing else about the culture - just the war, which sprung from decades of arrogant American occupation. It's as if the Vietnamese civilization began in 1964 and ended in 1975. Sadly, I'm beginning to think of myself as becoming more and more like those people. I'm sure my parents would be proud of me.

No comments: