The phenomenon known as Borat

Posted: Nov 17, 2006 12:01 AM
The phenomenon known as Borat

WASHINGTON -- I went, I watched, I winced.

I felt ashamed. I felt proud. I felt sorry.

I laughed.

I didn't laugh.

I hated it; I loved it. I don't want to think about the wrestling scene; I can't stop thinking about it.

There's something about ``Borat."

This faux documentary that exploits every stereotype and turns every phobia inside out has exposed not just the obvious -- that some people are racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic -- but also has cast a light on a cultural pathology unique to our times.

Show a mouse a camera, and he'll want to be a star.

That is, people apparently will allow anyone into their lives as long as there's a shot at fame or celebrity. The photo-snapping, video-camming, MySpace, in-your-face narcissism of our media age became a perfect storm with ``Borat."

The joke isn't on us. It is us.

For those arriving late to Planet Earth, Borat is the fictional star of the runaway hit movie by the same name. Well-known to the under-30 crowd, Borat is one of several characters played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on HBO's ``Da Ali G Show.''

In the film, he pretends to be a Central Asian TV journalist making a documentary about ``Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.''

Essentially, Borat plays a naive, lovable, optimistic, oversexed, anti-Semitic, Third World fool in search of America. His mission takes him and his producer/sidekick (and their pet bear) across country in an ice cream truck in pursuit of Pamela Anderson, whom Borat hopes to wed.

Along the way, he interacts with ``real Americans'' in their natural habitats -- a rodeo, a Pentecostal church, an antique store, a bed-and-breakfast, a humor school, a dating service, etc. -- and does whatever is necessary to provoke, embarrass, enrage and shock.

In the process, he manages to disable some people's inhibitors, cajoling them into admitting that shooting Jews, hanging homosexuals and running down gypsies are all pretty good ideas.

Now that ``Borat" is a box-office hit, some of the citizen-actors are, shall we say, not happy.

One Mississippi woman lost her job for booking Borat on a local television show. Two University of South Carolina fraternity brothers, who got drunk and reaffirmed every nasty stereotype of the South, have sued for fraud. Residents of the impoverished village of Glod, Romania, who were characterized as prostitutes and abortionists, also are considering suing.

As one woman of Glod told The Associated Press: ``We thought they came here to help us -- not mock us.'' Whether any have legal grounds remains to be seen. Although all signed releases waiving their right to sue for defamation, invasion of privacy or fraud, some claim they didn't understand the agreement. The frat boys say they were drunk when they signed.

Performing improv with unknowing participants is both the fun and the fury of ``Borat." The best part is how Cohen, an observant Jew in real life, reclaims anti-Semitism and exposes the absurdity of prejudice. In one unforgettable scene, he and his sidekick frantically toss dollar bills at cockroaches, believing them to be their shape-shifting Jewish innkeepers.

If you find that utterly ridiculous, you have reached the intended conclusion.

The film otherwise is raunchy and scatological in the extreme. Some parts are hilarious, such as when Borat learns that his hideous wife back home has died, which prompts him to ``High-five!'' the messenger.

Other parts are unforgivably mean, such as when he insults the wife of a Birmingham, Ala., minister at a dinner party arranged to instruct Borat in Southern etiquette.

What we learn from that session -- which includes Borat excusing himself to visit the loo and returning with the proceeds in a sack -- is that these are truly fine people. Gracious and openhearted toward ``the foreigner,'' the Southerners treat Borat respectfully even when he deserves to be defenestrated.

While Borat may have revealed some of the worst of us, he also revealed some of the best. Americans can be credulous, obtuse and tiny-minded, but they also can be generous, kind and forgiving. Many have laughed at themselves upon realizing they'd been duped.

Others not so much, as Borat would put it.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuits, ``Borat" is making zillions and surely those who were played deserve some of the rewards. Beyond suing, there are other solutions to this silliness.

For starters, Cohen might toss a few million Glod's way. Otherwise, I see road signs: ``Borat's Southern Etiquette and Dining Club.'' Next exit.