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OKAY BY ME IN AMERICA

For those of you not in on the joke - as I wasn’t until a USM student friend enlightened me last year - Sacha Baron Cohen is a British comedian whose TV series aired here for two seasons on (the apparently fearless) HBO. Cohen’s shtick is to disguise himself as a minority TV commentator, and to interview unsuspecting public (and private) figures. Cohen uses his alter-ego’s apparent prejudices and cluelessness to encourage his victims, as we must call them, to exhibit their worst narrow-mindedness and fanaticism, and sometimes just to act stupid. It’s like Candid Camera, but with a ferocious bite.
    Cohen has now assaulted the general public with a feature film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”, which is now playing locally, for Discriminating Audiences Only. It’s rated “R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language”, and I can only say uhhh, yeah...
    The adventure follows Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a commentator for the (we hope entirely spurious) Kazakhstan Network, who has come to “the US and A” to explore American culture and, coincidentally, to marry Pamela Anderson. Accompanied by his producer, Azamat (played by an absolutely fearless Ken Davitian), Borat traverses the backroads of America interviewing unsuspecting marks, from college frat boys to Texas antiques dealers to Pentecostal revivalists. The resulting movie, I must warn you, is frequently outrageous, sometimes revolting, and also very, very, very, very funny. I saw it over the weekend with a group of friends, and we were laughing as much as we were gasping in horror. (One friend said, “I heard it grossed over $24 million on the opening weekend; it probably grossed out at least as many people…”)
    A puzzling thing about the Borat movie, and one of its charms, is just where the scripted bits leave off and the “real” bits take over. It’s obvious that there is a fictional element: Borat and Azamat converse in no known language, and a few characters, such as the actress Luenell playing a delightful hooker, are in on the joke. But the interaction with the actors and the actual authentic interviewees is frequently seamless, as when Luenell shows up at a dinner party in the Deep South where the hostess is almost completely convinced that Borat’s social clumsiness is due to Cultural Differences.
    Having seen a few episodes of “Da Ali G Show,” where Cohen asks leading questions in an interview to set people up to make controversial responses, it becomes apparent that most folks are easily manipulated, and that it takes very little prompting to elicit their opinions, no matter how extreme. It hit the news in the past few days that the South Carolina frat boys that Cohen buddied around with for an episode are now suing him for damages, claiming that he encouraged them to make racist, sexist, and demeaning comments. This appears to me to be disingenuous: as I seem to remember from my college days in the Deep South, it takes VERY LITTLE encouragement to make frat boys talk like mindless barbarians. As they say good-by to Borat, one of the guys says, with drunken pauses, “Don’t let a woman…ever…ever…make you…who you are.” That’s a nonsense phrase I’ve heard any number of times, inspired by sour mash whiskey.
    The government of the real nation of Khazakstan has been outraged by some of the movie’s scenes, such as The Running of the Jew, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Khazakhstan took out a 4-page ad in the New York Times to set the record straight. Frankly, if Cohen’s satire (he’s an observant Jew) causes people to re-think their prejudices, then I think it’s all to the good. When Borat encourages people in the US and A to voice their hatred of Jews and gay people, he makes us look very closely at ourselves.
Catching where the fiction ends and the real (documentary) film begins is part of the fun, though I don’t have any idea how the production company lawyers managed to get releases from the people who were mercilessly pilloried in a movie that sucker-punches a whole lot of them.
    Something that should be obvious is that this movie can’t possibly have a sequel, because Sacha Baron Cohen has blown his cover, and everybody in the country will be on the lookout for Borat from now on.
    But we shouldn’t underestimate this guy, because we can still be blind-sided by Ali G, the white Brit rapper, and Brüno, the gay Viennese fashion maven.