No all-American dream

November 9, 2006

Cinemas nationwide.

The dinner-party hostess in Birmingham, Alabama, proudly tells her guests: "The cultural difference is vast, but he's a nice gentleman, and I believe it won't be long before he's Americanised." Then Kazakh television presenter Borat Sagdiyev returns from his visit "upstairs" and presents the hostess with his faecal output wrapped in a face cloth. (I think it was a face cloth as, at that point, I was watching from behind my hands.) The hostess blanches spectacularly - the Americanisation is over.

US commentators are fond of citing Alexis de Tocqueville's journey across the country in the 1830s. Ignoring his inconvenient complaints about the "tyranny of the majority", they exalt his praise of a vibrant political culture built upon "general equality".

It is safe to say that Sacha Baron Cohen, in his guise as Borat, does not bother with the Frenchman's upside. In Borat's 90-minute cross-continent excursion, he deals only with the bad - the stuck-up socialites, humourless teachers of humour, drunken misogynist frat boys, racist homophobic cowboys and Pentecostal revivalists hungry for tongues-speaking converts.

This, surprise, surprise, is not a film to make glorious learnings for Kazakhstan. Instead, it follows other dissections of US culture, be it Dwight Macdonald's 1960 denunciation that "a tepid ooze of Midcult is spreading everywhere" or Allan Bloom's railing about the "closing of the American mind".

What, then, is distinctive about Borat ? Probably the little twists in the context of our post-Cold War era. So, while academic Tony Judt and author Carmen Callil have presentations and book launches cancelled because they are allegedly anti-Israeli, Borat can announce "I'm looking for a gun to kill Jews" on more than 2,000 US cinema screens. He can yell to resounding applause in Virginia: "We support your war of terror... may George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq."

He crosses the line only when he sings his "Kazakh national anthem": "It is the greatest country in the world. All other countries are run by little girls."

Does this make Borat a profound comment on "America"? Not really. Does this risk being an overappreciation of the film? Probably.

As a series of set pieces, tensely held together between Borat's encounters with his unwitting victims and his quest to marry the actress Pamela Anderson, the movie offers specific moments of pleasure/horror rather than a memorable whole. That said, its naked wrestling scene may replace that of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed doing likewise in Women in Love as the most infamous in film history.

But Borat is effective enough in demonstrating that we are not all American in this post-9/11 world. The US has always been caught between its self-presentation, in the words of one official "the most elegant brand" in the world, and its global dissemination of Baywatch .

If Tocqueville 175 years ago wrote of his "religious awe" at America's "irresistible revolution", Borat's sacrilege is to present the US as quite resistible in its current revolting state.

Or, as he concludes, returning to his "Kazakh" village married not to Ms Anderson but to the African-American "lady of the evening", thrown out and threatened with arrest by his Birmingham hostess: "I had learnt that if you chase a dream, you can miss the reality in front of your eyes."

Scott Lucas is professor of American studies at Birmingham University.

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