Living in Borat’s America | The Nation

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.

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