American Reality: The Philosophy of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Socrates was renowned for being the gadfly of Athens, pestering its elite experts into revealing the limits of their own knowledge — and subsequently, the limits of our own knowledge. What is real? What is knowable? I’ve long wondered what a modern day Socrates might look like, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character offers a distorted vision of what Socrates could look like in the modern landscape.
The distortion comes from Cohen’s blend of sophistry and Socratic method when conducting his satirical interviews and performances. Socrates understood the need for pathos when delivering a performance, but he also railed against the sophists who employed trickery and deceit in their goal to win any argument, no matter the side.
Between the magic of editing, the psychological influence of behaving in front of a camera, and the leading narrative of the interviews, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is certainly a work of sophist cinema. But it’s also a film intended for entertainment not serious consideration.
The Only Constant
Borat is hardly a comforting character — a clumsy man-child mindlessly spouting ignorant propaganda — but he is a reliable one. The audience is familiar with his antics and is (mostly) in on the jokes. This second film is no different in terms of Borat’s character and values, and as much as he may have “learned” from his first trip, he hasn’t really changed.
What has changed is Cohen’s presentation of the character. As alluded to in the film, Cohen’s camouflage is no longer sufficient. For a character rooted in misleading his “interviewees,” the iconic, recognizable costume compromises his effectiveness. But Cohen is no stranger to disguise and charade, adapting to new costumes as needed to pull of his pranks.
But this metamorphosis also echoes thematic elements of the film. The world has changed much since we first met Borat in 2006, and if we have any hope of keeping up, we’re going to need to change in kind. This an an idea that goes all the way back to Heraclitis ( You can’t step into the same river twice) but more recently was a focal point of Existentialist thought that there is no “being,” only “becoming.”
For many Existentialist thinkers, life is in a constant state of change and we must grow and adapt, making choices about who we will become in the face of that angst and uncertainty. For Borat, his salvation comes from new generation and from breaking with the old narratives to forge new ones.
He has returned to America, but he does not return to the same America that he left. This feels particularly poignant given the zeitgeist of trying to return America to some vague, idealized previous status. The film itself also demonstrates how a culture can update its (ridiculous) traditions to not lose sight of its values while also becoming more inclusive and modern.
But the film also casts some doubt on the specter of glory that so many people seek to recapture.
A Pale Reflection
While the original film focused primarily on exclusively American foibles, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm exposes some global blindspots that have emerged with the rise of technology and social media.
The more compelling presentation comes from the film’s relationship to Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and simulacra. Through these concepts, Baudrillard identifies a sort of cultural indexing (not unlike memetics) in which media constantly recycles references to other media to such an extent that it becomes impossible to trace the thread back to observations within the scope of the natural world.
Another famous cinematic example comes from Tropic Thunder, where Robert Downey, Jr plays an actor Kirk Lazarus, who plays the race-altered role of Tugg Speedman. The ensuing tangles of identity result in a mental breakdown for Lazarus.
In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the audience has to jump through these cognitive hoops to navigate the story of Cohen playing Borat, who deceives people in hyperbolic interviews. Except for when the people are in on the joke and only playing the role of a deceived rube. And except for the parts where the film is edited to present a consistent narrative that ignores some of the complexities of reality in order to maintain kayfabe. In this respect, the audience is, at some points, as much deceived as it believes the people in the film are.
Does this appear to be an idea the Woliner wants the audience to consider with the film? Probably not. Compared to other recent films like The Social Dilemma that admit to much of their use of digital magic to present their ideas, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm makes no such gesture.
So is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm a deep film for serious consideration? Not really. But it does pull from some pretty deep material to craft an entertaining performance.
What do you think of the movie?