(Warning: Borat spoilers ahead)
If Christopher Hitchens were to dine with a Southern, Christian family that lived on
Ever the contrarian (or reactionary, I can’t decide which), Hitchens doesn’t like Borat. But it’s where Hitchens begins that signals just how off his piece is: he makes a lot of hay about a bad summary of the movie in a review in The New Statesman (subscriber only). He begins with the bad table-of-contents listing (not likely to have been written by the reviewer), “Sacha Baron Cohen’s exposure of crass
Gilbey’s offending paragraph is, as Hitchens points out, inaccurate, especially in Gilbey’s odd (though not entirely inaccurate) use of the word “compliance” to describe how storeowners respond to Borat. But instead of acknowledging that Borat receives at times compliance and at times resistance (though it’s actually no surprise that a gun owner wouldn’t sell a “Kazakh” a gun with a camera trained on him), Hitchens focuses on “the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse.” He then catalogs the good manners of those who come into contact with Borat and acknowledges the normalcy of those who threaten Borat on the subway. But here’s what Hitchens (and many other reviewers) have missed: Borat isn’t just satirizing the “attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the 'stan” (Hitchens) or “crass Americana”: he’s also (and maybe most importantly) exposing how Americans use decorum and politesse to obscure their narrowmindedness (and worse).
Let’s take the example of the formal dinner Borat attends in
Borat’s vulgarity and crassness escalates in each scene not to elicit the vulgarity and crassness of some Americans (though he succeeds in that), it escalates to show how we mask our crassness. That’s why scenes such as “The Running of the Jew” matter so much as counterpoint—many Americans imagine that we’ve moved well beyond crass racism, jingoism, and prejudice. The counterpoint of Borat’s crassness with the disturbing (and sometimes easily pierced) masks of Americans is what the movie is really all about.
That, and the opportunity to hear a fat man yell, “Eat my asshole!”