Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat Sagdiyev, a good natured but bigoted and befuddled Kazakhstani journalist, is sent to the U.S. with his pudgy producer Azamat, to make a documentary on this, the greatest country in the world.  Borat falls in love with Pamala Anderson after seeing an episode of Bay Watch, and alters their plans so he can travel to California to marry her.   On their journey, they meet an odd collection of Americans, most of whom cast the nation in a bad light.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (here after known as Borat) is a movie that divides viewers.  You’ll either love it or hate it.  There’s no in-between.  Saying that, I thought it was OK.  Yup, I’m in-between.  So much for for that either-or theory.

For anyone who’s managed to miss the media blitz (I salute you), Borat is one of several alter egos created by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen.  Like his most famous character (before the previously stated blitz), rapper Ali G, Borat is a complete innocent and buffoon.  Dressed in a shaggy suit and bearing a porn star mustache, Borat is a star in a fictional Kazakhstan, where incest is common, prostitutes hold up their awards proudly, and the “Running of the Jew” is a national event.  The government of the real Kazakhstan has found little to smile about in this portrayal and has lodged protests; if the leadership thought that would have any effect, then they are as naive as Borat.  Cohen’s main gag is to interview people who are unaware that it’s a joke, and place them in a position where they either make fools of themselves, or display their darker sides.

The film is a mixture of biting satire, wit, and gross-out humor.  It is also a mixture of improbable, scripted, character bits and unscripted encounters.  I can’t tell how much of the unscripted “Real-TV” material actually is real.  The whole thing has a Candid Camera feel about it, which is good or bad, depending on how your response to the old show.  I get bored.  The problem is real people aren’t that funny.  That’s why writers exist.  Just watching someone react to an unusual situation is generally pretty drab (wow, people are uncomfortable with a nude man in an elevator; how unexpected!).  Numerous times we’re shown individuals squirming when Borat kisses them as a greeting.  What’s worse than a Candid Camera moment is one that cheats, where the mark knows what’s going on or at least has a clue, and those are everywhere in Borat.  But it works, even with the shadow that it all could be a con on the viewer, when Cohen exposes the seething hatred, cruelty, and fear that lies just under the surface of too many, hidden, sometimes poorly, by social training.  So, when the rodeo attendee agrees that hanging homosexuals is a great idea, or when the frat boys declare that the country would be better off with slavery, or when the car salesman assures Borat that a Hummer wouldn’t have to be going very fast to kill a gypsy, it is simultaneously funny and tragic.  These are great moments that deflate anyone feeling too proud of our civilization.

Of course these revelations are rare.  More often we see people trying to correct Borat’s mistaken impressions, which fits better in Cohen’s normal, short TV skit format.  The scripted stuff is rarely of interest.  It starts well as Borat shows us his village, pointing out the well armed kindergarteners and the town rapist (“Naughty naughty”), but degenerates into a series of homosexual site gags, with Borat’s producer using a hair drier on his pubic hair and the two engaging in a nude wrestling match.  If you are horrified by the notion of one man’s genitals dangling in front of another man’s face, or, I suppose, if you are excited by it, then this is going to be hysterical for you.

Most of Borat‘s religious references focus on the Kazakhstani’s fear of the evil, horned Jew.  The film isn’t anti-Semitic, as is occasionally claimed by people who don’t understand it (Cohen is Jewish), nor is it making a strong religious statement.  “Jew” is used in an ethnic sense, and allows Cohen to mock racism.

But there is an interesting churchly moment, depending on how much was staged.  Borat stumbles upon a Pentecostal service, filled with the absurdity of believers babbling in tongues and stating some traditional, but still frightening views:

We’re a Christian nation now.  We were a Christian nation in the beginning.  And we’ll always be a Christian nation until the good Lord returns.

I didn’t evolve from a monkey.  I didn’t used to be a tadpole.  I is what I is.

Borat is healed by the power of Jesus, convulsing and fainting among people who actually think that kind of thing happens, however, the Pentecostals seem to understand what’s going on and are playing along.  Since they signed releases OKing their appearance in the film, it’s hard to believe that we’re seeing any genuine behavior.

Borat is clever and knows it.  It is also tiring.  Picking up a copy of Da Ali G Show DVD to watch in small doses is a better way to go then plopping down your dollars at the Cineplex (unless you have a lot of free dollars) .  However, the film does leave you with an inspiring image.  Borat has brought Christianity to his village, and the Running of the Jew has been replaced by…  Well, let’s just say the Running of the Jew was preferable.


The God Who Wasn’t There

Ex-fundamentalist Christian Brian Flemming looks for Jesus and finds nobody home.  Through narration, film clips, and interviews, Flemming calls into question the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, points to the dangers in the Christian faith, and looks at how Christian teachings harm young children, including an early version of himself.

I rarely review documentaries.  My interest is in fiction and while I enjoy the occasional doc, they aren’t the movies that fill my waking hours.  They also require a separate rating system because they are a different form of art, and it is inappropriate (and just odd) to compare March of the Penguins to Casablanca.  But I could hardly pass up a film titled The God Who Wasn’t There.  And in this case, the work more than lives up to the title.  Flemming’s film is entertaining and informative, and is most likely the finest I will ever find on the subject.  It’s greatest failing is that it is too brief.  Doubling its length of just over an hour would still make it too short.  Flemming has a lot to say, and I’d love to hear more.

Presented in a light, funny, and ironic style, The God Who Wasn’t There touches on three subjects.  The first is the historical and Biblical evidence for there never being a man named Jesus upon whom Christianity is based.  The material is compelling and makes the film a must-see/must-buy.  Jesus is examined both by the information that can be found (his birth, rise, death, and resurrection closely follow general hero myths—so closely that even Churches realized an explanation was needed and they suggested: The Devil knew Jesus was coming and so, thousands of years earlier, planted all the legends) and by that which is missing (no Gospels were written for at least forty years after the supposed crucifixion, and Paul, the founder of the Christian church, appears unaware of the personal, human Jesus).  For anyone unfamiliar with the story of Jesus—which I had assumed would be no one, but after hearing the Christians Flemming interviewed, who show little knowledge or curiosity about the beginnings of their religion, could be a substantial number of people—the highlights are illustrated in a humorous montage with clips from the silent La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ (1905) and the miniseries The Living Bible (1952).

To aid his case, Flemming interviews a collection of scholars and authors (and is kind enough to put websites information and mention specific books in the credits).  Alan Dundes (who died shortly after filming) and Robert M. Priceput Christianity in the larger folk history context while Barbara & David P. Mikkelson of connect religion to urban myths.  But I should also mention Scott Butcher who sits on the other side of the fence and displays a sense of humor so often missing in fundamentalists.  He runs a website that allows people to leave letters for their loved ones that will be delivered after the rapture.

With the existence, or lack there of, of Jesus covered just enough to get the viewer thinking, Flemming switches gears to look at how Christianity effects our society, and offers up the insights of historians and authors Sam Harris and Richard Carrier.  The most interesting contention is that moderate Christianity makes no sense.  If you are going to adopt this religion, there is no nice, large tent you can climb under.  The Bible is quite clear on its calls to violence and cruelty.  Flemming solidifies his thoughts nicely with, “The Inquisition was not a perversion of Christian doctrine; it was an expression of Christian doctrine.”   If you accept Jesus, God, and the Bible, then you are required to be a nasty son of a bitch.  And if you are willing to dump some of those things in order to be a decent human being, then why are you accepting any?  He goes on to gleefully discusses the phenomena of The Passion of the Christ, documenting the incredible violence of the film minute by minute, and noting that this gore-fest was the movie that Christians really wanted.

Finally, things becomes more personal as Flemming returns to his Christian grammar school where he had been traumatized years earlier.  I wholeheartedly agree that those who cause pain (such as the school’s principal whose control over the lives of children is horrifying) should be confronted with their deeds, but I don’t find it enjoyable to watch.  While this section may be cathartic to some viewers, and certainly was to Flemming, I would have preferred a less emotional wrap up.

The God Who Wasn’t There is a brilliant and engaging look at a mythical figure who dominates our civilization.  It is not, nor does it attempt to be, an in-depth study.  It isn’t a graduate level philosophy or anthropology class, but an introduction, and a look at one man’s journey away from The Holy Spirit and into the light.

Will it change anyone’s mind?  That’s hard to say.  I was already familiar with much of the material (having taken those previously mentioned graduate courses), but atheists and agnostics who haven’t may find quite a bit to chew on.  Zealots will ignore it.  However, it has some strong messages for those who think of themselves as moderate Christians and there is where it is likely to do the most good.



Recently orphaned fifteen-year-old Justine is brought to a convent of bizarre, filthy, death-shrouded nuns in the 1860s. Her roommate is Alucarda, a happy but disturbed girl who instantly falls in love with Justine, and takes her to the woods to show her “secrets.” While gallivanting about, they open a coffin (which probably belonged to Alucarda’s mother) and a force enters Alucarda. Soon, the two girls are swearing allegiance to Satan (in the nude, naturally), the nuns are whipping themselves in Christ’s love, and the priest is shouting for an exorcism that involves crucifixion. It’s just a regular day in the church.

Yes, it is possession time again, which normally means affirming you belief and joy in God and The Church (i.e. The Exorcist), but not this time. Maverick Mexican director Juan López Moctezuma has created a thoroughly repellent religious order. The nuns wrap themselves like mummies with what looks to be dried menstrual blood staining the front of their rags, flagellate themselves, leaving deep, long, bloody wounds on their backs, and writhe on the floor and scream at the notion of the Devil. The priest yells of doom while standing in front of an alter of multiple crucified forms, is frightened of sexuality, and thinks that stabbing young nude girls while they are bound to a cross is the best way to deal with bad behavior. There isn’t much to recommend the Church, nor God for that matter. As Alucarda says, “you worship death, I worship life.”

Lumped into the ’70s and ’80s “Nunsploitation” genre, Alucarda has a lot to say about religion, and it says it with blood, nudity, and more screaming than I’ve heard in any other film. Everyone screams. Alucarda and Justine, gypsies, nuns, monks, priests—they all scream. If screaming annoys you, this is going to be a very long movie. The nudity is courtesy of Alucarda and Justine (and the gypsies) as the two girls carry out a Satanic bonding ceremony in the buff and dance naked with the gypsies, before Justine is strapped to a wooden X and stripped so that a monk might check her flesh for The Devil’s mark (yeah, right). The blood on the other hand, is courtesy of just about everyone. I don’t think a single character gets away without shedding or being covered in a bit of the red stuff (well, maybe the carriage driver gets away clean).

The Satanism that the two girls embrace (or that possesses them) is not the normal horror film sort, but is closer to pagan vitality worship. While it is less repressed and more fulfilling than Christianity, it has its disadvantages. Alucarda’s conversion pushes her toward insanity (and considering where she started, it doesn’t have to be much of a shove) and Justine becomes very sick. The film is never clear on what is harming Justine: the pagan possession, her own guilt, or the battle between Christian and “demonic” forces within her. Alucarda blames Christianity and vows to take vengeance on The Church (which, considering all its other actions, is understandable), but she is never completely in control. In the end, both religions symbolically vanish for the good of all.

But even then, the message of the film is often muddled. Sometimes it is characters that muddy the waters. Sister Angélica is actually on the side of good and, by receiving stigmata, can influence nature to strike at the gypsies. The one man of reason and science, Dr. Oszek, converts to Christianity and becomes as bad as any of the nuns with extraordinary ease. That the same actor plays him and the lead gypsy implies a duality, but what that might mean is never investigated. Then there is the suggestion that Alucarda (whose name is Dracula in reverse with an “a” added) is Lucy Westenra’s daughter, but this homage to Dracula goes nowhere. Is Alucarda supposed to be an evil vampire? It seems unlikely.

Message aside, this is a beautiful and strange film. The colors are bright, crisp, and hyper-realistic. The set design is the movie’s most peculiar element and one of its best. The nunnery appears to have been carved out of solid rock, and the figures behind the altar look like they grew there. While shot in Mexico, the actors spoke English. But much of the dialog was still added in post production, with the same effect as if the movie had been dubbed, only the lips match the words. The pace keeps things exciting, but is also too fast in developing the pivotal relationship between Alucarda and Justine. A few extra minutes showing them grow together over time would have helped immensely.

While sometimes lacking in intellectual coherence, its emotional center is clear: religion is a sad, dirty affair, and the nude human form is lovely. It takes a more moderate position on excessive blood and doctors with leeches.

It is also known as Innocents from Hell, Mark of the Devil 3, and Sisters of Satan.


Inherit the Wind

In fundamentalist Hillsboro, Tennessee, school teacher Bertram T. Cates is arrested for teaching evolution.  As Bertram’s fiancée’s father prays for his damnation, the powerful religious leader Matthew Harrison Brady comes to town to prosecute the case, and cynical reporter E. K. Hornbeck arranges for legal expert Henry Drummond to act as defense council.  Surrounded by hatred, bigotry, and betrayal, the two powerful men meet to determine not only the future of one man, but of the rights of all men to think.

“Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding.”

In 1927, three giants met in a courtroom in Dayton Tennessee: politician turned bible thumper William Jennings Bryan, idealist lawyer Clarence Darrow, and social commentator H. L. Mencken.  The event was, as coined by Mencken, The Scopes Monkey trial, and it was, or at least appeared to be, one of the turning points in American society.  Inherit the Wind, first in play form, and then as a movie, is a fictionalized account of that meeting.  It was in reality and in the movie, a dramatic, insightful, and inspirational courtroom struggle.  Producer/director Stanley Kramer wanted the film to correspond closely to the actual case, but also to be exciting and entertaining, and to illustrate both the repressiveness of lockstep fundamentalist religion and of lockstep McCarthyism.  He succeeded in every way.

The battle is over evolution and whether a man can state ideas or if we all must be constrained by narrow dogma.  The 1925 Butler act outlawed the teaching of anything that didn’t support divine creation, and in “Heavenly Hillsboro” (standing in for Dayton), disillusioned but altruistic Bertram T. Cates decides to test the law.  That Cates and all of the characters are so multifaceted and represent so many different positions is just one of the films many strengths.  On the side of evolution and freedom of thought is atheistic newspapermen E. K. Hornbeck, who has little hope for mankind, and humanist intellectual Henry Drummond, who sees greatness in man, even if it is sometimes buried in ignorance.  There is, of course, Cates, who still holds some faith in God, but none in the Church, and there are Cates’ students, who support him but understand little of the issues being discussed.  Supporting intolerance and stepping backwards into the muck is Matthew Harrison Brady, who at one time was a progressive political figure, but a string of disappointing defeats has confined him to the religious arena.  He is a mixture of concern for the common man, and blindness to what will actually help him.  Backing him are the cruel, fanatic townspeople, who chillingly march together singing, “Bring me that old time religion,” and understand Christianity no better than the students understand evolution.  Leading them is Rev. Jeremiah Brown, who is a straightforward manifestation of the viciousness inherent in Christianity, as he calls for God not only to strike down Cates, but his own daughter as well.  She is the Christian lamb of the story.  She loves Cates, but accepts her place in the religious community and sees no reason to think about anything.  Finally, rounding out the positions are the judge, mayor, and banker, who all believe in conservative Christianity, but also believe in functioning in a practical world.

Although many viewpoints and characters play a part in the drama, Drummond and Brady dominate the proceedings.  Spencer Tracy and Fredric March put in the best performances of their careers, and it is impossible to choose who is more impressive (Tracy lost the Academy Award to Burt Lancaster and March wasn’t even nominated).  As for the characters, it is Drummond who impresses.  Rough, gruff, and occasionally foolish, his sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional pleas on behalf of the human mind and curiosity should ring true to any repeat readers of this site.

The greatest tension is in the courtroom, but the film is riveting throughout.  A revival meeting is a frightening account of mankind’s past, and dinner parties are revealing as well as humorous.  This is a message picture, but it also shows fascinating characters, and in the case of Rachel Brown, tracks her painful development into a fully aware human being.

In 1960, with evolution generally accepted and Senator McCarthy recently revealed as a bigoted hatemonger, Inherit the Wind must have played as an announcement of the glorious triumph over the primitive forces of ignorance and darkness.  Sure, it was a warning, but joy and hope surpassed concern.  This was still the case well over a decade later when I first saw it.  But times have changed.  Those who don’t understand that the word “theory” is used differently in science than in normal conversations (and those who do know that and seek to manipulate the fact for their own ends) have attacked evolution and fought to place their religious doctrine, creationism, into schools.  We’re back in a 1927 battle of enlightenment verses self-imposed blindness.  As Brady said, “I do not think about what I do not think about.”  And so it is today.

While many different perspectives are on display, the film’s sympathies are primarily with Drummond.  His is the voice that proclaims that there are great things ahead for humanity.  But now, more than forty years later, it is Hornbeck who appears to have the clearest view of the world.  To him, wining the battle against stupidity is doubtful and even if it happens, it will have little effect on the greater war.  Evolution has done little to be proud of.  Man has no more intelligence than the monkeys, and Cates, who is the best of men, is just a monkey who tries to fly, and then finds there is no one there to catch him.  The title comes from Proverbs 11:29: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”  I have to wonder if Hornbeck isn’t right, and that is humanity’s destiny.

Even if times have made it feel a bit depressing, Inherit the Wind is one of the finest films ever made.  It is thoughtful art and should be in the library of any free thinker.

In the actual case, Scopes was found guilty and fined a paltry $100.  The decision was appealed by Darrow and the ACLU and was overturned on a technicality.  The Butler act was left on the books till 1968 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all such laws violated The Constitution because they establish and support religion.  Bryan died peacefully in bed a few days after the trial ended.