Thursday, April 19, 2007

How Borat Tells a Story

I have not sent the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (I love a short title) but this morning following a link on video piracy on the internet (Google Powering Some Pirate Sites) I caught an episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s character in action on YouTVPC (taken it appears from a British Channel 4 series). The man is a gifted performer but what struck me was the material depth he is prepared to go to in order to deliver the comedy, parody and satire. Grainy washed out film stock rolls behind 1970’s animated text in (presumably Russian script), a whole village gathers around Cohen and falls in behind his bizarre English monologue delivered in a stilted accent. The visual pace of the narrative is impressive with gags relying entirely on cut shots as Cohen continues in his monotone delivery. Then we are transported to England, which is dismantled in seconds by Cohen’s stereotypical still shots of him engaging with the ‘Englishness’ of tourism (The guards at the palace, bowler hats and The Times, red payphone booth, fish and chips, ‘naughty’ video shop in Soho, double decker busses and tepid beer etc. etc. etc.), all in over exposed yellowing film with dodgy text overs. Then the adventure starts as Cohen stumbles in a badly fitted suit through the TV lifestyle chat genre. The empty space of Borat’s ignorance is filled with the bigotry, cultural xenophobia and oddness of those who are willing to speak to him (often treating him like a child, the unaware foreigner). Attending the Henley Royal Regatta, Borat is the blank slate for a form of reverse anthropology (see Jean Rouch) where the decrepit traditions of the Empire (regatta, the hunt) reveal themselves through European subjects made Other.

Cohen/Borat delivers the message in the long shadows of McLuhan and Surrealism with a huge debt to the remix cultures powered so much by digital technologies and the Psycho-geography of the Situationists. The materials of media is how Cohen invites the viewer into the premise of the text (the opening scenes in the ridiculous village or the grainy tourists shots of Borat stumbling around London) and the next shot is filled with Borat straight to camera (viewers gaze). We take up the media stance projected by one of the most common sequences on TV, the piece to camera where a witness as reporter informs us of the event (it is interesting that we see so little of this format in relation to the carnage in Iraq, the field abandoned by the witness and – here in Sweden at least – the graphics are most often crowd scenes after bomb attacks and soldiers ‘in place’).

When we laugh at Cohen we are laughing at ourselves. As he has said himself, the joke is that many of those who came into contact with the character actually believed that the Kazakhstan of Borat has some basis in reality . Presumably the same goes for the millions of viewers of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan who understand enough of the premises behind the film to find it funny. The joke is on the West and the brilliance is how carefully constructed the pseudo-documentary genre of Cohen’s comedy is.

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