Monday, December 07, 2009


Love it or hate it, last summer's mockumentary, Bruno -- from provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen -- did not meet with the same overwhelming critical success as did 2006's Borat.

On the contrary, Cohen's new effort -- which concerns a gay, Austrian fashion reporter seeking fame and celebrity in the United States -- ended up sharply dividing many audiences.

Some viewers felt Bruno was a powerful indictment of ignorance and homophobia (particularly in the American South...), while others opined that it was a gay minstrel show; an outrageous stereotyping of homosexuals as sex-crazed perverts.

GLAAD noted that while the film was "well-meaning" it was also "outright offensive." The Human Rights Campaign wanted a disclaimer placed on the front of Bruno explicitly noting that it was a film about ignorance, not anti-gay prejudice. In other words, the HRC didn't really trust the audience to "get" the film's message.

Their fear was understandable, if misplaced. To quote one of Bruno's Teutonic brethren, Fredrich Nietzsche: "With the unknown, one is confronted with change, discomfort and care: the first instinct is to abolish these painful states." That perfectly sums up the human experience of prejudice, doesn't it? When we see something that is different from our personal tradition...we tend to fear it, and, in some cases, attempt to destroy it.

Both within the context of the film's actual narrative and the context of American popular culture, the reaction to Bruno reflects Nietzsche's essential truth about human nature. Cohen's comedy intentionally generates intense discomfort on a whole slew of hot-button topics. Accordingly, the gut reaction by many will simply be to attempt to "abolish" their own feelings of discomfort; to decry the film; to write it off; to dismiss it rather than attempt to understand the didactic purpose underlining it.

In the text of the movie itself, you see this "first instinct" to "abolish discomfort" played out in vivid, even violent terms. In the film's audacious, mind-blowing last act, flamboyantly-gay Bruno (masquerading as a straight wrestler...) stars in a cage-fighting match in Fort Smith, Arkansas. His audience consists of hundreds of overweight, beer-swilling, Southern rednecks.

It would be tempting to suggest that these are well-cast film extras; ones intentionally designed to encourage redneck stereotypes in the culture. But they aren't: they're the real people who showed up for a "Blue Collar brawlin' event" with "hot girls" and "cheap beer. " Bruno rocks their world when the heterosexual cage-match turns into a very public act of homosexual....affection. The camera captures (in amazing close-ups...) the shock, outrage and horror of the surprised, even disgusted audience. One onlooker actually appears to be physically traumatized; as though his entire world -- and world view -- has been shattered, stomped on, and utterly obliterated. It is clear he will never be the same. This is not the world he is familiar with, it's a change -- it is alien -- and it makes him feel uncomfortable, angry...even rageful.

As Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" plays on the film's soundtrack, the powerful human instinct to abolish that which is discomforting reveals itself. And boy, it is ugly. The Arkansas crowd grows increasingly violent, throwing food, drinks, and even a metal chair (!) into the cage in an all-out attempt to shut-down the display of gay love occurring at center-stage. Seriously, you worry for Cohen's safety...

As was the case in Borat, this satire draws the most significant power from Cohen's interaction with the relatively backward (or should I say traditional?) values we often associate with the Christianist South. Therefore, his homosexual character heads not only to Arkansas, but to Alabama -- for military training and further mischief. Bruno also goes on a hunting/camping trip with southern rednecks, generating an awkard silence as he notes that the stars in the night sky remind him of all "the hot guys in the world." These moments are priceless, and hysterically funny.

But in some sense, these scenes also clearly represent Cohen shooting fish in a barrel. HIs targets are easy ones; their ignorance and prejudices obvious and therefore easy to ignite. Where Bruno proves rather more daring is in Cohen's dedicated effort to bite the hand that feeds him. In particular, Cohen places in his crosshairs the modern Hollywood culture of celebrity and high fashion. Bruno's gayness isn't really an issue for many viewers in America, frankly, but his obsessive pursuit of his 15 minutes of fame does make him a less-than-sympathetic character at points. Again, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he is homosexual.

For instance, emulating the likes of Brangelina and Madonna, Bruno adopts an African baby as his latest fashion accessory. His description of the baby (named O.J.) as a "dick magnet" draws appropriate howls from a predominantly African-American studio audience on The Richard Bey Show. But ask yourself: are the howls of outrage over Bruno's homosexuality? What if Borat had done the same thing, claiming that young O.J. was a "pussy magnet?" The same outrage would have erupted, no doubt, because what is being discussed here is the packaging of a living human being as a fashion accessory, as a popular Hollywood fad." Black babies? Everyone should own one!

Bruno skewers Hollywood and the culture of celebrity adroitly in other sequences too. The Austrian fashionista hosts Paula Abdul at his new (empty...) house. Because the house is a new purchase, there is not yet any furniture present for the interview. Bruno thus asks several Latino workers to get down on their hands and knees and essentially function as chairs and a coffee table while they film the TV segment. Paula goes ahead with the interview under these conditions. She sits down on a Latino man, and absently discusses how she is totally dedicated to helping less fortunate people in the world. She is unaware of the apparent contradiction between her words and her behavior. The point is that -- even if well-meaning -- Paula (and by extension, other celebrities...), aren't really focused on helping others. On the contrary, the African adoptions, and the charity work in some cases represent nothing more than self-glorification and vanity. Look at me! Look at what good things I've done! This isn't as obvious, as violent, or as overtly disturbing as the anti-gay behavior we see evidenced in Fort Smith, but it is, perhaps, just as important a comment on American culture.

As a parent, I found one specific sequence in Bruno to be particularly horrifying and jaw-dropping. Bruno auditions children for a photo-shoot with his son, O.J. He interviews several show-business parents and asks them if they are comfortable with a variety of things, vis-a-vis their children. Would the kids be comfortable wearing Nazi uniforms? Crucified on a cross? Would the children be comfortable operating "antiquated machinery?" Could the children drop 10 lbs. in a week? Do the children like working with "lit phosphorous?"

So craven, so desperate, so grasping are these show-business parents that they don't even blink before agreeing to liposuction for their children. And everything else too (lit phosphorous included....)! Again, this is a comment on Bruno's individual journey (and the American Idol, reality-tv desperation of our modern culture): celebrity is everything. Degradation is nothing. It's just a stepping stone! The movie isn't about gay sex or homosexuality so much as it is about what people will do for fame.

I don't imagine many in Hollywood particularly appreciated that message...and I believe that fact likely accounts for some of the negative reviews of the film.

Cohen is a fearless performer, and at every opportunity in Bruno, he knowingly and cannily courts our discomfort. Whether with a close-up shot of a swinging (and talking...) penis; or with the film's opening montage of acrobatic gay sex between Bruno and his pygmy boyfriend (!), the performer's goal is to shatter taboos and decorum. In the process make us confront our discomfort. He even broaches anti-Semitism (in Bruno's admiration for Austria's "other" hero, Adolf Hitler).

What's the end game here? Why court violence, hysteria, nervous laughter and moral outrage all for the sake of making us acknowledge our own, human discomfort?

I believe the answer does not specifically concern homosexuality; but rather prejudice in general. When confronted with change -- with something different or new -- many of us instinctively want to squash it or look away. But in Bruno, Cohen runs the audience through a sort of gauntlet until it becomes okay with Bruno's out-there approach to life. We don't exactly ever approve of him, but in the end, we do want him to be happy, to find love with his nice-guy partner, Lutz. Bruno's way may never be our way, yet by the end of the film, he's just a another human being who wants to be loved.

So Cohen reminds us we have to plow through the discomfort -- or the shock of the new -- to become aware again of our common humanity. To remember the things that bind us and don't separate us. He doesn't tow the party line, necessarily, on homosexuality, but instead forges a strong comment on bigotry in general. This is an electrifying and challenging film, and certainly one of the funniest - and rawest - to come down the pike in a good long while.


  1. Reading your review reminded me of how much I enjoyed that film.

    I disagree with one thing you wrote, however. When you say that the people's reactions in the film are not about homosexuality, and then you write about the Richard Bey stunt, I do believe that you are in error. The African American community is notoriously anti-homosexual, and Bruno does a fair job at eliciting their dismay and their rage.


  2. Hey Pete!

    Thanks for the comment!

    You are correct about the African American community by-and-large tending towards the anti-homosexual side; but I maintain the talk show audience would have also reacted with disdain at the disposition of O.J. if a non-gay had paraded him about in similar fashion (and in immediate the vicinity of sex acts...)

    Maybe this is a case where both things are true?

    But your comment got me thinking about the movie again. I wrote that it was really about all forms of prejudice, and maybe this Talk Show/Bey scene was another example that; of Cohen knowingly forcing discomfort on a group of prejudiced people; in this case in the African-American community.

    Very interesting! Thanks for the thought provoking commentary!




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