by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - July 27, 2009) The formula for Sacha Baron Cohen's film Bruno stems from early TV shows such as John Guedel's People Are Funny and Allen Funt's Candid Camera, where improvising actors swooped down upon unsuspecting ordinary citizens and a naturalistic kind of comedy developed. The major difference in Sacha Baron Cohen's approach is that he has the knack of corralling hilariously typical interviewees and deliberately outraging them. As a result, we are introduced to ministers who believe that Jesus can help transform homosexuals into "straights," physical trainers who devise strong-arm tactics to protect oneself against buggery, and good-natured misogynists who describe the unfortunate shortcomings of the female gender -- not to mention dominatrixes conscientiously performing sadomasochistic labors: all provide grist for Bruno's ever-churning mill. Truth to tell, the "ordinary people," hoodwinked into service in the film, are in many ways more compelling and more comic than S.B. Cohen himself. It is the lack of awareness on their part -- and the intensification of awareness on ours -- that makes for some of the richest laughs.
The film itself derives from traditional-antitraditional surrealist humor like Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, which in l896 introduced the word Merde (i.e., "shittle") never before spoken on a French stage. It aims its satire at the fervor for notoriety that inflates meager talents to the point where they become ubiquitous celebrities and leave the rest of us wondering why so much time and attention should be showered on these grandiose non-entities. Here, Sacha Cohen is onto something very topical and enthralling: the need to Twitter or blog ourselves into a transient notoriety that, being obvious, dissolves any impact it might have. Bruno wants to be the uber-celebrity that many Americans in their psychotic daydreams would also like to be; the art of being known for simply being known. (You Twitter me, I'll Facebook you, and together we will magically evade obscurity.) Cohen demonstrates how ridiculous this is as a personal objective and makes a strong case for anonymity. If people intent on brandishing their egos can produce such ludicrous results, Cohen seems to imply, why do they (and we) go to such trouble to achieve it?
The other strand in Bruno concerns the current preoccupation with the status of gays, and a good chunk of the film is given over to Bruno's desire to liberate himself from grandiose homosexuality and achieve the dubious goal of heterosexuality. In the course of his efforts to achieve this, Cohen demonstrates the extremes of bent behavior that, being stereotypical, manages to simultaneously amuse and agitate. The amusement comes from the over-the-top exaggeration and the agitation from the sense that it is as much malicious as it is innocuous. Many gays have expressed their objection to the caricature, but the vast majority of them take it as "good dirty fun." The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation alleged that "Bruno reinforces negative stereotypes" and "decreases the public's comfort with gay people." Whereas it could be argued that by sending up gay stereotypes, it removes the animus and renders it harmless. The fact that it is stereotypical, it would seem to me, is what rescues it from being venomous.
Sacha Baron Cohen has in a sense created a new film genre: Satirical Porn. Its aim is not simply to "push the envelope" but to simultaneously utilize it as toilet paper. Like the aforementioned Ubu Roi and certain extreme forms of Dada, it is a fascinating lurch towards "the extreme," which, being so conscious of its aims, somewhat subverts the originality of the process. But whatever its motivation might be, it achieves the kind of helpless laughter that is absent from many brain-dead film comedies geared to the teenaged and young-20s marketplace.
Borat, Cohen's earlier effort along these lines, was in many ways more consistent and inspired. It too created in its audience a puzzle as to how certain scenes could possibly have been filmed given the gross embarrassment they managed to eke out of what appeared to be quite ordinary people. That same sense of perplexity at how certain scenes were captured remains one of the shining assets of Cohen's work and that of his director, Larry Charles. There is nothing more astounding in art of any kind than asking oneself: how in the world could such a thing have come about? It is what people said regarding the canvasses of Picasso and the early music of Stravinsky and Shostakovich. It is, in a sense, the highest complement one can bestow on any work of art.
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