Brüno: Putting sex in homosexuals

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Title: Brüno
Director: Sasha Baron Cohen
Language: English
Year: 2009
Critical Reception: Village Voice's J. Hoberman's stamp of approval
Psych Index: Gender, Homosexuality, Social Relations
In Brief: On the surface, Brüno was a shockingly vulgar and serious (!) picture intended to poke fun at homophobia. However, Cohen was not satisfied with this singular purpose (one which he nevertheless used to dress the overall veneer of the picture). Simmering just underneath was a commentary at the extent that people would go through to achieve fame in America, whether by latching on to a charity cause or by accessorizing with babies. One may claim Brüno to have failed, on a personal level, as a comedy. It happens – I laughed a lot, because I’m crude and such. But to the extent that it outraged on sexual vulgarity or made fools of its targets, it had much to applaud for.

Comment (SPOILERS ALERT):

Poor Ron Paul. The esteemed doctor cum 2008 presidential candidate with a dedicate following thought he was being interviewed on the issue of Austrian economics (who knew he was so keen on it?). What awaited him instead when a light suddenly ‘broke’ mid-interview was a flaming homosexual entrapment. Brüno dropped his pants in a seductive dance, and Dr. Paul stormed out of the interview, but not before declaring Brüno to be a queer. Le duh, Ron Paul! Suddenly it was not all theoretical and academic now, was it? The queer guy was in your space, ‘imposing’ his sexuality in what must be the imagined worse case scenario for those who fear the gay epidemic. Where was the politeness, or decency, for straight’s sake?

One could argue that anyone in his situation would have done the same; after all, who wouldn’t be creeped out by a fit man dropping his pants while waiting to go on with the rest of an interview on economics? And following such an incident, one would totally be entitled to fume away in anger and label such a man as a ‘queer.’ That was what was wrong with the whole deal, obviously – that and the fact that he dropped his pants made it all too frighteningly real. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that Dr. Paul was an old man who had never heard of Borat, and the last films he watched were Gone with the Wind and uh, The Sound of Music, both of which were never gay in their (his) time (but are totally flaming now – try admitting that to your friends). Did Sasha Baron Cohen aim too far out in desperation? Was this an instance of unnecessary mean-ness for shock value? What was the point of putting the poor doctor through such a seemingly no-win situation?

On the surface, Brüno was a shockingly vulgar and serious (!) picture intended to poke fun at homophobia. However, Cohen was not satisfied with this singular purpose (one which he nevertheless used to dress the overall veneer of the picture). Simmering just underneath was a commentary at the extent that people would go through to achieve fame in America, whether by latching on to a charity cause or by accessorizing with babies. Few things could be as desperately sad and shockingly appalling as the sequence in which stage parents consented to having their children put through anything for money and fame, even if it meant to have their children being near ‘antiquated machinery’ or dressing up as Nazis in a burn-the-Jews scenario. The irony was that there was a baby in the film – somebody must have consented to have this baby appeared in the same movie as a talking penis! How was that food for thought, Mr. Cohen? And what of banking on one’s flaming sexuality for fame, as Brüno surely now achieves the fame by doing just that? Is Perez Hilton taking notes? Perhaps this was the most astute observation from the film, one that Brüno the film itself was relying on for success – anyone can be a celebrity for any reason, and it really helps to be willful and exhibit no shame about giving what is asked for (in this case, homosexuality, topic du jour).

There may be very good reasons one could cite for not liking this picture without having to admit to being uncomfortable with homosexuality. If it was not the sexual vulgarity then it was the comedy, and both have been used in criticisms regarding the film. Though the outrageous humour remained intact, Brüno was no Borat: lighthearted silliness was almost absent from the film. In place this time around was an absolutely fearless kind of guerrilla comedy, one that was serious, bold, and dangerous (I thought to myself that Mr. Cohen must have had a death wish at several points in the film). There were lots more intended shocks and less emphasis on instantaneous, laugh-o-meter comedy. Not all comedy needed to be so obvious, but different strokes for different folks – one should not feel obligated to laugh out of shock. As for the sexual vulgarity, I would argue that Cohen did the right thing and went all out with all the possible cliche and feared imagined scenarios one could possibly cram in a film. I mean, could one really talk about homosexuality without the sex?

Some people may like to think sexual orientation in ideas, rather than anything to do with sex. When Brüno decided that it may help his celebrity quest if he was straight, he enlisted gay converters to show him the way. One second-stage gay converter started to rattle on about putting up with women’s irritating presence so they could be near women, because it was good for them men, presumably morally and perhaps sexually. Brüno looked genuinely confused – he may be gay but that had nothing to do with being anti-women. It was the sex, stupid, he responded incredulously (okay not in so many words, but you get the gist). As if that was not clear enough, Brüno struck up a conversation about vaginas with his fellow hunters in his attempt to become straight; what else could they bond over that was ’straight’? In a sequence that surely was staged for effect, Brüno was literally whipped into sexual submission by a caricature of a woman, one that many straight men would masturbate to, judging on the prevalence of such image in the sex industry. Nowhere in the film was there a genuine, sexually desirable woman – but of course, there was no place for her in a film that had nothing to do with her desirability and everything to do with fear of the gays, despite what homophobics may want the public to believe.

One may claim Brüno to have failed, on a personal level, as a comedy. It happens – I laughed a lot, because I’m crude and such. But to the extent that it outraged on sexual vulgarity or made fools of its targets, it had much to applaud for. Sure Dr. Ron Paul, as some people have pointed out, did not object to same sex ‘association,’ but that may have less to do with concerns for equality or acceptance and more to do with his stance regarding the federal government’s role in citizens’ private life. Did he personally think homosexuality was wrong? Who really knows? Does it really matter? Cohen aimed to make it matter, obviously. Empathize with Dr. Paul, if you must, just as you might empathize with other unsuspecting individuals who may have been left a little too exposed for their entitled belief. But satire has never been all that kind. And since homophobics fear sexual relations between same gendered people, it made sense for Brüno to tackle it from an exaggerated sexual frame. If such fear was not the flaming centerpiece, what would be the point of the satire otherwise?

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