Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review: Brüno

Last night (thanks to DC for coordinating things), a group of us gay boys went to see Brüno (here's a link to the official trailer; embedding was disabled on YouTube). I would have thought everyone would know about this movie, but a few days ago I was having dinner with a gay friend from out of town and he didn’t know anything about it. I also suspect people like my father are also unaware of it, and in his case maybe it’s better if we keep it that way. The movie is a mocumentary about the gay Austrian fashionista Brüno and his goal to become an international celebrity. After crashing (quite literally) the Prada show in Milano wearing a prototype Velcro suit, he’s blackballed (but not the way he likes) from the fashion industry. This doesn’t stop Brüno from wanting to be famous. He goes to Los Angeles and from there drama ensues. The movie shoots off like a rocket and performs at high-octane for 90 minutes (which he loves). There is never a release (he likes releases), and when it ends you’re filled with a sense of heightened anxiety, as if you’re still waiting for the climax (uh-huh!), which comes when you’re in a group (yeah baby!) later on chatting about the movie. (Okay, I promise, no more double entendres).

Brüno stars Sacha Baron Cohen from Borat fame. Both Brüno and Borat are characters in his comedic repertoire. Cohen has been demonstrative in promoting this new film around Europe and North America, staging public events wearing many of his often-revealing and frequently-disturbing outfits (the pink bull costume with swinging appendage is among the more memorable). For the record, let me point out that I have not seen Borat nor have I ever seen the television portrayals of his characters, so this was my first true experience with Cohen. To his credit as writer and actor, the film is hilarious. It is outrageous, shocking, over-the-top, and downright hysterical. Everyone in the theater was laughing through the entire film. It has some great one-liners, like when Brüno asks the defense instructor in his Austrian accent, “How do you defend yourself against a man with a dildo?”, and when the big-breasted dominatrix exclaims, “Suck my spike!” The clincher with Cohen’s work is that parts of it are unscripted. People think his character is real and so they participate in his interviews. Some cannot take it and walk away, but others just don’t seem to know what’s real or not, making them look idiotic. The one scene where Brüno interviews Paula Abdul is an excellent example. She’s sitting on…how shall we call it?...“mobile Mexican furniture,” and you can see that she’s uncertain if this interview is real or staged, although she doesn’t seem too disturbed to be sitting on a Mexican’s back. There was another scene in the film where he interviews LaToya Jackson, but this was edited out after Michael Jackson’s death. (I’m sure it will return on the DVD version.) The point of scenes like these is to showcase Brüno’s outrageousness, but it’s also to poke fun at celebrity culture.

Indeed, that is the crux of the film. By appropriating an excessively flamboyant character and showcasing all (and I do mean all) of his sexual antics as shock-extremism, Brüno tries to make you feel uncomfortable. It works, more than you ever wanted to know, and it continues to get worse as the movie progresses. His desire to make peace between Israel and Palestine, for instance, will have you staring at the screen with your jaw hanging open. (Who knew that hummus and Hamas weren’t the same thing!?) The fact that Cohen actually got out of the Middle East alive is shocking. Cohen pokes fun at celebrity charities, the adoption of African babies, blonds, rednecks, sexuality, and the religious right. Some of the best scenes are when he has a conversation with a preacher who is going to help Brüno become straight, or when he goes hunting with a group of rednecks. When you hear the preacher speak—and presumably this isn’t staged—you cannot believe that people like this actually exist in America.

Cohen uses Brüno to draw attention to things that make mainstream society uncomfortable (specifically flamboyant homosexuality and gay sex), and then he shows us how ridiculous that discomfort is when seen against the kaleidoscope of other things going on in America and the world. What’s most disturbing, however, is that the more hilarious you find all of it, the more disturbing you realize it also is. Hatred against homosexuals in this country has not diminished by any means. This film challenges heteronormativity by instilling discomfort in the most straight of straight people. From that perspective then, it’s a good thing. Or is it?

In a place like New York City, we easily can sit in a movie theater in Chelsea with an audience made up largely of gay men and watch this movie. We can greet one another with hugs and kisses in friendship and hold hands as couples. We can guffaw and scream out in laughter too, because we’re protected in our gay-friendly neighborhood and open-minded urban environment. But would we laugh so hard if we lived in the Bible-belt South? Would the movie have sold out, or even played at all? Would we have entered the theater unscathed, or would we have had to cross a picket line of fundamentalist Christians boycotting the theater, declaring we were sinners and going to hell? There are advantages living in a progressive environment where we can laugh aloud at what is, essentially, a mirror. Brüno is a reflection of the gay population. Admittedly, this is a reflection seen in a warped, fun house-like mirror, but he is still a form of us. And the world in which he sets the film is the world in which we live, a world filled with ignorance, intolerance, fear, and anger. One can only hope that the message this movie sends out will be received in a positive way. Brüno is satire. It is meant to poke fun at issues so as to minimize their intensity. But will audiences outside of largely urban environments understand that? Or will Brüno be forever more nothing but a freak to be laughed at?

Freak or gay Wünderkind, it’s worth remembering that Brüno is simply a character, a costume worn by a straight comedian. Is that partly why we find this so funny, because we know the man behind the mask is straight? Does it make him and his message safer for middle America? Since the mid-1990s, there has been an ever-increasing encroachment of things formerly seen as aspects of gay culture into the mainstream: tribal tattooing, gym physiques, fashion apparel, and so on. The metrosexual look had its origins in women wanting their men to look as fashionable as their gay male friends. Sexy straight models from Mark Wahlberg to David Beckham have been hired to sell underwear ads targeted in large part to gay men with their supposedly expendable income. Television has been doing this for some time now as well, with straight Eric McCormack playing gay Will on Will & Grace. Hollywood is churning out male-male relationship comedies too, like the recent Paul Rudd movie I Love You, Man with its theme of man-dating. Why are major Hollywood studios willing to support gay-themed movies when they are produced and star straight men, when true “gay” movies like Were the World Mine (see my review) and Lilies barely register on the radar. Even those that are sponsored by major studios, like Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia, had to star straight actors in order to succeed in America. The world of pornography also has seen straight appropriations of gay sexuality. No longer is simply being gay enough for porn websites. Now so-called straight guys can group masturbate and have sex with each other because they’re being paid for it, implying that if they choose to do it and cash is involved then they’re not gay. Don’t disregard this reference to pornography, because even that once-taboo subject is now subjected to appropriation by the straight community. The other “gay” film premiering this weekend, Humpday, has two straight male friends dare themselves to enter an amateur gay porn contest, with the previews showing them acting squeamish by having to do something as shocking as kiss one another. All of these examples demonstrate the appropriation of queer culture by the straight community, but for a specific purpose: control. The more that heterosexual male culture appropriates queer culture, the more straight men control gay men. The more they can laugh at homosexuality, the more they can subjugate it. And once they govern it, they never have to accept it or even tolerate it. They can quash it.

Some may think I’m exaggerating, but how would we react if Brüno were real, or if Cohen was gay? I suspect things would be somewhat different. Mind you, everyone would still laugh. How could you not? Brüno is so flamboyant he makes Liberace and RuPaul look like Harley Davidson-riding rock stars. He is an exaggeration, not just of humanity but of homosexuality. Reinforcing his hyperbole as a gay person is his absence from a gay community. I would have liked to have seen Brüno interacting with gay people in the movie. Placing him in, say, a parade during Gay Pride, or having him interact with people at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, would have added to the hilarity. Or would it? Would that mean he would be making fun of gays and lesbians too? Or is he already doing that simply be being Brüno? How would we react if Brüno was in our midst? Do gay men (let alone lesbians) really want someone like Brüno around them? Or are they ultimately as horrified by the reality of a Brüno as the redneck hunters on the camping trip are with him? The mixed reception in the GLBTQ community has shown that he is controversial. And remember we’re talking about a fictional character! Indeed, Brüno the flamboyant queen can only be a caricature. He cannot be real, because in truth no one (except for his sidekick Lutz, who obviously needs therapy) can truly tolerate him, not for real. In that sense, then, Brüno stands alone. By isolating him from other gays and lesbians, he becomes a pseudo-gay Übermensch, someone beyond the boundaries of all things queer. But for the average American Joe Plumber, seen frequently, and ridiculed frequently, in this film, Brüno is just another fucking faggot. He becomes a stand-in for all gay people. That frightens me.

These are all important issues whether one sees them in this film or not. As my friend JM said to me after the movie, it’s just a comedy. He seriously doubts Cohen had anything even remotely like these issues in mind. Fair enough, I can concede to that. After all, the movie will make you laugh your ass off, so you should definitely see it. But I challenge you as the viewer also to see that there is more to this movie than just a comedy, and its timing is appropriate in some ways. Gay marriage is debated heatedly across this country, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is still crucifying well-educated men and women who joined the military out of pride for the United States. We can laugh all we want at the issues satirized in this film, in particular those regarding homosexuality, but it’s the reception of what we see that really is at stake here. Laugh all you want, but never forget what is behind the laughter.

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