By Tavia Nyong’o
That Bruno was more or less what I expected should have come as no surprise: by the time the movie opened last weekend, it had been subjected to so much advance media coverage that, it turns out, we are all now familiar with about 75% of the stunts in the film, even before seeing it.
What’s more, most of what you’ve already heard repeatedly described (acrobatic sex with a “pygmy”, trying to get kidnapped by a terrorist in “middle earth”) is actually funnier in the description than on screen. When “I can’t believe they would do that!” turns into “Oh, they actually did that,” it’s inevitably deflating. One scene I was looking forward to (well known because it is the subject of a lawsuit) didn’t even make it into the final cut. I was kind of disappointed, until I realized I was probably better off relishing how squirm-inducing the hilarity must have been.
Chalk one up to the imagination: the high concept of Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance art turns out to be superior to its execution.
That this is so is in part due to public’s growing familiarity with Cohen and his pranks. What’s most surprising now about Bruno is less the antagonistic reactions his outrageous character elicits than the frequent indifference that greets him. During a seance, a psychic lets him mime fellatio and analingus with a dead lover, literally without batting an eye. Riders try to look the other way when Bruno and his assistant tumble onto a bus tied together in S&M gear, with all manner of objects stuck into all available orifices. Most damningly for those who would claim an antihomophobic effect for the film: Bruno fails to get a rise out of Fred Phelps and his band of deranged “God Hates Fags” placard bearers.
Going to LA in search of people who will be surprised by outrageous behavior is admittedly a bit of a non sequitur. While at moments the film strikes the same comic gold as the original HBO series — getting sub-lebrities and those who aspire to become them to self-satirize with the camera’s rolling — these moments have little to do with Bruno’s industrial strength gayness or any discomfort induced by it. They are more about an army of bottom-feeders perpetually, and pathetically, on the make: pimping out their infants to unsavory photo shoots, sitting on human furniture while gassing on about humanitarianism, and “celebrity charity consultants” who suggest the best way to support an endangered animal species might be by selling bracelets made from its skin.
None of this is unfunny. But none of it is really superior to an average Christopher Guest film. The use of “gotcha” techniques hardly produces a more insightful critique of the celebrification of reality than scripted narrative does. Often, it produces far less.
In search of true homophobic dupes, Cohen’s film crew ultimately had to travel to Kansas and Arkansas, because, well, we all know how funny laughing at “white trash” in the fly-over states supposedly is. Being myself one generation removed from lumberjacks, with truck drivers in my extended family, I have to say I have always failed to appreciate this strategy. The final scene where Bruno — posing as “Straight Dave” — gets a crowd to boo and throw beer at a cage-fight that descends into a bout of homosex struck me as particularly sad and repellent. I don’t care for homophobia, but classism sucks too. And blaming rednecks for everything wrong in America seems counterproductive and just blaming the victims.
It’s not that I’m unaware that the homophobia exhibited in the scene was real and possibly lethal. Myself, I would have high-tailed it out of there. I just want to know why we don’t hold the person who created and stoked the situation accountable as well? The Smoking Gun has the bare details: a blue collar crowd drawn by offers of $5 entertainment and $1 beer (raised arbitrarily to $4 at one point, just to rile them up), given the homophobic shirts some were seen wearing (of course they chose to wear them, but again, who designed and printed them?). Long before the moments captured on screen, the crowd had been manipulated and egged on. And apparently they shot this scene several times in different locations before getting the “spontaneously” hateful reaction they desired.
My point is that Cohen has perfected the art of setting the scene in just the right way to make bad behavior predictable, if not inevitable. At the same time, his films mask the elements used to construct the scene, thus maintaing a false verite feel. I find it interesting, and almost redeeming, that the snookered audience members whose comments are preserved at the Smoking Gun were mostly grateful that they had sat far back enough in the crowd not to make it into the film. Indignant at Cohen and undoubtedly disgusted at (the fairly tame, I thought) man-on-man action, they were sensible enough to be ashamed at the thought of being shown as intolerant or hateful on screen. I actually think it’s progress when people are ashamed of their prejudices.
Of course one can say that the power of Bruno is that he pushes people’s buttons until they expose their “hidden” homophobia. But this relies on a bogus and outdated model of psychological interiority. Any spelunking expedition for our inner, supposedly truer attitudes — particularly one that relies on setting up the unstable or unprivileged in weird and uncomfortable situations and then laughing at them — will usually turn up what it’s looking for. But while this may count as entertainment, I don’t think it counts as antihomophobic.