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Issue 15,  July 27, 2009     —      Wider Screenings, Borat Does Bruno

In this issue:   FEATURE: His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, Consciousness    Jack Armstrong, Illusions of the Physical World   Guy Finley, Harness the Transformational Power in Self-Reliance   Sharon Elaine, Affirmations for Spiritual Matters   Mark Bowser, The Keys to Empowered Leadership   Daylle Deanna Schwartz, Lightening Guilt   Wider Screenings, Borat Does Bruno    Events   Reviews   Earlier issues   Submit Article

                                                        with Robert Cettl

Borat Does Bruno
Satire in the Age of Sacha Baron Cohen

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen first gained attention playing Ali G, a gangsta-rapping hip-hop talk show host who would lure unsuspecting guests into a barrage of unexpected questions and ridiculous situations.  But Ali G was just one of Baron’s characters.  It was Baron’s second popular character (or “persona”), the Kazakhstan journalist Borat, which galvanized world attention in the surprise hit film of the same name: a film which according to Cohen’s new film Bruno’s advertising campaign was just “so 2006”.  Borat surprised the critics with its blend of sacrilege, political incorrectness and hilarious social satire, Cohen using the title character’s cultural backward-ness to lampoon American socio-cultural and religious values, particularly scathing in its treatment of American macho pride.  With his latest headlining character in Bruno, Cohen re-creates the successful formula to expose not simply the vacuity and superficiality of the fashion industry but the narrow-minded bigotry and sheer coarse repugnance of American hetero-sexuality, following on from Borat’s indictment of macho values.

Cohen’s Bruno is a tall, svelte homosexual fashion show host from Austria.  Initially a guest at the top fashion shows, Bruno is blacklisted after an unfortunate incident involving a prototype Velcro bodysuit which sticks to every curtain, cloth and prop in one such show.  Losing his staff and show, except for a dedicated second assistant whose name Bruno does not even remember, the flaming extroverted homosexual sets out to establish himself as a big star in the USA.  He gets a disbelieving agent and puts together an interview show which when played before the TV program selection committee draws disgust and outrage: comments like “it was worse than cancer” stripping Bruno of his chance at television success.  Concluding that all big celebrities in the USA are heterosexual, the often-flaming exhibitionist Bruno decides to try going straight.  After consulting two pastors – religious charlatans who believe that Jesus Christ has given them the ability and duty to reform and convert homosexuals to heterosexual “normality” – Bruno tries his luck at a swinger’s party before launching a wrestling extravaganza under the title “Straight Dave’s Man-Slamming” wherein Cohen makes the point of his satire clear – sexual tolerance in heterosexual America.

Bruno as a film from the outset, however, perpetually risks becoming trivial.  As a satire involving a vacuous fashion show host deciding that the fashion world is superficial and vacuous, Bruno starts out on a rather self-evident note.  The fashion world is an admittedly easy target and once Cohen takes the character away from it and into an America of talk-shows, uber-agents, celebrity charity functions, psychics, religious moralists and rednecks the film sharpens in focus, hitting its targets with uncanny precision.  Indeed, for Cohen, vacuity, superficiality and hypocrisy are rampant within the American culture that much of the Western world turns to for an indication of successful celebrity status.  Hence, all of Cohen’s characters are superficial, self-important half-wits whose pursuit of fame and success is used by Cohen to reveal an ethically bankrupt and revolting America the ideals of which influence world perception and morality, though arguably not for the better.  Cohen’s satire comprises ridicule and mockery at the expense of the participants who take the character of Bruno as a real person and, not in on the joke, are pushed to their breaking point.  The reactions of Americans to the faux character, who they accept as a real person, expose the true horror of American society, the limits of tolerance which exists within the supposed land of the free and home of the brave.

And horrible indeed is America as depicted in Bruno.  Bruno is obviously a cretin (insisting in front of a talk-show crowd of African-Americans that the black baby he acquired in Nigeria – along with ivory tusks and an elephant’s foot – is not merely a fashion accessory) and it is amazing the extent to which he is taken seriously.  Thus, those deceived by the act come off as gullible dupes, their awkward discomfort and embarrassment in dealing with such a flaming homosexual increasingly evident as he continues to provoke them.  Indeed, the amount of people who take this caricature seriously staggers belief and reveals Americans as nitwits able to be deceived and manipulated almost at will: Americans here are vacuous, gullible fools at best and dangerous, ignorant thugs (both over-sexed and repressed) at worst.  Where Borat revealed the ugly side of America – from beer-swilling college jocks on a road trip to born-again evangelists speaking in tongues – Bruno goes one step further and by the end is filled with such contempt for American morality that it emerges as one of the fiercest satires on American cultural mores to emerge in some time.  Bruno – as vicious as well-timed bitch-slap – ploughs through the self-important arrogance of America just as its self-important hero gets a sustained lesson in humility and ordeal.

The emotions that Cohen conjures in his depiction of Bruno are sometimes heartfelt (Bruno’s slide into poverty) and sometimes mocking (Bruno’s loss of his “adopted” black infant fashion accessory in a televised talk-show appearance) and the tonal switch from scathing comedy to mock-emotional tenderness is a balance that becomes simply bathetic at times.  That aside, Bruno works best as an exploration of American attitudes to homosexuality (treated with much greater open tolerance and acceptance in Europe – especially within the fashion industry however vacuous it may otherwise be).  Bruno’s assembled US fashion show demo is a hilarious lampoon of gay pride, concluding with a talking / singing penis (using animation pioneered in an actual porn film, Misty Beethoven: the Musical) the sight of which revolts the TV programmers.  It’s an awful show – as it’s meant to be – but is hilarious in its acknowledged “gayness”, from which Bruno learns that “success” in America is open only to heterosexuals and their associated values. Bruno as a film mocks this presumption of heterosexual values as a pre-condition for success and acceptance to the point where Cohen revels in staging scenes hilariously evocative of gay porn sexual convention: as when Bruno visits a fake US psychic to contact a former lover (Milli from the rock group Milli Vanilli) and as the oblivious psychic duly conjures up the spirit of Milli Bruno pretends to perform fellatio on the spirit entity as the psychic bows his head, watches in disbelief of the spectacle unfolding before him (one of the film’s funniest and most confronting in its sexuality) and waits.

Heterosexuality is the American cultural “norm” and no deviance from it is permissible in American culture.  Cohen knows this and delights in his in-your-face expressions of faux homosexuality which confront and outrage the Americans, Cohen choosing to film much of his more explicit satirical pieces in the American South, an area known for its religious-inspired intolerance towards homosexuality, and provoking real people (such as the hunters who take Bruno on a camping trip) to their breaking point.   Cohen relishes inciting reactions from his chosen subjects, at one point having Bruno remark to the gay-converting specialist pastor when the pastor says that his lips are for spreading the words of Jesus Christ that the pastor’s lips would be perfect to provide a blow-job if only he would give them the chance to so shine.  The pastor in turns hides his contempt well, not so the final minister assigned to marry a gay couple who leaves in disgust when a white man in drag presents his own black baby.  The point here of course is “gay pride”, the incessant promotion of homosexual attitudes and values in contrast to an American culture which by the time of the final “Straight Dave” sequence is allied to ignorant, overweight, coarse redneck culture.  Thus, although Bruno also mocks the gayness he embraces, the final homosexual embrace in front of these jeering rednecks is a triumph of tolerance in the face of adversity.

As such tolerance emerges as Cohen’s theme, the film segues from easy targets to hard ones and emerges as a truly new form of satire – using a format known as the “mockumentary” to expose, critique, mock and ridicule those aspects of American society which Cohen and his filmmaking team view as atrocious culturally, religiously and morally.  Satire to Cohen is the subversion of moral propriety and the exposure of pretence and repugnant hypocrisy.  His characters are bizarre, eccentric and self-important but often given a lesson in humility which is denied the horrendous people with which they interact who are foils deserving of the mockery and contempt they receive.  The people who fall for Bruno’s act are all used mercilessly by Cohen and his filmmakers in their intention to expose the vacuous, coarse fabrications of a “macho” heterosexual American culture which is hypo-critically offended by Bruno.  Indeed, the vacuous Bruno even meets his match – two women who run a charity consultancy firm matching up and coming celebrities to charities which will increase their public profile: a clear assault on Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and the entire celebrity adoption “racket” (mercilessly satirized in the talk-show episode).  Although – dare one say it – not for all tastes (sigh), Bruno is finally a spot-on re-definition of the time honoured literary-cinematic techniques of irony and satire for the 20th age of American mass-consumerism.

And as a coda, well, it seems the Ukraine may have the last verdict on Cohen’s blend of gay pride and mock-pornographic satire.  Nine members out of the Ukraine’s 14 member ministry of culture voted to ban Bruno from ever being screened in their country.  The reason for this censorship was stated as "(t)he film contains unjustified showing of genital organs and sexual relations and shows homosexual acts and homosexual perversions in an explicitly realist manner," and contains "sadistic manifestations which could damage the morality of citizens."  This is not the first time Cohen has faced censorial pressure from the former Soviet republics, as Borat was heavily criticized by officials in Kazakhstan as being offensive to their country, although the Kazakhs went silent when the film became popular – not so the Ukraine where Bruno is simply too immoral to be allowed to be screened.

* * * * *

Politics Will Always Take Preference
(an extract from Robert Cettl’s book Film Tales)

Director Norman Jewison made the Cold War satire The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! at a time when tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union were at their height.  What he did not anticipate was the reception from the Soviet authorities.  At a time when the Russians were seeking entry into the United Nations, the film was screened for the ambassadors of the various countries.  The Russian ambassador liked the film so much he requested it be sent to the Russian embassy.  It was.  From there, it was duly sent to the Russian embassy in London and from there to various other embassies until finally it reached Moscow.  At the centre of Soviet power in the Kremlin it was screened six times and director Jewison could not get the print returned.  A week before the film was scheduled to open in New York, Jewison received a visa to enter the Soviet Union and went to Moscow to attend further screenings where the film, anti-militaristic and pacifist, was greeted with appreciable applause.  However, Canadian native Jewison was only a resident in the US at the time and when he tried to return from Russia into the US, he was told that he was “unacceptable” and that he had no reason to travel behind the so-called Iron Curtain as he had.

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Wider Screenings
columnist Robert Cettl has a B.A (Hons) in Film Study from the Flinders University of South Australia, which included an international scholarship to the University of Southern Illinois in the USA.  He has post-graduate qualifications in Librarianship and Information Management from UniSA.  In addition to popular DVD reviewing, his writing for McFarland (one of the leading American publishers of film non-fiction) has been collected by such as Yale University Library and the British Film Institute.  His forthcoming work for this market (for release in 2010) is Terrorism in American Cinema: a comprehensive analysis of terrorism as a genre from fears of PLO inspired homeland attacks in Black Sunday to the outright denouncement of the Bush War on Terror in W.  His previous work includes the above extracted Film Tales, now on sale and coming soon as an ebook through Inkstone Digital and Amazon Kindle in association with No Limits.  For analysis and commentary on individual films mentioned in this column (and hundreds of others) and for updates on the latest Hollywood hits and choicest DVD releases, Wider Screenings is now on Twitter.  Any @ reply will be duly answered – there are no automated DMs or tweets.  If tweeting, please mention film title in tweet: requests for films/DVDs to be reviewed are welcomed and given priority.  Free print copies of Film Tales can be won in the tweet ‘n win Film Buff Quiz.  First tweet request being incorporated into Wider Screenings is a retrospective of actor Warren Oates beginning with the film Cockfighter, a seldom seen look at cockfighting in the Southern States and a film still banned in England.

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