10 July 2009

Review: Brüno

Of all the reviews that I will write this year, for films already seen and films still to come, I believe that I can confidently say, my review for cultural embezzler's, Sacha Baron Cohen's, Brüno will be the most interesting for me. A film that at once traipses the narrow road of social criticism on the controversial fronts of sexuality, extreme fanaticism - which is not a redundant phrase, I promise you - and, like its predecessor Borat (2006), interpersonal tolerance and s simultaneously wriggles in the Jell-O-y goop of mass-audience--pandering, Brüno is a work clearly like no other - not solely for the fact that it encompasses such a wide range of theoretical arguments about our world and our society as it at the same time spotlights the favorite pasttimes of websites like CollegeHumor.com, but additionally for the fact that it metacritically fails succeeding to do so. That is, in brief, as it succeeds in creating the pandering that it itself simultaneously critiques, it ereberotically ingests itself and attempts to block out any serious effective critique (e. g., "Does it succeed in making its point?," "Does it have no point to make?"); this year no other film, I guarantee you, will protest such a quandary of appetites.
However, despite this near contradiction of elements, it leaves itself vulnerable to effective critique in at least this one small area: its faulty structure: As a tale designed to manifest the best of the worst of people who are either too ignorant or too ignorant to know the difference, it remains true to its course throughout; but it makes the fatal error of having to graft onto itself, in order to justify the pretense of its being protagonized by a homosexual wannabe-star, a character-arc that defies the power of the meaty scenes by interceding among them, especially before and after them, the awkward but then required instances of this gay anti-hero's steps on his quest for meaning - however shallow that meaning may be. Thus Brüno hampers itself, by creating this characterized funnel into its argument as statically a gay one, and so, as that sort of funnel is the only means by which we the audience can view and access its more encompassing scenes, we are forced by default to reframe all included content with the perspective "subversive anti-homophobic critique" - or else let it all fall into the tawdry and diminishing categorization "gay minstrel show," a phrase which has been bandied about here and there in the online critical world as hashtags are quipped in Twitter. Needless to say now, such a reframing of the argument effectively voids the power of those scenes extraneous to it, a voiding that makes the otherwise gasp-inducing knock-out that was Paula Abdul, sitting on a Mexican (who was posed as furniture) while simultaneously waxing on about her poetic devotion to human dignity, nothing more than a mere exiguous curiosity.


With such exiguities popping up on a regular basis throughout the majority of the film, especially in its leading portion, Brüno struggles throughout its run to gain itself a consistent footing. On one hand, it has rich social content critiquing posturing, pretense, and intolerance - bar none - at every turn; but on the other hand, it has a damaging cleft, self-imposed into its cohesion, that effectively splits apart what is solid anti-homophobic critique (i. e., critique condign with the scope of the film's argument) from what is loose anti-other critique (i. e., critique exiguous from the scope of the film's argument). And, without ever firmly landing on one or the other side of the split, the film continually represents a division that, when noticed, begins its slow but inevitable disintegration into a clump of dissonant little bits.

However, this division may have been repaired - without the need for rich-content--loss - if, instead of employing such a flimsy, imposed character arc as that of the shallow, chaotic, and silly Brüno to recount its many included social offenses, Mr. Baron Cohen had employed a more encompassing premise: a philanthropic misanthrope amending the universe, let's say, for, truly, how could we better point all the multidirectional spines in Brüno than by arraying them under this unifying headline:
If you give me your attention, I will tell you what I am:
I'm a genuine philanthropist - all other kinds are sham.
Each little fault of temper and each sociäl defect
In my erring fellow creatures I endeavour to correct.
To all their little weaknesses I open people's eyes
And little plans to snub the self-sufficient I devise;
I love my fellow creatures - I do all the good I can -
Yet ev'rybody says I'm such a disagreeable man!
And I can't think why! (W. S. Gilbert, Princess Ida [1884])
And the identities could go on (e. g., "To compliments inflated I've a withering reply / And vanity I always do my best to mortify [...; Gilbert, 1884]), to show an undeniable alignment of ambition. Clearly Mr. Baron Cohen should have taken a cue from his intellectual predecessor, W. S. Gilbert, an anthropologist of sorts who similarly took pleasure in calling upon the various self-extremified niches of society for their figurative, comical shootings before the mass-audiences to which they belonged, in brilliant attempts to cure them of their societal or interpersonal ills punctually, without their even knowing it. With such a cue, Mr. Baron Cohen may have been able to avoid the argumentative error of restricting himself to one particular type of ill in declaration, so that he would have been better able to serve and remonstrate all the niches that he has mined (e. g., money/fame-hungry, near-abusive parents as featured in Brüno's auditions for baby-models; beer-blinded, near-rioting fans as populating the proto-violent crowd at Brüno's final showdown; and ethically flimsy, nearly hypocritical "celebrittantes" [i. e., celebrities-dilettantes] as portrayed by Paula Abdul doing what was in this review aforementioned). "Mortified," yes, is what all these would-be people must be by watching their peers and colleagues' conduct themselves as they in the film do - and urged to change, perhaps, they may be too - but compelled to change by a film whose premise excludes them from the figurative gunpoint one can hardly expect them to seriously be, because - hey - they weren't the ones in the spotlight.

Yet, for even those who were in the spotlight (i. e., the homophobic members of the Brüno's audience), Brüno fails to hit the mark. In an ideal sequence that reads "Line 'em up and knock 'em down and (by having done so) teach 'em to never pose that way again," an exposeur by his public exposé gets his targets' peers and fans unawares to question, reconsider, and even regret their own socially governed actions and reactions because of their identity to those just exposed as - at the very least - off. In Brüno, Mr. Baron Cohen by his purposefully provocative scenes of phenomena like eccentric gay sex; irreverently (or decidedly a-traditionally) depicted religious imagery (i. e., the resultant photographs of the auditions for baby-models); and - most significantly - the uncovered, non--comically-exaggerated, and readily apparent human penis...neglects to encourage such self-reflection in his audience. Wait: You're saying that the film doesn't even attempt to achieve that sort of self-reflexive questioning - no less, regretting - in its audience? The film, so ripe with opportunities by which to subtly enfold perspectival changes into the fabric of a society, chooses to do nothing but reconfirm extant stereotypes? The film, specifically designed to address the pandemic of homophobia braided into that "moral fabric," shies away from recognizing the visual presentation of homosexual interactions and even potentially proto-homosexual displays (e. g., the readily apparent penis) as anything other than comic fodder, effectively upholding such displays' receptions as ritual absurdities rather than shifting those receptions toward normalization? In other words, the film encourages its audience to laugh at an exposed penis or to be shocked by irreverent religious imagery, as if those were the exclusively appropriate reactions to such displays? Yes, to all of the above. (See the footnote for more on this particular subject.)

But wait: Why would this film by such an otherwise daring filmmaker become so counterproductive against its own primary motivations? I confess, I cannot think of a reason. It's not as if it would have been the first American film to show an unadorned, unexaggerated, and readily apparent penis to the American mass-audience; I can recall and recommend as recent as Mr. Jason Segel in his own Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) for abolishing that in-truth tiny barrier in film - and for doing so within his film's first several minutes(!). And, with Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), David Kross in Stephen Daldry's The Reader (2008), Daniel Radcliffe in Equus (2008), and Billy Crudup (even if digitally redrawn) in Zack Snyder's The Watchmen (2009) also baring themselves to the public, nor would Brüno have been the second, third, fourth, or even fifth major production in recent memory to have done so. Ironically, the film that was flaunted as going where other films would never go does not go where it probably most needs to. So then: Why should we believe you, Mr. Baron Cohen; why should we heed what you say, laugh at your pointed jokes, when you can't even bring yourself to stand outside of the band of misguided, hypocritical blokes, at whom you aim your comically guised pistol, and confront without awkwardness, without the need for comforting humor, or without the need to cut quickly away the plain issue at hand?

Despite all its attempts at being definitive, Brüno's figurative gun ultimately backfires. By comically slamming with one hand the real issues that with the other hand it foments, the film sticks its finger in the mouth of the figurative fire-arm that it raises against a rather significant societal ill, one that, instead of being shot down, is therefore ironically okayed by the film. With such an ereberotic and locked posture, that forces the audience to simultaneously disregard the side-show antics of those scenes without the film's thesis as fray the fibers of the mainstage-show that is the film's thesis, Brüno ultimately trips itself up, both structurally and cohesively, and becomes - though perhaps the most difficult film to parse this year - the least worthwhile once itself exposed.

Grade: C-/D+.

Footnote: American cinema has long upheld a double-standard regarding depicted nudity in film, an almost inviolate standard that reads something like, When it comes to genitalia plainly exposed, the female body is easy and fair game but the male body is utterly verböten - unless of course it's to be laughed at. Numerous articles have been printed documenting this unspoken rule of cinema, articles in both online fora [e. g., this article from The Orion] and official academia [e. g., this book by Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, Tempe]; and Brüno, like so many other films, fits right in to the discourse. That is, it makes no pains about featuring a woman's breasts and even vagina by choosing to show one very well-endowed woman standing fully exposed for several unbroken minutes in front of the camera; but it does make pains to avoid showing with any jot of equality a man's penis and testicles. Instead, it either artificially blurs them out of visibility - as if to say, These images of all our outrageous images are truly over the line - such as in that same aforementioned scene, with the exposed woman, or artificially dehumanizes them as sterile, unattached comic props - as if to say, These forms are ridiculous entities, impossible to be viewed humorlessly and intelligently, as belonging to a real, thinking person - such as when, in the staged pre-screening of Bruno's television show, the film first detaches them from the rest of a body (i. e. notably, from a face), then places them behind a second layer of "protection" for the audience (i. e., behind the glass of a television screen behind the canvass of the filmic screen), and finally renders them entirely absurd and exorbitant (i. e., by making the penis whirl about, as if an amusement, as well as "speak"). These scenes inarguably do little to nothing to demolish that double-standard but much to uphold it, stratifying the sexes before sexual equality and - frankly - serving as the bedrock for homophobia's widely unassailed construction in our society.

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