Bruno: The Folly and the Geniusby Roger Young / 13.07.2009
We’ll assume that you’ve seen Bruno by now. First off, if you’re offended by anything that happens in Bruno you are an idiot, which is kind of the point. Secondly, what Sascha Baron Cohen is trying to do is not so much entertainment but more like activism. Stealth activism. The fact that one of the many things he deflates during the course of Bruno is celebrity activism shows either his deep dedication to, or his deep disregard for, his own message.
Essentially, one has to look at SBC’s approach as a natural extension of the Method espoused by the Strasberg studio in the fifties, an approach to acting that defined Marlon Brando’s style and much of the early careers of De Niro and Pacino. SBC has taken this much further than merely becoming a character to tell a story. He inhabits hysterical stereotypical roles in order to explore society’s perception of those stereotypes. There is a lot of “uncomfortable” comedy about these days – Ricky Gervais’s Extras and Zach Galifianakis’s talk show, Between Two Ferns, to name two. But most of it is staged and seems to have those difficult moments as the end game. With Bruno the end game is nothing short of shokabuku, a swift spiritual kick to the head.
The character of Bruno does not represent an actual gay man, but is rather a pastiche of various preconceptions of gay men, taken to the extreme. SBC uses Bruno the Austrian fashion TV presenter’s desire for fame as a way of exploring just how far people are willing to go to get their chance at celebrity. And he does so by using Bruno as a conduit for other people to grab at stardom, from fashion models to parents to priests. Many times during the movie we are reminded that there is a camera filming all of it, because there are many moments where people slowly realize that their boundaries are being pushed and try to shut the camera down, or try to get the camera out of the room. It may be incredibly humorous but how effective is this approach really?
At the public screening I attended, four people walked out in the first twenty minutes. There were more to follow. SBC seems not to want to change the headspaces of those that do not get the joke, however if you get the joke your headspace does not need to be changed. This is Bruno’s central failing as a work of activism. But (mostly) he does not use his subjects as mere amusement; there seems to be a central message that could simply be that this level of intolerance is still out there.
It’s interesting to note that an interview with LaToya Jackson was cut from the film after her brother’s death. It would have been easy for SBC to trade on this interview to give his film more buzz. It shows that his approach is not merely shock for shock’s sake, even though there are sometimes obvious lapses from this method, and that he is not out to case harm purely for enrichment. And even though it may piss off more than enlighten its targets, that is the only because, clearly, many of his targets are beyond engaging in reasonable debate
You could consider Bruno as a deeply subversive film or merely a shock comedy that goes for laughs at any cost. The genius of SBC is that he doesn’t provide answers to these questions. And, for his amazing preparation and risk-taking, you have got to admire his balls and, of course, his talking penis.
Click here for an interview with SBC on how he got the interview with a terrorist.