Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hype, the void, and the design to appall: notes on Bruno

"What but design of darkness to appall?" --Robert Frost

1) I mostly felt suckered after watching Bruno. I did laugh in places, but I agree with Ramin Setoodeh of Newsweek: the film is depressing and it leaves a nasty aftertaste. Once one gets beyond the extensive media blitz, all of the magazine covers, Bruno's appearances on many talk shows, etc., and actually watch the movie, one realizes how little is actually there: a brief series of vignettes designed to appall. Bruno is an elaborate stunt, a good example of how we crave distraction, anything in the face of the void. It makes sense in a way that Bruno promoted his film on David Letterman by calling it "It's like Transformers, but not as gay," because both films' extremity call attention to the special quality of modern-day 2009 media boredom. The larger the robots get, the louder the explosions, the greater the hype around a fundamentally empty movie, the more one gets a sense of the void encroaching on all of this fury. Wasn't it in Mike Judge's Idiocracy that people of the future will spend an entire movie looking at a sustained shot of someone's butt? Well, Bruno moves us a little closer to that culmination. As he arranges to make other people look like jackasses, Sacha Baron Cohen makes himself the biggest jackass, and the biggest jackass earns the most attention. By earning the most attention, the biggest jackass wins.

2) Insofar as regular people participate in Bruno, willingly or unwillingly, the film left me wondering about the human cost involved. Comedy often dwells on people's lewd body parts and animalistic functions, but Sacha Baron Cohen's work also emphasizes how the camera lens can function like a petri dish in which anything or anyone can twitch, flinch, or flounder about trapped under the microscope of an audience's attention. Anyone who finds him or herself unwillingly broadcast on YouTube knows what this is like, and as surveillance cameras and paparazzi proliferate, the potential for greater and greater abuse of this technology grows daily. Accustomed to being in front of the camera lens, movie stars know all about this (so there was some pleasure in watching Harrison Ford simply shout "Fuck off!" and walk away from Bruno in one brief scene), but the more the movie stars back away, the more the average American with his or her ordinary looks actually wants to appear in a major Hollywood movie. So, in effect, Bruno celebrates the Jerry Springerification of postmodern life, where your average Joe debases himself for his fifteen seconds of fame. In some cases, these people don't want to appear, so someone cajoles them into it, and then, once they see what Cohen has done with this international media-sized mockery over and over, they may sue. There's no telling the human wreckage that a film like Bruno leaves behind, but audiences don't care because it is funny. Bruno is like Roman gladiatorial fights of human debasement. Sometimes, the targets seem worthy of the scorn, such as in the case of the men committed to converting Bruno to heterosexuality, but after awhile, it might seem that everyone and everything in this kind of film deserves scorn. So we can laugh at Bono and Sting (both looking their age) and Elton John (sitting on a Mexican) and Slash and Snoop Dog. By wanting to appear in the movie, everyone, including celebrities, becomes another butt of the joke.

3) In a way, it seems perfect that I first saw Cohen as Ali G in Madonna's "Music" video. Like Madonna, Cohen uses different personas, the media, and sexual "pushing people's buttons" tactics to gain attention. His tactics are just more extreme.

4) If you'd like to be exempt from this hellish cycle of mockery, Cohen makes it difficult because he includes several examples of audience reactions in this movie, and by doing so he mocks audience's feelings of dismay, horror, shock, and so on. This is the peculiar jiu jitsu of his technique. By arranging it so that we have already laughed at the more prudish people on screen, he blackmails the viewer into approval. Many do not want to appear homophobic or square or repressed. Those people are not in on the joke. So the only thing is to guiltily laugh along in a mean-spirited way at all of the people being used, like Eminem after the MTV music awards show, and then feel besmirched afterward.

4 comments:

JUS said...

Many of your comments could also be applied to Borat. I found myself embarrassed to have become part of the joke!

Hokahey said...

Well said. I saw Borat and from the previews for Bruno I imagined it would be exactly as you put it here. You saved me from that bad aftertaste you describe.

Rick Olson said...

fine piece, filmDr. I hated myself for laughing at Borat, and will not go see this one either.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, JUS, Hokahey, and Rick.

I did find it interesting that Bruno attempted "carbicide" at one point by eating massive amounts of pastries in a restaurant. That's the third time I've seen binge eating in a recent Hollywood release (along with Land of the Lost and
Drag Me to Hell. Is this the new sick compulsion du jour?