OK, so maybe the title of this post is a bit over the top. But the new movie from Sacha Baron-Cohen (aka Ali G, aka Borat), which portrays him as a gay Austrian television presenter, has the stated aim of providing cultural analysis. His goal is to shed light on inconsistent prejudice. Lofty goals indeed. Unfortunately, he fails to do so. In fact, he may do the opposite of his intention.
Probably the best review I have read of the movie comes from Toby Young of The Spectator. See what you think…
Wednesday, 8th July 2009
As funny as Bruno undoubtedly is, Baron-Cohen’s film is fundamentally dishonest
One of the funniest scenes in Bruno is when Sacha Baron-Cohen, playing the gay Austrian television presenter, appears on a talk show in Texas called The Richard Bey Show. The African-American audience is none too impressed when he tells them he’s looking for a black male partner to help him raise his African baby — and is even more outraged when the baby is brought out wearing a ‘Gayby’ T-shirt. ‘He’s a real dick magnet,’ Bruno explains. The audience is then shown a picture of the child in a hot tub with four other men, two of whom are performing a sex act. ‘You’re going to burn in hell for that one,’ shouts a member of the audience.
When I watched this scene during a screening earlier this week I laughed as loudly as everyone else, but afterwards it left a sour taste in my mouth. What is its purpose, exactly, beyond making people laugh? According to Universal Pictures, the Hollywood studio behind the film, ‘Bruno uses provocative comedy to powerfully shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia.’ But that’s a bit of a stretch. After all, Baron-Cohen doesn’t ‘shed light’ on the homophobia of this African-American audience so much as provoke them into a homophobic reaction — and he keeps pushing and pushing until they finally snap. In any case, it isn’t clear that objecting to a baby being present while a homosexual act is performed is ‘homophobic’. I daresay the audience would have responded similarly if it was a man and a woman having sex instead.
Once you strip away the supposedly high-minded intentions of Baron-Cohen and his collaborators, the scene in question begins to seem uncomfortably snobbish, not to say a little racist. A sophisticated, metropolitan audience is being invited to laugh at poor Southern blacks for not having the wherewithal to conceal their visceral disgust when being confronted by someone who looks suspiciously like a pederast. If the purpose of satire is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, then Bruno doesn’t qualify as satire. On the contrary, Baron-Cohen is comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.
But this isn’t the biggest shortcoming of the film. The real problem with Bruno is that it is fundamentally dishonest. Take the above scene. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that The Richard Bey Show hasn’t been on the air since 1996. The filmmakers have had to create an entirely fictional talk show in order to stage this scene and yet it is presented as a real television programme. If the show is fake, how can we be sure that audience members are genuine? Are some of them, in fact, actors pretending to be ‘homophobes’? And if that’s the case, Baron-Cohen isn’t ‘shedding light’ on the ‘intolerance and ignorance’ of African-Americans, so much as saddling them with racial stereotypes.
As far as I could tell, the Richard Bey studio audience was the real McCoy, but there are several other scenes in the film in which the supposedly real people being taken in by Baron-Cohen are actors. For instance, there’s a scene in which Bruno is asking a stage mother a series of provocative questions in order to determine how far she’s prepared to go to get her baby cast in a film. If it turns out her 30lb baby is ‘too fat’ for the role, would she be prepared to put him on a diet so that he loses 10lb in the course of a week? Yes, she says. And if he hasn’t lost the full 10lbs, would she be prepared to give her baby liposuction? Once again, the answer’s yes. That can’t possibly be true — what mother would countenance such treatment of her baby? — yet the scene depends for its humour on the audience believing the mother is real. Once it dawns on you that the mother is being played by an actress, the laughter dies in your throat. More importantly, it loses its satirical point: we’re witnessing an actress playing a cultural stereotype created by Baron-Cohen and his co-writers to confirm their prejudices about what stage mothers are like.
In my estimation, at least a third of the scenes in Bruno are stunted up in this way. It is not the people on camera who are being gulled, but the people in the cinema. I don’t wish to sound like a prude, but it is objectionable that Baron-Cohen is essentially lying to us. And this dishonesty is a much more basic and straightforward moral defect than any of the shortcomings — intolerance, homophobia, etc — that Baron-Cohen supposedly draws attention to in the film.
Source: The Spectator