As my status updates on Twitter/Facebook have shown, we saw Brüno last week, and I loved it. I'm not saying it didn't have problems and that thinking about it hasn't shown me some problems, but at the time of watching it, I laughed a lot and was eagerly awaiting each new scene to see what would happen next. And I have to be upfront about why I think I enjoyed sitting in the theater and watching this movie: I think the entire point of Brüno is to make straight men uncomfortable, and that's fun to watch.
There are other things going on in parts of this film, of course, including a focus on the middle east and on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but the bulk of the film takes the extreme, ridiculous stereotypes that the straight world has of gay men and shoves them in the face of those men, literally. There's scene after scene of Brüno engaging in extreme activities. And what is so fascinating is that the men take it so seriously. Anyone who has ever seen a hidden-camera show knows that there is often a moment where the person not in on the joke stops, smiles, and says, "Is this real? Is this a joke? Is there a hidden camera somewhere?" But you never see anyone in this film do that. Now, it's possible that someone did it but it didn't show up in the film. But I really believe that a majority of the people on whom Baron Cohen plays his jokes fully believed that they were seeing men engaged in real and true acts.
My point? The film argues that straight men will easily believe the worst about gay men, and Larry Charles and Sascha Baron Cohen fill the film with scene after scene to support their claim. Now, I am aware that the film only proves that the men in the film believe the worst and not that all straight men believe it. And, yes, some of my best friends are straight men, and I know that many straight men don't believe the worst. But I think this film argues that many straight men do easily believe it.
When Brüno flirts with a straight man, you don't see laughter or hear a comment like "Is this a joke?" You don't even hear a polite, "Sorry, that's not for me." Why don't they catch on that it's a joke? After decades of shows like Candid Camera and Punk'd, why does doubt never get expressed? And more than that, if they do believe it, why do they react so extremely? You see anger. You see fear.
There is one scene that I found interesting because of the lack of a reaction. Brüno goes to see a psychic, and he ends up miming an incredibly graphic sex scene complete with oral sex, analingus, and ejaculation. It goes on and on. And the psychic? He just sits there quietly and politely while Brüno goes through the extended sequence of acts. It's the least poignant scene in the film, I think. That is the only quiet man in the bunch. And maybe he's not straight. Maybe he thinks it's a joke. Maybe he doesn't care. But it's interesting that he's the only person I can think of who does not freak.
Now, the martial arts teacher is polite, yes. But he never challenges the idea that gay men would attack differently than a straight man. He either believes that gay men would attack "normal people" differently or is eager to play along with the idea.
Of course, the entire film builds to the big scene of Straight Dave's Man Slammin' Max Out, where a room filled with men and women cheer in a celebration of heterosexuality. At Brüno's (or Straight Dave's) encouragement, they chant, "My asshole's just for shitting!" They even show a guy wearing a t-shirt that says it. Da Man and I wondered if he was given that shirt by producers or if they were for sale outside the arena and the guy bought one. We think the latter but are certainly willing to be proven wrong. No matter what, he wore it willingly and openly, as did the other guys in other shirts. And when Brüno and his partner start kissing, the audience is shocked and angry. And everyone shown on screen conveys an expression that shows they believe in the authenticity of the event. Yes, maybe there were people who thought, "Oh, this must be joke" and started laughing or smiling or whatever. But there were plenty of men (and women) eager to scream and cry. And throw things. They did not just want their money back or to leave quietly. Many of them seemed to want revenge.
I think this is the discussion the film wants to encourage. Yes, I think he wants to shock us and make money and all that he's been criticized of doing. But he could do that in lots of ways. And I think he chose to focus on Brüno knowing that we'd have a helluva time talking about what's going on.
Michael brought up some great points about race and regionalism. Knowing I'm from the South, some people have already asked me if I was offended by the scenes in Alabama and Arkansas, but I wasn't. And I'm usually pretty reticent to laugh at characterizations of the ignorant South. I think he goes to the ex-gay ministry in Alabama because he found someone there willing to speak publicly more easily. I know of one ex-gay ministry in Ohio and one in Indiana that go under vague names and do not advertise publicly, but I've seen signs advertising ex-gay ministries in Mississippi and Alabama. I don't think he intended to stereotype the South a certain way, or it wasn't a major intention (not that he should be forgiven if it happens while unintended). I read that the military scenes were with the Alabama National Guard, but that's never said in the movie. And the Straight Dave scene happens in Arkansas, but that is only mentioned quickly by the announcer. There's no text or image that sets up the place for us. I think producers are often vague about place because they don't want us to focus on where it happened over what happens.
I think anyone who thinks these things would just happen in the South are mistaken. The scenes in Arkansas and Alabama happened there because producers could easily find people willing to express negative opinions about gay men so openly, and I think those people can be found across the United States. I would be willing to bet that they exist from sea to shining sea. And the crowd at Straight Dave's? I've heard people say that they could see it happening near their homes in central Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. I wonder if one reason why people are so eager to criticize the film for portraying the South in a certain way do so because of a fear, conscious or unconscious, that the same things could happen in their own state. And if they don't happen in urban centers, it's not because people are more enlightened. It's because there are also a sizable number of people who will confront such ignorance. In rural places? Those people are not more ignorant than others. There just might be fewer people willing to confront public displays of ignorance. Having experienced the worst homophobia of my life in Massachusetts and experienced some of the greatest kindness in Texas, I fell confident that bigoted thinking exists everywhere. It's the public display of it (or the public confrontation) that might be different in different places.
I'm going to be very curious to see what comes of this film. I think many people will be afraid to talk about it, and I think many will just be ready to dismiss it outright. But I think a rich discussion will evolve in some circles, too.