Monday, July 13, 2009

Some Thoughts on Brüno (Spoilers Ahead)

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.


  1. The psychic guy doesn't freak, but he does close his eyes. But I do agree, it's not as extreme as Ron Paul or the hunters freaking out.

  2. I have heard of the ex-gay ministries, but it occurs to me that they seem to be more about "straightening out" gay men. Are they equally concerned with lesbians, or is male homosexuality so much more threatening to that population?

  3. Joanna, considering the amount of porn featuring women having sex with women that is aimed at straight men, I'd say that male homosexuality is considered a much, much stronger threat. Lesbians are hot!

  4. Great post, Nels. I did "enjoy" the reactions by people at the Sraight Dave event. I thought: this is how ridiculous heterosexual insistence ("pride") is! I kind of wanted to see something more done at the this point—though I'm not sure what I wanted out of the scene. But it was funny.

    Related to regionalism and your pondering: "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."

    For me, it isn't a fear that this stuff happens in my own state(s), it's the knowledge that it does. It's that time after time homophobia is presented as rural, Southern, and backward, and it'd be nice if urban centers weren't portrayed consistently as more progressive and safe. I guess it's less of a critique of the film than a fatigue of the larger cultural assumptions. I was particularly attuned to it when I wrote about that because I saw it with a friend from Texas.

  5. Michael, I want to be clear that nothing I said was directed at you. Your post just got me thinking about these things. I think Borat really did empahsize that he was talking about the South, what with the constant focus on the map of where he was driving, which made it clear that he was talking about a particular place in a way that this one didn't.

    And you're right that it would be great to see something that digs at urban centers, but I think we won't see it because of many reasons, including what I said about the fact that protestors would be out in those places. The bigots have to hide a bit more since they know they will be confronted more directly, but that's true in the South, too. I can't see something like Straight Dave happening in Houston. Twenty years ago, we were quite attuned to what was happening in the metro area and often on top of things. And that was just with phone trees and word of mouth, so I'm betting it would be more intense now.

    That would be the challenge, to show bigotry in all places.

  6. haha, after I posted my comment, I thought it might be read as defensive. I didn't take your post as directed at me at all. No worries. :)

    You're right, it would be challenging to show/reveal bigotry in all places.

  7. oh, and I want to revise what I said earlier. I do think there is a fear of this happening in other states, in addition to the knowledge. I too quickly dismissed the fear aspect. I don't know what's all going on. Part of it is definitely fear or suspicion.

  8. Thanks for posting your thoughts on the've definitely given me a new and compelling pov. Just saw it today and was sure that the majority of scenes were pre-arranged. How could they not be? But maybe you're right that the film's all about exposing what many straight people are quick to think. Although there were some scenes (the hunting trip) where I'm not sure where they were hiding the camera.

  9. Bill, the camera was often in plain view because participants were told that this was for a European documentary. So, now that I think about it, maybe that makes it harder to think this was all a joke? They trusted why the camera was there? But even if they thought it was for a documentary, I think they could still question what was happening if it felt unreal to them.

  10. Somehow I missed the European documentary thing. I know that was the deal with Borat, but not Bruno. Hmm, thanks for the heads up.

  11. I watched the movie yesterday in a Brussels cinema, with a sizeable gay representation in the crowd. The reaction from the audience was one of horrified titilation and incredulity, but always with full sympathy for the Bruno character, mixed with some pity for the Mexican chair people. When the movie ended, there was loud applause, something that never happens here.

    I like your argument that this movie was about exposing the gulf between straight and gay men, and all the ways we men (straight and gay) exhibit that gulf.

    It was not a movie I was looking forward to. Cohen's work is always painful to watch, often very predictable and always, since the start of his Ali G Show, designed to unmask through offence. But it was surprisingly easier to watch than Borat, and the old Ali G stuff.

    In short: Bruno is an instant classic, one of the best movies of this century so far, and a powerful social statement as well as a horrid, horrid comedy.