Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bruno - Iconoclasm writ large

Sacha Baron Cohen's latest swipe at the universe as we know it, is through the medium of his alter ego - Bruno, a gay Austrian who wants to be the most famous person in the world. The film, using a methodology similar to Borat - that of a travelogue - takes in a very wide range of situational moments: fashion shows; auditions for movies; attempted talk show hostings; charity work; advice with gay conversion specialists; peace-making in Palestine; hunting expeditions; appearances on chat shows in the Deep South aimed at African American audiences, with a black baby that he claimed he exchanged for an iPod. The list of standard, but manipulated situations turned on their heads, goes on. The scenes which work the best are those where he places himself in the firing line - with Hasidic Jews; coming on to three desperately straight backwoods hunters; meeting with a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. These are life-threatening situations. I don't know what one feels at the end of them. And the laughter the scene evokes is certainly tinged with alarm, verging on hysteria.

What makes him such a genius, in my estimation, is neither the plot (which is palpable bullshit) nor the acting (which is scrupulously obvious). What makes his genius is his un-erring eye for the uncomfortable issue and the uncomfortable situation. This is a man who understands, more than rest of us, the basis of prejudice and the kind of illogical and incomprehensible violence which prejudice can (and almost always does) bring about.

It is not a film for the under-exposed. If you have any issues - any issues at all - about penises, or sex toys, or race, or queens, or gay people, or gay sex, or porn, or religion - don't go an see this movie. Buy some pop-corn and get a nice DVD. Or choose another one. Any other one, but not this one. Because this one will offend you. It will offend you so much that you will walk out. So trust me, skip it. But if you don't have any issues about things like that, then go and see it and be prepared to have your mettle tested. There is a scene towards the end of the movie, involving cage fighting in Fort Smith, Arkansas, for instance, where the potential for violence is so palpable, with the audience so worked up and enraged, that the effect is completely unnerving.

The audience tonight was fairly young, and some of the in-house responses to the multitude of situations were fairly predictable. Responses, for instance, to some of the really outlandish and utterly explicit gay stuff, from a mostly young audience, was mostly one of astonishment and disbelief. But I would estimate that for your ordinary everyday straight thrill-seeking kewl teenager, the experience must have been fairly harrowing and undoubtedly uncomfortable. Cohen takes no prisoners. There is no-where to hide.

But the lesson in this kind of iconoclasm, is that society is completely riven with prejudice. Of course, it is American society, which is particularly under the spotlight here, but the transposition to our own society is so slight, so minuscule, that you would need to be completely idiotic not to see it. The film is about the adventures of a gay Austrian in middle America, but it easily could be about a lesbian Nigerian in Soweto. And the "gay" issue is simply the medium to mine the vein of societal hegemony. It provides us with a tool to investigate what we all know is there, but perhaps need something like this to expose. It confronts us, in the way good art does. It worries us, and it won't let us be.

There is a kind of denouement at the end of the movie, which indicates the underlying intention of the movie. It is in the form of a song sung by well known, credible personalities, who sing a duet with the character Bruno. Because, despite the over-the-top characterisation and situational mayhem, underlying the movie is the mind of a man who seems to be able to see through the whole hegemonic grip of what is considered normal in the world in which we live.

There was a smattering of applause for the movie, as we all scrambled for the doors. Almost like what sometimes happens after a really bumpy landing. The applause is something like a cross between relief, joy and appreciation that we are not mangled wrecks, but can get out of the plane and carry on with our lives.

I felt lighter of foot, after leaving the cinema. Not in a Pollyanna kind of way. It was much more grown up than that. The man is, like many that went before him, distasteful, but prophetic.

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