Guilty Laughter in the Dark
Believe it or not, I have seen Brüno twice at the movie theater since it opened two weeks ago. I went the first time not really knowing what to expect because I had never seen a Sacha Baron Cohen movie before. I knew it would be funny. I knew it would be outrageous. I knew it would push buttons. I was pretty sure I would get some good laughs out of it (even if they were politically incorrect laughs), but I really wanted to see it because I wanted to see what all the controversy was about. I’ll be honest with you. I laughed my ass off both times I saw the movie, but I also will concede that my laughter was not without a minor dose of guilt lurking over my shoulder from all those people who see Brüno as cinematic gay bashing. Every time I laughed at, say, Brüno getting his anus bleached or swapping his iPod for a black baby, I had to ask myself, “Am I wrong for finding this funny?” In fact, that needling voice of controversy even led me to believe that I wasn’t enjoying the movie as much as I was. By the end of the movie, I had proclaimed that there were even too many ass jokes for me in the movie (and that’s saying something because I love a good ass joke.) By the time I finished watching 81 minutes of Sacha Baron Cohen bending over or baring his butt thong or squirting a fire extinguisher up his pygmy flight attendant boyfriend’s arse, I thought that even I had my fill of butt jokes. When the movie closed with its uplifting celebratory gay-positive song performed by the likes of Snoop Dog, Sting, Bono, Elton John and Brüno, I was reluctant to embrace Brüno, and my response to the movie remained tepid. I wasn’t sure what my stand on it was. Did I like it? Did I not like it?
I knew one thing for sure. I had no intention of writing about it because I didn’t want to get caught up in the controversial brouhaha. Is Brüno good for the gay agenda or bad for the gay agenda? Is Brüno critiquing homophobia or promoting it? Then I saw the movie a second time, and I realized one thing. I loved it. That first explosion of excessive anus jokes and cock wagging seemed as tame as a kitten’s fart. Not only that, but I realized that Brüno intentionally manipulates the audience to inspire controversy and that my initial response and all the debates about it in the press are exactly what the movie is set out to provoke. The reason that I was questioning whether I liked the movie or disliked the movie is because Brüno comes from a split perspective that makes us wear two different hats. For the first half of the movie, we see Brüno through the eyes of homophobes. For the second half of the movie, we experience the horrors of heteros through the eyes of Brüno. Using this split perspective and an egregiously politically incorrect representation of a gay man, Brüno plays heteros against homos, homos against heteros, and homos against homos. It manipulates the audience into experiencing a gamut of responses from disgust and horror, to uncomfortable embarrassment, to riotous humor, and finally to sympathetic understanding and compassion (with a big chuckle). No one is left unscathed in watching this film. Regardless of what side of the fence you’re on – pro-gay or anti-gay – Brüno fucks with your head and your perspective by working both sides of the fence in one film.
Certainly the movie dives head first into the offenses. We are introduced to Uber Fashionista Brüno who is an overt fashion fag. Seeing this homosexual through a homophobic lens, he’s every homophobe’s nightmare come true. What does this gay man do? Well, he spends all day and night having or trying to have deviant sex, of course, because isn’t that what gay men do? Deviant sex includes, but is not limited to, the use of dildos, fire extinguishers, champagne bottles, dust busters, blow jobs, hand jobs, finger jobs, and tongue jobs. Apparently when you are a gay man, you live for fucking and sucking. This is shown in a number of hilarious, completely over-the-top scenes in which Brüno performs all variety of anal sex with his pygmy boyfriend, wags his bare cock on the television screen for a horrified hetero audience, and gives an air-blowjob to the ghost of Milli Vinilli. The air-blowjob scene is particularly brilliant. Performed in complete silence (no music, sound effects, dialogue or other sounds to intrude on our experience of the act), Brüno meticulously sucks off the ghost of Milli Vinilli (in other words, air) as we watch. Forcing every member of the audience to simultaneously laugh and feel squirmishly uncomfortable, the scene makes everyone feel naked and complicit in the blowjob. If you’re straight, you feel gay. If you’re gay, you feel exposed. But mostly, since there really is no Milli Vinilli and only us, we feel like we are receiving the blowjob as Brüno’s enormous, screen-sized head licks and sucks. In other words, straight or gay, we as the audience are getting a gay blowjob from Brüno, and no one could really deny the potential pleasure of a blowjob, right? It’s a brilliant move and a bravura performance. Sure, between champagne bottle anal sex, disco porn dancing cocks, and air blow-jobs, these scenes promote totally offensive stereotyping of the gay man, but it’s supposed to be offensive and egregious. We can’t explore homophobia in any guises until we look it in the face (even when the face happens to be “virtually” sucking us off).
If you haven’t been made suitably uncomfortable yet, there is more to come. Let me also remind you, in case you forgot, that the gay man and his deviant behavior are dangerous to Family Values. We know this because Brüno is obviously pro-abortion as depicted in a hilarious politically incorrect scene when Brüno and his skanky talk show guest look at the ultrasound image of Britney Spear’s younger sister’s White Trash Fetus and decide whether to abort or not abort. Not surprisingly, the decision is to abort. You should have heard the gasp of horror from the conservative Christian audience in the Tucson theater where I saw the movie. Apparently, to certain constituencies, air blowjobs are much more acceptable than abortion. The movie also reminds us that gays are antithetical to Family Values when Büno swaps his iPod for an African black baby who he ships home on a plane in a perforated cardboard box. To top it off, Brüno carries the baby on the handle bars of his Vespa, dresses him in a shirt that says Gayby, and includes his baby in his hot tub homosexual orgies, which of course feature anal licking. What kind of father is this man? Certainly this freak doesn’t have a single Family Value in his system. But we have to remember that we are seeing Brüno through the eyes of those who make gays into monsters. This is how the people who write anti-gay legislation want us to see gays, but Brüno’s extreme parody shows the fallacy of that image. It is clearly a constructed performance way beyond the bounds of reality.
The Brüno we see is filtered through what conservative straight people think homosexual people are, but this Brüno is also pointing the finger at what conservative homosexuals think gay people shouldn’t be. I can understand how some gay people might take offense at such outrageous stereotyping, but we have to remember that we are seeing Brüno in this segment of the movie through the eyes of the homophobe. By depicting Brüno in such a “monstrous” guise (the way that homophobes see gay people), the movie not only calls into question homophobic conditioning in the hetero world of the media, church and politics, but it also calls into question the homophobia within the gay community itself, a community which has become increasingly more conservative for the past fifteen years and in which assimilation, rather than transgression, has become a primary goal. Brüno is not about assimilation. At all. He takes transgression to the Nth degree, and he consciously pushes gay buttons as well as hetero buttons. In other words, besides pitting the homos against the heteros (and vice versa), the movie also pits “good” gays against “bad” gays, good gays being those who assimilate into the status quo and don’t give gays a “bad” name by being big queer queens. There is a clear divide within the gay community between the outrageously flamboyant gay deploying the sexual body as a kind of activist transgression and the “mainstream” assimilated gay who wants to be accepted as part of the status quo within the gay and the hetero community. No wonder there is such a split in the gay community’s response to the movie because the film is very consciously addressing the split within the community.
Let’s get back to those Family Values for a minute. While we experience the horror of Brüno’s parenting practices, we are also asked to look at the hypocrisy of the straight community and their so-called Family Values. One of the most hilariously exposing scenes is one when Brüno interviews parents of small children who he wants to hire for his photography project. A whole range of heterosexual parents have no problem hocking their children for a dollar. Asked if their children would mind being crucified, playing a Nazi, operating heavy antiquated machinery, handling toxic chemicals, or starving themselves to be hired for the job, the parents all nod enthusiastically that it’s not a problem at all. Family Values are one thing, but turning a profit by using your children as commodities is another. These people who offer their children to be crucified next to the Black Baby Christ (“Like a Madonna video,” says one mother) are no doubt the same people casting “no on gay marriage” votes at the ballot box because being gay is against Family Values.
Brüno’s black baby and his disastrous appearance on a shock talk show where he is ripped to shreds by a black audience and has his baby taken away by Child Protective Services brings us to the turning point in the movie, the place where the perspective switches. Up to this point, we have watched Brüno through a homophobic lens. At the point his baby is taken away from him, the perspective shifts, and we watch the hetero world through Brüno’s eyes. Let me tell you what. The hetero world, as seen through Brüno’s eyes, is way more scary than Brüno’s pygmy-fucking, anal-bleaching world. The hetero world is delivered in a variety of guises – Christian homosexual-converters, red neck hunters, a National Guard boot camp, icky swingers, and finally the beer chugging crowd at a cage wrestling hetero fest. While the Christian homosexual counselors (let Jesus save you from your gayness) are fairly innocuous, the places they lead Brüno are not. One suggests that Brüno goes hunting with other men to bond in a safe heterosexual activity. While the scene is funny enough, the tension between Brüno and the hunters is palpable. In a scene where they are all sitting around a campfire and no one is saying anything, the silence and tension is almost as thick as it is in the Milli Vinilli air blowjob scene. While Brüno is funny as he talks about feeling vulnerable, there is a hint of menace and danger in the scene and a sense that Brüno is indeed vulnerable – to violence. The very fact that the scene makes us wonder if Brüno is going to get his head bashed in and left for dead in the woods reminds us that indeed we live in a world where gay men are sometimes found with their heads bashed in and left for dead in the woods. While the hunters seem friendly enough on the surface, there is a sense of underlying threat and menace that isn’t necessarily coming from them as individuals but from them as a collective identity (red neck gay bashing men). Indeed, one of the men finally does come at Brüno violently, but the action is left off screen and when the camera returns to Brüno, we find him all in one piece.
The swinger scene is another story altogether. Brüno attends a swinger party in an attempt to convert and become straight. Never has heterosexual sex looked less attractive. Shot like cheap porno, we bear witness to way too much bare-assed swinger sex than we need to see. Brüno’s champagne bottle and exercycle dildo antics are performance art compared to this ugly display of heterosexuality. One of the things that this scene does, however, is show the hypocrisy within heterosexual swinger communities. While they pride themselves in being transgressive with their multiple sex partners, man-on-man sex is forbidden. Women are expected to be bisexual, because woman-on-woman sex is a hetero man’s ultimate fantasy, but the women have to be bisexual so they can also service the hetero cock. Male homosexuality, however, is met with derision or violence. In one hilarious scene, Brüno asks one of the men at the party to demonstrate sex positions, and the man awkwardly obliges, but when Brüno actually inserts himself into the sexual act, the man threatens Brüno. The violence and monstrosity of heterosexuality culminates when Brüno is apprehended by a plastic surgery frightmare dominatrix who beats Brüno with her belt while wielding her silicone mammary abominations at the screen and demanding that Brüno lick the heel of her boot. The scene is hilarious and scary. When Brüno leaps through a window into the dark night, everyone in the audience, despite their sexual orientation, can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that poor Brüno escaped the nightmare of heterosexual swinging.
When we next see Brüno, he’s dressed like Ted Nugent and playing the star role on an Extreme Cage Fighting television show called Straight Dave. Brüno stands in a cage proclaiming his heterosexuality as the beer-chugging blood-thirsty audience cheers Straight Pride. In this scene, the film’s two perspectives merge as we witness the caged gay man Brüno disguising his homosexuality and the red-faced hate-fueled gay bashers egging him on from outside the cage. Homophobia is an extreme sport, and it’s played out here, as in the rest of the movie, like some kind of crazy reality show. Which side are we on in this movie, and which side is the movie on? Is it fueling the frenzy of hate outside the cage or sympathizing with the man standing inside the cage? In a final act of amazing manipulation, Brüno’s fan/boyfriend Lutz shows up in the cage where first they fight each other and then, to the shock and horror of the audience, they make gay love in front of everyone. The camera closes in on the outraged faces of the audience with all their disgust and hatred oozing from their pores. As Brüno and Lutz kiss, writhe and fondle each other on the stage, they are pummeled with food, chairs, and other objects by the outraged onlookers. On one side of the cage we see “making love” and on the other “making hate.” It is a brilliant point of audience manipulation that turns the previous parade of parodic stereotypes on its head and leads us to sympathize with and cheer for Brüno and his triumph in his gayness.
As the movie closes with Brüno, Lutz and their black baby OJ living happily ever after as an alternative family, and as Elton John, Sting, Bono, Slash and Snoop Dog join Brüno in a hilarious song celebrating tolerance, I don’t think there is any doubt what side the movie is on. What is brilliant is that the movie manages to bring the audience around to sympathetic compassion for Brüno after exploiting his gayness to the max. In the end, the movie merges all perspectives in a goofy moment of sentimental closure that is hard to ignore for anyone who is a sucker for a happy ending, straight or gay. I was sold, after I realized that originally I had been duped by the media response to the movie and by the movie itself.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.