Tuesday, July 14, 2009

BRUNO

One of the oft-mentioned misconceptions about Borat was that it was a work of satirical art that rightfully exposed an underbelly of American bigotry. It didn't. Comedic hitman Sacha Baron Cohen simply cherry-picked pop culture's most acceptable and accessible targets and coaxed them into saying what he wanted them to. There are many moments in Bruno where you can sense Baron Cohen's eyes widening, as if he's lured his prey to the killspot where he wants 'em. "So, what your saying is _______" is the typical summary question Baron Cohen will level at one of his victims after a stream of quick answers to a barrage of quick questions. It's a brilliant way to pigeonhole and categorize the thoughts of a nervous, off-balanced interviewee and then, afterwards, to shape that person into any kind of negative character you desire. Sacha Baron Cohen would make for a great cable TV news pundit.

If you've tired of me bitching about Baron Cohen, I don't blame you a bit, but as long as he keeps turning his terrorist comedy into feature-length films, it is my Blog-given duty to fight that bastard until one of us dies. The thing is, Baron Cohen really comes out limping in Bruno: putting models on the spot about the difficulty of runway walking? Picking on two well-meaning blond women for not knowing where Darfur is?? Telling a gay-to-straight converter that he has good dick-sucking lips??? Yeesh. What's next? Bruno giving a blind person the wrong directions and then stepping back and snickering? I do admit to a kind of satisfaction, though, while watching Bruno, because it truly felt like watching a hack running out of juice. Even the lukewarm critical response to Bruno has been somewhat of a validation (albeit shallow), because - and don't let the face-saving apologists tell you otherwise - Borat and Bruno are the exact same movies. They both suck for the same reasons.

Though the recorded reactions of Bruno's subjects are manipulated in post-production in the same way that your standard reactionary documentary would do it, I'm still amazed at the amazement audiences and critics express when they witness somebody react outrageously to Baron Cohen's outrageousness. Seems pretty in line to me. Are we really supposed to flip out when Ron Paul - in the middle of his Presidential campaign, mind you - flips out after Bruno gets pant less and puts moves on the congressman? Should we seriously feign disbelief after an Alabama hunter can't believe he's been duped into thinking that the naked man forcing his way into his tent genuinely wanted to learn about outdoors-y stuff? Should we truly be frustrated with the swinger who gets frustrated at Bruno for interrupting his c*mshot?

One thing is certain, though, and that's that each one of those men were noticeably embarrassed and humiliated. Of course, the smoking gun in all of those scenarios (save the hunter... as far as I can remember), the "crime" that Baron Cohen intends to hang his justification of invasion on, is the usage of the "Q" word. What Baron Cohen really wants, what his treasure hunt through interview after interview entails, is to catch his subjects on camera using defamatory slang for gays. So, when Ron Paul and the swinger dude both say "queer", Baron Cohen gets his money shot. He's like a mobile paparazzi hiding behind freakish costumes and base makeup waiting for that ultimate upskirt.

"Paparazzi-comedy"... maybe that's the best way to describe Cohen's approach to humor. Whatever it is, it's no surprise that this type of crass entertainment can grab the #1 box-office slot in our TMZ-obsessed culture, it's just a shame that so many should-know-betters continue to praise it. Although, happily, that appears to be shifting. Screw Sacha Baron Cohen and that one-trick pony he rode in on.

25 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: I've been away on vacation, but I did see Bruno. I hope to write a review in the next few days as my fingers remember what a keyboard feels like.

Meantime ...

There was little doubt you were going to hate this film, but I appreciate that your hatred of it and the tactics within are analyzed and well argued here.

However ... while I agree that Cohen is a one-trick pony, I don't necessarily agree that his one trick is always supposed to have the same effect. In other words, sometimes SBC is clearly playing "Gotcha," as in the segment with the two celeb PR chicks who don't know a thing about Darfur but think they do. Other times, however, the comedy is designed only for us to enjoy the discomfort of those in uncomfortable situations. This isn't "gotcha" social commentary; this is akin to Candid Camera or numerous old man-on-the-street Letterman gags. Thus, sometimes SBC pokes buttons just so we can see people driven to the edge. He's hardly the first to do this, and so to single him out as either a genius or a terrorist in those situations seems off either way.

I think Borat had more biting social commentary than Bruno. The latter effort seems mostly just an exercise in foolishness.

:Debbie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fox said...

Hey Jason-

Good to have you back!

this is akin to Candid Camera or numerous old man-on-the-street Letterman gags....

No way! Maybe the origins are the same, but the intent is completely different. Baron Cohen aims to humiliate and look down upon the people he makes uncomfortable, to expose how they are "inferior" people to himself. He wants to prod at the "inchworms" (to borrow recent Woody Allen slang) of society.

In comparison, Candid Camera's gags (ie recording people's reactions to a talking mailbox) are innocent and good natured. They were gags that united everyone in a universal mistake or joke. It wasn't a personal attack. Baron Cohen attacks each of his subjects personal integrity and reputation.

I would also guess that Candid Camera gave their subjects the option of being on TV or not after they had been recorded. Baron Cohen does not. Plus, look at the reactions to the Candid Camera subjects. They are always smiling afterwards. Baron Cohen's subjects are cussing or hitting the camera or telling him to leave.

Jason Bellamy said...

Baron Cohen aims to humiliate and look down upon the people he makes uncomfortable, to expose how they are "inferior" people to himself.

Yes and no.

For example: I have no idea what he was out to prove with his Ron Paul bit. If that was intended as social commentary, it was a bomb. As you noted, anyone would react that way in that situation. Hell, Elton John probably would have reacted that way. So, yes, in that sense the charge that SBC is attempting to judge and humiliate his subjects is right on the money. (No accident that he didn't pick a liberal.)

On the other hand ...

Take that sequence with the swingers. There wasn't a single moment in that segment where I ever even considered laughing at them. Instead it's Bruno playing the fool, and we laugh not because two strangers (we assume) are having sex but at how awkward it would be if a stranger was distracting you or patting you on the back during sex. What's funny is that even in this abnormal situation seemingly without any code of ethics, we can still sense that Bruno is crossing the ethical line. And that's funny.

Likewise, in Borat there are many scenes where we laugh at what the poor driving and culture instructors have to put up with, but we don't laugh at them for any kind of ignorance, because they don't demonstrate any kind of ignorance. Quite the opposite. They demonstrate endless patience and goodwill. (Of course, Borat also has the flipside, as you have pointed out.)

So what I'm saying here is that I don't totally disagree with your arguments, because there's a lot of truth there. I just think there's more nuance here. I disagree that SBC is out to belittle every person he comes in contact with. He toys with his victims, yes, but that's comedy.

It's a fair point about how the release waivers work in this situation vs. others, but there was a terrific piece in Salon after Borat that analyzed what was real and what wasn't. Several of the victims (including the guy who kicked Borat out of his house at that Southern dinner) thought the end result was hilarious; just not hilarious at the time because, like those on Candid Camera, he didn't know it was all a ruse.

Are there victims from SBC's brand of humor? Yes. If that alone makes him a terrorist comic, OK. (Of course, there are lots of victims in comedy.) But just because SBC doesn't take off his costume like Howie Mandel to let his marks in on the gag doesn't mean that these people don't laugh at the end. If I was in that talk show audience, I would have gasped at everything too... and then I would have laughed my butt off when I found out I'd been had.

Fox said...

Jason-

For example: I have no idea what he was out to prove with his Ron Paul bit....

I have a far out guess at this, but I in no way have hard reason to think it was the case. Just a stab. Here goes...

Ron Paul has been pretty critical of Israel in the past, even saying such outlandish things as Israel created Hamas, which is just silly if you know your Hamas history (side subject...). Anyways, Baron Cohen is obviously Jewish, and I wondered if he singled out Paul because of that. Just a thought.

Now, onto the swingers...

It is a bit silly to feel protective of a group of people who openly let a documentary crew into their swinger orgy, but Baron Cohen still mocks them through his behaviors of patting them and provoking them. In fact, I'm sure the set-up excited him (not sexually) b/c he got to ambush some victims in the most vulnerable position of them all.

Not to mention that the scene is just plain nasty. I've always thought of Baron Cohen's work as nothing more than montages of YouTube clips, and the swinger scene really fits that mold. What "funny" is, depends on each one of our sensibilities for sure, but this particular scene pushed the limits of pure mindlessness for me.

Likewise, in Borat there are many scenes where we laugh at what the poor driving and culture instructors have to put up with. [...] They demonstrate endless patience and goodwill....

That's true, but I've never bought that argument as a defence of Borat or for Baron Cohen as a comic, because I think he sees it differently. I think he sees the patience his subjects display as being nothing more than indifference or apathy, which Baron Cohen himself has implied in interviews can be just as dangerous or criminal as direct action.

Marilyn said...

When is this guy going to go the way of Andrew Dice Clay? I turned off Borat after about 20 minutes, maybe less. So unfunny. I can't believe you are taking the bullet of continuing to see his films. Life's too short, man.

Craig said...

I can't stand Cohen either, for all the reasons Fox mentions and more. (I have enjoyed him in "straight" comic supporting roles, like in "Talladegha Nights." [Did I come close to spelling that correctly?]) I see a double-standard in the way his movies mix staged and authentic scenes, particularly when the staged sequences invariably involve celebrities whereas the unrehearsed ridicule is mostly aimed at the Average Janes and Joes. Cohen desperately wants to look edgy, yet that pre-planned drop into Eminem's lap at the Grammys is a textbook example of his "daring." (It wouldn't surprise me if we learned there were multiple takes to Harrison Ford's cameo too.)

Fox said...

I can't believe you are taking the bullet of continuing to see his films. Life's too short, man....


Marilyn-

Somebody's gotta do it! :)

But what I find fascinating this time around is the critical response to Bruno vs. Borat. Though I haven't read a HUGE amount of reviews just yet, there seems to be some back-tracking from some of the critics that so loved Borat.

I know Jason would disagree with me on this since he said he liked Borat better than Bruno, but I really see no difference between the two.

I think Craig hits on something very true about both of Baron Cohen's films that I hadn't thought about before: he tries to make his targets seem broad by setting up some soft scenarios in Paris and LA with the hoity toity at the beginning of the film before really laying into middle America with the second half of his film.

And if Cohen really is daring and brave - as people like Ebert have call him - why didn't he spend as much time with the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade as he does with the gay converter? Did ya get a little nervous there SBC??? Huh??

I will give credit to Cohen for being adept at playing those kind of shell games,... but we ain't falling for it, buddy!!

Fox said...

Craig-

Excellent points. And I agree that his performance in Talladega Nights is the best thing he's done.

I'm glad you brough up the Harrison Ford moment too. When that happened I was all, "Right on, HF!", but then I quickly realized that it was probably staged. I believe that the Paula Abdul moment was staged too.

Fox said...

Jason-

I wanted to add something to what you said below after I'd thought about it for a bit:

It's a fair point about how the release waivers work in this situation vs. others, but there was a terrific piece in Salon after Borat that analyzed what was real and what wasn't. Several of the victims (including the guy who kicked Borat out of his house at that Southern dinner) thought the end result was hilarious;...

But does it matter if the guy who kicked Borat out thought it was hilarious after the fact if we don't see that on screen? It's the illusion that that guy is irritated and - didn't think was hilarious at the time - that the audience takes pleasure in.

I haven't seen much Candid Camera outside of the classic black & white stuff, but, again, most of what I have seen shows the subjects/victims being let off the hook, smiling, and having a good time with it. This lets the audience experience a sigh of relief, a revelation that ends up being crucial to how we react to what we are watching. Baron Cohen never gives his victims that respect. Imagine how different we would feel about the Ron Paul scene if, afterwards, we saw shots of him coming clean and explaining to the congressman that it was all a joke.

Also, what I've seen of Candid Camera has been pretty innocent, ESPECIALLY in comparison to Bruno/Borat. I think you're correct that the humor of both comes from a similar place of observing unaware subjects, but I think they are miles apart in intention and social commentary (I don't think CC ever aimed for that).

I think something like Punk'd or The Tom Green Show would be closer to Baron Cohen's stuff. I equally hate the Tom Green stuff when he ambushes unsuspecting people. I think it's just as anhorrent (though I don't remember Green wallowing in class/cultural hatred like Cohen does). I'm not a fan of Punk'd either, but at least Kutcher and Co. give us that crucial "sigh of relief" at the end. Plus, he pulls the pranks on his buddies, which is another lessening of the cruelty on screen.

Jason Bellamy said...

But does it matter if the guy who kicked Borat out thought it was hilarious after the fact if we don't see that on screen? It's the illusion that that guy is irritated and - didn't think was hilarious at the time - that the audience takes pleasure in.

Again, yes and no. First, we take pleasure (or some of us do) in the genuine (at the time) "irritation." There's no illusion there. Candid Camera or Punk'd then gives the extra pleasure of seeing the person let in on the joke. I'm sure Borat and Bruno hit people differently, but I can honestly say that none of the pleasure I get from these movies is tied to the idea that these victims (to use a previous term) remain bitter or humiliated long-term, though I recognize that some of them probably are, and that makes SBC something of a bully.

You're correct that this is just another extension from Tom Green and Punk'd and Jackass, etc. SBC is going for jaw-dropping shock value -- which is why, for him, it doesn't make a difference if scenes are staged or not, so long as they get the desired audience response. Yes, it takes more to shock us these days. Yes, I think it's saying far too much to call Cohen some kind of comedic genius or to say that his films are packed with biting social commentary -- though there are moments when those labels would apply.

The point I'm arguing here is that while many of SBC's supporters go way too far in celebrating the intellectualism of his comedy, I think it's also too narrow a view to decide that SBC is out only to humiliate his subjects or to look down his nose at the audience that laughs at his gags.

Anyway, I'll try to put some of this stuff together in a real review later, but it's a good debate. Meantime, check out this entry from Jim Emerson. I don't agree with all of his points, but many of them.

Craig said...

SBC is going for jaw-dropping shock value -- which is why, for him, it doesn't make a difference if scenes are staged or not, so long as they get the desired audience response.

First, I think it does matter to him, if he's willing to prep his celebrity colleagues in advance to get them in the picture. (And they're willing to go along, for the unearned cache of edginess that the spotlight provides.) But even if it doesn't matter to him, shouldn't it matter to us? Satire only works if its targets are deserving, and denigrating average folks while co-opting Hollywood into his condescending schema seems more than a little hypocritical to me. (Like Fox said, at least Ashton selects his targets judiciously.) If SBC is going to make a living as a cheap-shot artist, shouldn't he at least have the courage of his convictions?

I'm glad you brought up the Harrison Ford moment too. When that happened I was all, "Right on, HF!", but then I quickly realized that it was probably staged.

Harrison's in need of attention these days. His helicopter rescues of stranded mountain-climbers right before each new release was beginning to look suspect. He was a lot cooler twenty years ago.

Fox said...

Jason-

I don't know if we had a miscommunication or what, but I'm a bit confused by your below comment:

I think it's also too narrow a view to decide that SBC is out only to humiliate his subjects or to look down his nose at the audience that laughs at his gags....

I'm looking mainly at the "look down his nose at the audience that laughs at his gags" part of your comment...

I don't think Cohen has contempt for the audience at all. In fact, I think he's preening for their love and adoration. But I do think he has contempt for most of his subjects (not someone like Paula Abdul, but, as I said, I think that scenario was a set-up.)

I can respect that you, Jason, and most of my friends who like Bruno/Borat don't personally take pleasure in the subject's humiliation, but it's still something that is happening on screen and is being shown as entertainment. The laughter and good time is still at the expense of Cohen's victims. Whether you were directly laughing at the Alabama hunter or not, he's still being used within the context of whatever you find humorous about the situation.

You said previously : "He toys with his victims, yes, but that's comedy." But you're leaving out the huge difference that Cohen's comedy uses real people to mock and victimize, not fictional characters like most comedies do.

Again, I'm not so concerned with what the audience thinks is funny as much as I am with Cohen's intentions (which I think are cruel).

Jason Bellamy said...

I think it does matter to him, if he's willing to prep his celebrity colleagues in advance to get them in the picture.

Craig: I'm not sure I understand your argument here. Or maybe I just didn't articulate my point very well. What I was trying to say is that Cohen wants to shock the audience any way possible. If that means preying on unsuspecting victims in unscripted situations, he'll do it. If that means working together with Pamela Anderson or Harrison Ford (I agree; staged) to get the scene he wants, he'll do it. It's the audience he's committed to influencing above anything else ... and that's what makes him an entertainer -- which doesn't mean everyone finds him entertaining.

Meantime, while I agree that there are elements of satire to SBC's shtick, I'd say that the characters he creates tend to absorb much of the abuse in the satire. Beyond that, sure, Average Joe gets victimized by SBC's tactics, but so do all those people who get interviewed by Jay Leno for his famous Jaywalking segments. Really, is there that big of a difference here? Aren't both Cohen and Leno entertainers profiting off the ignorance of others, turning them into punchlines?

I think SBC's only "conviction" is that he wants to shock audiences into a response. There's no victim in the scene in Borat in which the title character wrestles the naked fat guy and then climbs on a hotel elevator to the awkward surprise of a guy already there. Nor is that satire. It's just foolishness.

As entertainment goes, it's cheap. The first entertainer to let a fat guy put his nuts in his face gets a laugh. The second one gets maybe a chuckle. The third guy doesn't get a response. (For similar but more modest example: See the fading influence of Will Ferrell taking off his shirt for a laugh.)

Where was I? My point is that if we pretend that SBC is the first or only comedian to take advantage of the average American (the potential ticket buyer), we're missing that his tactics aren't all that original. The difference is the fearlessness and heartlessness with which he pushes the envelope. Maybe he goes too far. Fair argument. But the framework of his shtick is quite familiar.

Fox said...

If SBC is going to make a living as a cheap-shot artist, shouldn't he at least have the courage of his convictions?...

Craig-

Your whole comment was well said (you say things I agree with in much shorter sentences than I can!), but I wanted to pick out that above part to touch on his brief jaunt in the Middle East.

Again, that whole section felt like it was just a quick run-through to show how he was being "fair-minded" across the spectrum, but if Cohen really is a courageous confronter of bigotry, then why didn't he spend more time mocking the Al-Aqsa guy? He even seemed timid running up to the Fred Phelps protestors in his bondage gear. THOSE are the people he should be provoking, and not some well-meaning (though wrong-minded) gay converter.

A guy like that is not a threat to our culture, a guy like Fred Phelps is, yet Cohen is too much of a puss to really go after the tough ones.

Jason Bellamy said...

But you're leaving out the huge difference that Cohen's comedy uses real people to mock and victimize, not fictional characters like most comedies do.

Fox: Fair point. Though, again, I've cited some other examples in previous comments (and in the one I just left above to Craig) in which average people are taken advantage of for a laugh. Having said that ...

Again, I'm not so concerned with what the audience thinks is funny as much as I am with Cohen's intentions (which I think are cruel).

I get that. If the argument is that Cohen truly wants to harm the people he encounters -- or even if that's just the feeling you get -- that's a perfectly good reason to object to his brand of entertainment.

In some sense you're having the kind of reaction to SBC that I had to Gran Torino, which I thought posed as a thoughtful anti-racism piece while delighting in the fun of racist behavior. (That's oversimplifying, and I'd elaborate on another blog, but you know what I mean.)

It would be silly to suggest that Cohen's humor doesn't have casualties, and sometimes his antics seem, yes, a little like pointless terrorism (the Ron Paul example, which I didn't find even slightly funny). I totally understand why he turns people off. But I also don't think that his humor is truly as mean spirited as it is sometimes made out to be, and that's what I'm reacting to.

Jason Bellamy said...

P.S. This has been fun. Haven't stirred up the dust at Tractor Facts in a while. Missed it. We were overdue.

Rick Olson said...

Hey, Fox ...

Couldn't agree with you more about Cohen, man. His aim is to humiliate and make those who think that's funny laugh. He does it behind a shield of social relevancy that is paper thin and very 70s ... are we not supposed to know by now that in the South there are racists, and that in Birmingham there are people who are concerned with good manners at a dinner party? Alert the media ... you mean in Alabama there are people who dislike gays? What a shock.

Cohen is about as pointed as a basketball and as relevant as my maiden aunt. And she's look better in Bruno's outfits than he does ...

Fox said...

Jason, Craig, Rick-

Thanks for all of the thoughts. Marilyn put up the point as to why even bother seeing his movies in the first place, and it's a fair question for someone - like me - who almost surely will never like Cohen, but then I would point to discussions like this. This is what it's all about. Good stuff.

And sorry I couldn't chime in more during the day, but work hasn't been so generous in that area lately. I know we can all relate to that.

P.S. Rick, I thought about you when Bruno was in Alabama. Not b/c you go hunting or anything, but just b/c you're the only Alabaman that I know (I think) so anytime something about Alabama comes up I think, "Rick!".

bill r. said...

I agree with everybody.

That's actually true. The main point on which I agree with Jason -- and this is a pretty big one, as far as I'm concerned -- is that in Borat (haven't seen Bruno) all of the funniest bits, to me, involve laughing at Borat. You know, the fictional one. I can't think of a single instance in that film where I thought the "victim" was the funny one, except maybe the driving instructor, who was intentionally funny.

Cohen takes aim at targets far less often than people -- both pro and con -- seem to think. Most of the time he's doing his act on the fly in front of real people and recording their reactions. How he was humiliating the driving instructor, or, for instance, the woman holding a yard sale, I don't know.

At the same time, when Cohen DOES take aim, his targets are big and easy, and there's nothing especially cutting or smart or relevant about any of that stuff. Fox, your point about the Al-Aqsa guy is, I'm guessing, a good one. I don't know, since I haven't seen this new one, but that would be keeping with his MO: lightly touch on the tough stuff, and then puff himself up for the small fish (mixed metaphors!).

I do NOT think Cohen is a genius, though I've certainly laughed at his stuff (at HIS stuff...at Borat, etc.). I keep hearing him compared to Andy Kaufman, which in itself is a joke. It's very, very difficult to summarize what Kaufman did, while Cohen's act is a snap.

Daniel Getahun said...

Very interesting discussion. I'm somebody who was completely unimpressed by Borat (on opening day), and found the naked wrestling type of humor to be by far the least funny type of humor in that movie. As Bruno was almost entirely that type of humor, I found it even less funny.

But I have to agree with Bill on one major point - the times that I DO think SBC is funny are when I'm laughing at him. The best example I can think of is the scene in Borat in which he is taking "lessons" from some kind of comedy coach, from whom he is ostensibly supposed to learn about American humor ("Not!", etc.). I think he plays that scene incredibly well, and the unsuspecting guy does an amazing job of rolling with it. There's no lewdness or crudeness, and I thought that part, as idiotic as it was in hindsight, was actually funny.

I do think SBC could do much make much better and more witty comedy if he would just take himself and his characters more seriously. Kind of like what Fox is saying.

And last point that I think you're overlooking is that he probably can't get interviews with the "big targets" because they're either aware or afraid of him. I don't think Ron Paul, for example, was targeted so much as he was the only candidate who may have been ignorant about SBC's brand/characters. Just my guess as to why most of the interviewees are the people they are.

PIPER said...

I really can't add any more than what everyone else has.

But has anyone used the word "fucking" in front of hate SBC? Have they done that? Maybe I can add that.

I own one season of his show and I found it enjoyable. I had no desire to see Borat and even less to see Bruno. And I hate that my son constantly quotes it back to me from the trailers he's seen. "I gave him a traditional African American name. I call him O.J."

Aaaaaarrrrrrrggggghhhhh.

To me what SBC does is the equivalent of a fart noise in a movie. It's the lowest form of comedy. The cheapest kind.

In my job, I have worked under these kind of circumstances where ultimately the gag was on the general audience. And what I found is that generally people are good. They are trusting. They are helpful. And what SBC does is turn that "goodness" against people to try to make a stupid point.

To me it's not comedy. It's SBC being a bully.

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