Literary Ramblings: The Defence of Sacha Baron Cohen

bruno

In his new film Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen dawns the apparel of a homosexual, Austrian, fashionista named Bruno. As he has done with his show Da Ali G Show and his last film Borat, Cohen applies what might be called a modern day Milgram’s experiment and indeed adopts many of the themes which served as the inspirations of Milgram’s experiment, namely the embracement of, indifference to, and toleration of anti-Semitism, while adding other important concerns such as views on misogamy, celebrity culture, and homophobia. In the wake of the Adolf Eichmann’s trail for his participation in the tragic events of the Holocaust, psychologists sought to understand how such carnage may come to happen and so one psychologist, Stanley Milgram, invited people to participate in an experiment where they would be tasked with posing questions to an unknown and unseen subject, and would also be required, under the instruction of a supervisor, to administers progressively worsening electrical shocks to the unseen subject whenever questions were not properly answered. Both the person receiving the shocks (“the student”) and the supervisor (“the experimenter”) were actors while the only “participant” was the one distributing the questions and shocks (“the teacher”). The results were shocking as 26 out of 40 people were willing to administer a potentially mortal 450-volt shock, while only 1 out of 40 participants refused to administer the 300-volt shock. Cohen’s experiment is very different in form, but in spirit it works in much the same way. His characters (Bruno, Borat and Ali G) indulge in faulty moral behaviour which often allows the people around him to transfer responsibility for their morally questionable actions onto which ever character Cohen is playing, much as the participant in Milgram’s Experiment would transfer responsibilities for their actions onto the supervisor of the experiment. I admit that there are ethical issues with placing people into these artificial situations, but unlike Milgram’s Experiment, Cohen never asks anybody to take inappropriate actions (though he does sometimes ask them to participate in verbal maltreatment of people or peoples). Both Borat and Bruno have turned into commercial successes in that they have been widely viewed and have generated revenue for the production companies that have financed Cohen’s films, but both films have been judged harshly by critics, but these critics, who are perhaps to used to evaluating films within the context of traditional film making seem to miss the important social implications of what it is that Cohen is doing, and regardless of what these critics might say, the film is successful in that it draws important moral themes into light and refuses to allow people to pretend things like anti-Semitism, homophobia and racism don’t exist on a large scale level, and even goes to far as to question the audience who in all likelihood have to ask themselves if they were indeed laughing for the right reasons, or if they themselves were indulging in the amoral behaviour which Cohen is critiquing in his films.

The 64th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press Room

Ben Mankiewicz is one of the film critics whose review seems to typify the general response from the majority of critics. He calls the film “demeaning, insulting, and… cruel” and suggests that Borat was much funnier in part because the Bruno character held an “innocent likeability” and “softness” while the Bruno character is ultimately a “jerk” and claims that the films “participants” were exploited. Mankiewcz is mistaken to say that Borat was innocent (though if Mankiewicz wishes to describe a racist, mysoginist, anti-Semitic like Borat as “likable” I guess that is a subjective matter in which case is entitled to his opinion). Borat is not an innocent character, but rather a villain who hates Jews, Gypsies and women and treats people with mental retardation as sub-human, and makes no secret about it when talking with the people around him, and though his limited vocabulary makes him seem ignorant, he is very much aware of what he is doing. North America is home to many newly landed immigrants who often times don’t carry a strong understanding of the English language, but that does not mean they do not carry a strong understanding of human nature. A Hungarian speaking professor of literature would sound as if he or she were working at a grade school level if she or he were asked to express her or his opinions in a language with which they were not familiar, and so it is with the Borat characters, who seems simply ignorant but who is actually a joyously hateful character who takes great pleasure in oppressing others (be it women, or Jews or Gypsies) and has no qualms about it. Comparisons between the films Bruno and Borat are natural, but anybody who claims that Borat is a more likeable character is either a racist, misogynistic anti-Semitist, or indulges in the very indifference which Cohen is trying to expose and critique. Any person who watches the two films and claims that Borat is more enjoyable because the title character is more innocent and likeable has obviously missed the point of both films. Neither of these characters is likeable to anybody who has a moral compass, rather the viewer is meant to consider the responses of Cohen’s “participants” and consider the implication. Often times there is an innate desire to laugh, but Cohen encourages the viewer to consider why they are laughing.

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Barbra Walters also has reviewed the film, claiming, like Mankiewicz, that Borat is funnier that Bruno and complains about the close ups of male genitalia and refers to the film as pornographic and notes that she did not want to see how homosexuals have anal sex. This is the type of response that the film is no doubt trying to draw out and many film critics have commented on the homosexual elements and close ups of male genitalia. As a society North Americans in general seem to be uncomfortable with homosexuality as well as male genitalia, even in heterosexual settings. When films like Basic Instinct display full frontal female nudity critics hardly take notice and the film is seldom condemned, but when it is a film like Bruno, or perhaps The Crying Game, many critics (though certainly not all, and not even always a majority) are up in arms along with fringe groups within society who offer warnings to movie-goers about the “offensive” content. This homophobic response is apparent in Walter’s review who mentions both the close up of male genitalia and the homosexual sex scenes, but does not mention the heterosexual sex scenes which take place in the movie. Indeed, few people have made comments regarding the appearance or women’s breasts in the film, or the graphic heterosexual sex scenes. As for the anal sex scenes, they are censored, farcical and are quite frankly over the top hyperboles that clearly aim to criticize the ignorance of homophobics since the instances of anal sex are so extreme. I very seriously doubt that homosexuals make a common practice of fitting Champaign bottles in their anuses or launching themselves, anus first, from a giant slingshot onto the penises of their lovers. In fact, it may be a surprise to heterosexuals, but there are some homosexuals for whom anal sex is not a major part of their love life. The scene in which Cohen’s characters indulge in anal intercourse are there for no other reason than to display the ignorance that exists in the typical heterosexual’s understanding of homosexual relationships.

 

While critics seems to focus on the homophobic themes which are presented in the movie, they seem to miss out on other important themes. One such theme is that of celebrity culture and the exploitative nature that exists within it. In having Bruno adopt an African baby, Cohen is certainly sending up celebrities such as; Madonna, Brady Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and many others. It seems odd that parents like Pitt and Jolie can so readily obtain children from other countries so quickly while regular working-class and middle-class parents have to literarily wait years before they can adopt a child, and if they seek to adopt a child from overseas they would find the waiting period to be even longer. So the fact that Bruno decides to adopt one and goes through illegal means to do so questions how it is that real celebrities seem to circumvent the long waiting periods which non-celebrities go through and in turn questions the motivation of these celebrities. But Cohen doesn’t suggest that celebrities are the only ones who are willing to exploit children for their own benefit as he interviews a number of seemingly working-class parents who seek to find celebrity for their own children and are willing to exploit them to do so. Several parents are willing to expose their children to; acid, bees, wasps, liposuction, heavy-antiquated machinery, high-speed trips in cars without safety belts, and burning phosphorus, and some of these parents claim that not only are their children alright with burning phosphorus, but love it, implying that they spend time around it on a regular basis (which though clearly a lie is still disturbing). This scene seems particularly troublesome because though the situations which Cohen’s character was suggesting were outlandishly extreme and farcical, the fact that parents were willing to exploit their own children and subject them to life-threatening scenarios all in the name of celebrity, was more scary than funny. When a woman is excited that her child will be dressed up as a Nazi carting infant corpses to incinerators, it is hard to laugh when the implications of this behaviour are considered. Homophobia is certainly one of the moral themes which Cohen targets in this film, but this complete disregard for children’s safety in the name of celebrity is an example of exploitation which seems at least as, if not more, important than the theme of homophobia.

This theme of exploitation is not only expressed through children, but also through animals. When trying to find a charity to support in the hopes that practicing in philanthropy might bring him some celebrity, Bruno is told by a consultant that perhaps he could bring attention to endangered species in Africa by wearing wrist bands made from the very animal that is on the endangered list, and the consultants which he speaks to seem to find no issue with the fact that Bruno is openly insincere about the actually charity and is only concerned about the level of celebrity that adopting a cause might bring him. Upon his return form Africa Bruno also is seen dressed the garb of what the audience is to assume is that normally worn by Africans, but is clearly some offensive stereotype, illustrating how a person might exploit a foreign culture in the name of fashion. And not only does Bruno bring his adopted child to exploit (shipped in a cardboard box no less), but he also brings the feet and tusks of an elephant (which hopefully were fake), and parades them around the airport. Though he gets numerous strange looks from the people around him, nobody makes a comment about the fact that he is travelling with the body parts of an endangered animal, or that he shipped a baby in a cardboard box, illustrating people’s indifference to, and toleration of such offensive behaviour.

The film also targets the right-winged Christians conservatives who see homosexuality as a sin. A group that seemed to adopt the “God Hates Fags” adage promoted by fascists Christians groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church are scene picketing in the film and Bruno is seen by two different ministers who encourage a heterosexual life for Bruno, and though viewers may expect them to express homophobic views, it is worrisome when the second ministers starts to make what could only be described as misogynistic comments regarding women, indulging in stereotypes that certainly undermines his position as a minister. Critics of Cohen may claim that he encourages amoral behaviour, but this is not the case. Cohen never encourages anybody to make misogynistic or chauvinistic comments regarding women, but people still do, and even while he interacts with overtly masculine men, such as those in the military camp, or the hunters with whom he goes camping, these men do not make any disparaging comments about women, or homosexuals. The hunters are relatively quiet, eerily so in fact, and it is only when Cohen’s character, whilst in the nude, interrupts another in the early hours of the morning is there a response, while the military trainers seemed to treat the Bruno character as they might treat anybody else. In fact, the majority of people don’t even indulge in homophobic behaviour or rhetoric. The most troubling example of homophobia occurs in the final scenes of the movie when Bruno, who has seemingly converted to heterosexuality, hosts a mixed martial arts fights as an homophobic Austrian turned red-neck, and when Bruno and his former assistant indulge in kissing and petting, the audience erupts with a shocking and scary display of hate, throwing food, drinks and chairs at the couple in the ring.

Cohen’s work has a duality to it. For a person aware of the themes which Cohen deals with, his work his frighteningly brilliant as he drives home the fact that the indifference which allowed tragic events like the Holocaust to happen still exists. For those who are not aware of the themes which Cohen is drawing attention to, his work will come across as either repulsive (in an act of denial) or funny (but for all the wrong reasons as they tend to embrace the tolerance which Cohen is attacking). Cohen’s audience is often in a place not unlike those he targets in his interviews. Those critics who announce how repulsed they were by penis close ups are exposing their own preconceptions, while those who describe characters like Borat as likable and innocent are guilty of the indifferent and tolerant behaviour which Cohen is critiquing. The test doesn’t end when the camera is turned off, or even on the editing room floor, rather it continues in the area of public opinion, and in theatres where people are laughing at the same thing, but often for different reasons. Themes extend beyond race, and anti-Semitism, and homophobia, and goes onto attack our celebrity culture and examines how we appraise people around us, both through appearances and vocabulary. When Cohen interviewed Mickey Rooney as Ali G in a segment from his television show, Rooney openly attacked the vocabulary Cohen was employing, and stated he had fifty books that could teach him how to speak the English language, illustrating how insensitive Rooney, and many English speaking people are, to the variety of English dialects which are spoken, and demanding that others adopt his view on how that language should be spoken, while refusing to consider the validity of other dialects, ultimately suggesting a prescriptive approach to language, rather than a descriptive one. Rooney never stops to ask why others use a different dialect, he just criticizes the dialect without understanding it. Cohen also attacks commonly accepted concepts such as nationalism and shows how counter productive they can be, such as when he sings the mock lyrics to the Kazakhstan national anthem to the tune of the American national anthem, illustrating how nationalism polarizes people from different nations and places them in opposition to each other. Cohen’s work has a depth and importance to it that is unsurpassed in the world of comedy today. Humanity sets itself apart from every other species in the world with its ability to laugh, but what do we laugh about and why? Sometimes the reasons are frightening and carry implications which we don’t want to think about, but Cohen uses outlandishly extreme characters to push these questions to us and forces us to examine ourselves. Some people may pass it off as repulsive and insult the work before moving on, and some may go to work the following day praising Cohen’s film for being funny, but the challenging thing about his work is that it really asks you to do more. Humanity’s ability to laugh does separate it from all other known species, but that is not a necessarily good thing, because often times we are laughing for the wrong reasons and our response may sometimes imply a tolerant disposition to amoral behaviour, or worse, and Cohen’s work challenges the viewer to re-examine why they are laughing and holds the viewer accountable for their indifference.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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