[Bruno Tea-Bagging alleged homophobe Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards May 31, 2009]
Like some post-postmodern Icarus, an outrageous fag fashionista has ceased to be the swishy darling of the Spectacle, having fallen from the sparkly heights of culture to take his place among the tarnished rabble. In what has proven to be the most ingenious consequence of one war machine of a film, Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen's eponymous hero is fictionally and now actually AUS.
The funniest thing about Cohen's "Bruno" schtick has always been the way his EuroFag television anchor persona turns the camera lens back around on media production, exposing the vacuity of our culture industry and how much the people who work in it will compromise themselves at the slightest whiff of fame or money. Brüno has actually thrown a monkey wrench into the gay-dominated culture industry in what is the most refreshing situationist-inspired assault on the spectacle that I've ever witnessed.
The Media Reaction
The New Yorker derides it as a "big skip backward" full of "immature" jokes "plucked from the crotch." Apparently indulging in the fantasy that "sexual inversion would take its place in the dustbin of history alongside other empty referenda on character such as red hair and left-handedness," Salon was outraged calling it a "mincing minstrel show." The writer even asserts that if Cohen were gay, his performance would have ensured "his essential uncastability." The NYTimes, hip to Freud and Cohen's comedic genious, registers the discomfort that Brüno causes liberal viewers and the comedic release of lauging at the "homophobes" on film but also misses the point, stating, "What "Brüno" tries hardest to be, and fails most significantly to become, is a sendup of the empty vanity of celebrity culture." The predominant mediatic narrative could be summarized as follows: Cohen does not authentically have butt sex ergo he is a pink-faced minstrel; Bruno is an uninteresting stereotype, disconnected from the experience of normal gays; the film is vulgar; it may provoke and parody homophobia simultaneously.
Facts are always stranger than fiction, or so the cliché goes.
The media criticism of Brüno reminds us that faggots still profoundly disturb society -- gays and straights alike -- which is still willing to publicly bash flamboyant fags verbally in the form of outraged reviews. However, our society *loved* Brokeback Mountain. It was nominated for Oscars. The Brokeback Mountain narrative was palatable to the "general public" because a gay man, Jack, who didn't or couldn't pass as a heterosexual was murdered. Americans love movies where the faggot dies in the end; they tolerate this kind of narrative about gays. They do not like movies where heterosexuality is the butt of the joke, where the character of heterosexuality is assassinated. This trope has a very long history stretching back to old Pulp Novels.
All this liberal "tolerance" makes me miss good old-fashioned, knee-jerk gay panic! Brüno preempts tolerance. In an interview with a "Second Level" gay conversion therapist, the dialogue reveals tolerance to be the very function of heterosexuality itself, which "tolerates" women, their "nagging," their flamboyance, discursive circumlocution, the lack of a "point" in what they say. Interestingly, this is the predominant mediatic criticism of the film itself! The Salon reviewer even asserts that Sacha Baron Cohen would be "uncastable" in the future, if he were actually gay in real life.
Barbara "I don't need to know how you are doing anal intercourse" Walters actually admitted to having a gay-panic attack in the movie theater, unlike her "tolerant" peers.
Unwittingly, Walters demonstrates the multiple levels of irony that are embedded within the film when she states, in the first degree of irony, "now this is going to make you all want to go out and see the movie." In the second degree of irony, one actually states the truth outright, while intending the opposite of what one says.
The so-called "gay community" has been scandalized by the film. The usual suspects, including GLAAD, et al have virtually denouced it in the post Prop 8 propaganda campaign to put out a respectable face -- and well-turned ankle -- to the public (San Francisco's pride parade this year had the creepy -- almost eugenicist -- slogan "A More Perfect Union.") One anonymous gay Hollywood "insider" stated: "It makes you sickened by gay sex, even if you are someone who participates in it"
Faggotry as political strategy
In this morass of supposed criticism, only The Slate historically situates the film providing a commentary that has obviously brushed up on Vito Russ Celluloid Closet and praising "the aggression of [Cohen's] literally confrontational method," having turned gay-panic into an "offensive strategy." The review is worth reading, and the video content in the article is superbly chosen. In spite of this historicization and because of this clear-minded take, the Salon review cogently distills the central media narrative that I take aim at:
"And are the gays who anxiously anticipate the mocking, hostile reactions of the unenlightened really that blind to Brüno's obvious counteroffensive strategy, which is to make that mocking, hostile idiocy the subject of his film? The beauty—and perhaps even the moral logic—of Baron Cohen's method is that those who're not in on his joke are invariably the butts of the joke."The above Slate review misses the actual "point" of jokes, and lacks the essential insight of psychoanalysis into the way jokes work. This short wiki entry about Freud's joke-work is important to read to understand my take on the film, which I read as one long joke.
My reading of the film could be summarized as follows: Performing flaming faggotry in film and in real life makes most heterosexual people uncomfortable. It makes a lot of gay people uncomfortable too. We tend to laugh at things that cause discomfort, which is Freud's insight about jokes.
Freud's discovered that telling jokes is psychologically similar to recounting a dream to someone. This is because the discomfort caused by a really funny joke -- what is commonly called nervous laughter -- opens up a view into the unconscious of the person telling the joke. It also opens up a view of the disturbing unconscious of the culture in which the joke is embedded. In the same way, dream analysis works because, as someone being analyzed, you have to reconstruct a narrative around events that occurred in your sleep, events that you don't exactly remember or understand, and you begin tripping up in your words, saying things you didn't intend, hearing double entendres in your own speech, etc. The experience of telling your dream to someone makes you uncomfortable because of ignorance, what you don't know that you know. A joke makes your interlocutor uncomfortable if it grips something in his or her unconscious that he or she doesn't totally understand.
The point of camp humor is not (contra Sontag's famed essay on the subject) to draw battle lines between those who are "in on" -- or have adequately penetrated -- the joke and those who play the role of its "butt," though camp humor may also do this. The joke (and I take camp to be a way of embodying or performing a joke) is that which subverts the signifying function of discourse, in other words, the joke is the phallus which is frustrated by the "butt."
I make this point literally, in all seriousness, and psychoanalytically as double-speak. To illustrate the psychological layers on which Bruno's joke works, we should consider an example that is very far away from contemporary culture. It is so distant from us now that until James Davidson shined light on it's meaning, in his amazing book The Greeks and Greek Love, we were all aus of the joke.
Aristophanes' plays troubled gay and straight commentators for years because a colloquial Greek joke is frequently tossed around. The joke is an insult that constantly recurrs, someone in the play or some action done by someone is called "wide-assed," euruproktos. We have an insult in English that almost perfectly approximates the etymological structure, "wise-ass." Sophists, or wise dudes, were frequently the butt of this joke in Aristophanes. If we translated our insult back into ancient Greek it would be written sophoproktos, an irony Aristophanes would have loved, because it combines the terms for wiseguy and butthole. The idea of all philosophers being "wide-assed" is the central joke of Aristophanes' Clouds where it is frequently repeated. The near universal consensus in the litterature on these plays is that the "butt" of this joke is bottom boys and women, who were sexual objects for older men to chase and fuck. Their asses had been fucked so much that they were "wide as the Tigris river," as one of Aristophanes' bon mots points out. The idea behind this interpretation is that no bottom boy (or girl) wanted to become another notch in the bedpost of a slobbery bearded older Greek erastes, or lover. The idea behind this prevailing interpretation of the joke is also that the joke is homophobic or misogynist. James Davidson has actually provided the best account of who this joke is on. It is, quite simply, a joke about farting; this is why the joke is frequently applied to orators, lawyers and philosophers. Aristophane's joke is that they are all farting out of their faces, lips puckered and pursed, spewing foul air, just like a bunch of assholes!!! The joke is crude, sure. It is also "foul-mouthed," if I can continue in this manner. But the joke is definitively NOT an insult applied to boys and women, it is one that attacks the men of privilege of Ancient Greek Society, an attack "from below." "Toilet humor," the return of the repressed.
I appologize for this rather "long-winded" and "stale" return to the classics of comedy. These are the foundational texts of the genre in the West. High brow critics everywhere can eat their hearts out. They clearly don't know shit! I realize I'm being a bit Lacanian here, playing with language, but I'm trying to demonstrate the way camp works in the very form of this essay and prove that there is something very queer, strange about the joke. I return to the point about the structure of the joke and the gay joke in particular: The joke is always "on" the phallus. Our whole cultural vocabulary for talking about jokes is the language of anal sex in particular, and sex in general. Why is this so? Is candid talk or display of the asshole challenging to that other hole, the hole which speaks, which utters words? Are these two holes locked into an antinomy? On the one hand, the devouring hole (with teeth) that won't stop spewing philosophy, and, on the other hand, the excretory hole (with a prostate) which taunts us with the pleasure of shitting? Which hole is the input and which is the output? "The Gay Joke" would therefore be the joke par excellence. It is no accident that Cohen's comedy is based around the interview, sitting his subjects down on the couch, so to speak. The very perception of being "in on" Bruno's joke, laughing at it, is an effect of transferrence. You attribute some insider knowledge that he possesses, some sort of cultural caché and imagine yourself to have caught his drift. In simple language: if you laugh at it, it has gripped you somewhere in your unconscious, some thing that is not at the surface level of your subjectivity has been stirred, producing the hysterical response of laughter. Put even more simply: jokes are funny because they assault the symbolic points that orient you in the world; they trouble your "orientation."
That the Spectacle has experienced this cinematic gay joke as an experience of trauma, that the film has been narrated as a traumatic experience, is a profound symptom.
So After this long detour into Ancient Greece and psychoanalysis: My central arguments about Brüno
- Cohen's cultural guerrilla warfare elides any claim to authenticity or politics of representation.
- He embodies a faggy artifice that draws closer to the truth precisely by distancing itself from the idea of an authentic self, inhabiting the long tradition of a swishy satire -- or humorous negation -- and clever conversation. This tradition stretches back to Oscar Wilde and the Interview Magazine of Andy Warhol, and now BUTT Magazine, and the Socratic Dialogues and Aristophanes' plays at the root of Western philosophy and culture itself.
- Like Socrates, Bruno's primary targets are world-wary urbanites, especially those inhabiting the culture industry, not naïve yokels or hoi polloi.
- Brüno may be the most life-affirming, sex-positive portrayal of faggotry in the history of film and, certainly, in AIDS-era cinema.
Observations that Bruno is a "stereotype" are utter nonsense. This variety of flaming sex-and-fetish-positive faggotry and campy cynicism is NEVER represented in any media. Make no mistake, Bruno is not a silly queen like Jack from Will & Grace. Bruno has teeth, a latex jumpsuit, a pair of well-sharpened claws and can talk circles around almost anyone (not to mention she's got a stationary bike-powered fuck machine that will tear you a new one)! Cohen has a bigger pair of vacuum-pumped balls and more bona fides than Andrew Sullivan, who has remained curiously silent about the film, ever will.
It's actually embarrassing that this point has to be made: not all gay men understand or appreciate swishy humor. Many earnestly seek to beg for scraps of normalcy from the table of bourgeois society without ever realizing the subversive tactics at their fingertips.
Even Andrew Sullivan's silence is surprising, in light of his typical blogerrhea on all things gay and considering how much ink was spilled when his first book Normal reoriented the national gay political agenda.
The humorous dialectical negation of idiocy through candid conversation is as gay and as old as Western culture itself. Plato's Phaedrus makes an interesting read for anyone seeking to understand the critical lineage that Brüno inhabits.
The Joke's On Who?
It is far too easy to state that Bruno's targets are all naïve "little people," in Barbara Walters words. Socrates attacked the "culture vultures" of his day, speech writers, orators, sophists.
Sacha Cohen initially "promoted" the film at the spring MTV Movie Awards, by flying through the air, dressed up as Icarus, or an angel, hanging from visible wires in a bit of Brechtian theatre. He was literally soaring over the heads of hundreds of celebrities (some of them closeted gay people) in a jock strap, bare ass exposed for all the world to see. The flying machine "malfunctioned" and he fell to Earth, with his bubble butt landing four inches from the mouth of Eminem, four inches from the lips that frequently utter "faggot" as an insult in his music. Cohen literally anticipated that the media, and many gay people within it, would hate his character after the film was released, and he performed the narrative of his own fall from grace as a promotional effort. It was, in this sense, a pre-emptive shot across the bow at all of the subsequent public outrage. In this sense, Cohen used his film as a machine for exposing the way in which our whole culture is based in a hatred of faggots. He knows what buttons to push to make culture speak the truth of its unconscious. It's cinematic psychoanalytic joke-work!
He litterally asks a heterosexual mother if he could have 10 lbs liposuctioned off her 30lb baby -- one third of the toddler's weight -- and she says, with tears in her eyes, "whatever it takes." This scene should return as a flashback when a black audience would prefer that his baby be put in the hands of child services -- a horrific form of hell if there ever was one -- rather than remain in his own care. The situation diliberately provokes a vocalization of the heterosexual fear that gay men rape children. This fear is, in fact, a projection of heterosexuals' own predisposition to molest small children. Nearly all child molesters are fathers, step fathers and uncles who do not have sex with adult men. Straight men are the largest social danger to children, not flaming faggots. The statistics bear this out. Our cultural unconscious causes us to laugh at these two scenes; it is funny because heterosexual child abuse is real, it is repressed, and it makes us very uncomfortable. Homosexuality names the interruption of the narrative structure of heterosexuality, that is either violently repelled back, or laughed off as a harmless bit of camp.
There's something else I think Bruno exposes in all the laughter: homosexual desire is the unconscious desire of men, if it weren't the movie wouldn't be uncomfortable to so many. If you need further evidence of this fact walk into any Abercrombie & Fitch store, in any suburban super-mall in America, and look at the enormous photographs on the wall of hunky, naked muscled, young men with huge dick-sucking lips and bubble butts that would make Ancient Greek men blush. Founded in 1892 as a colonial-era adventure outfitter, A&F clothed John F. Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt, Clark Gable and Dwight Eisenhower. There's a reason why swish, Bruce Weber, revitalized the companie's sales with his fashion photography, he knew how to seduce men, this is the narcissistic image men identify with.
Notice that the woman on the far left has been cut out of of the photo, so that the ass cheeks of the guy on the far right are fully within the frame. Men libidinally desire other men, regardless of what hole they fuck, indeed, I'd argue their desire has very little to do with sex and more to do about affirmation and recognition. I frequently attempt to point this out to men who identify as straight: they either reject the idea out of hand as absolutely impossible (these are usually the ones who are threatened by intelligent women and prefer spending time with "straight" men), or agree with you and like being around you and other faggots.
Cohen's character, Bruno, has done nothing less than declare war on the fragile fiction of heterosexuality itself, exposing its unconscious contours, as the following vintage Bruno video makes utterly clear.
A Rhinstone-Studded Gauntlet is Thrown
My political point about the film is that it empowers fags and sissies everywhere because it demonstrates a strategy for waging war on heterosexuality in general and heterosexual men in particular. This is a symbolic or psychological warfare to be sure (modern militaries even employ psychologists in their war efforts). However, the movie also shows us that this strategy can be dangerous because heterosexual men and women frequently respond to fags with "gay-panic," sometimes resulting in lynching. Matt Shepard, Harvey Milk, and countless other gay men are a constant reminder that being faggy threatens heterosexuality. The fact that murder is a common response to flagrant displays of faggotry is evidence that it poses an existential threat to heterosexuality.
It's symptomatic in our era of the "Gay Family" agenda that it took a comradely heterosexual man to remind us faggots of the spirit of André Gide's revolutionary battle cry, "Families, I hate you!" of which Badiou -- a "homophobe," apparently -- recently reminded me. It is important to remember that Nazi-puppet, Pétain famously replaced the slogan of the French Revolution, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, with the terrifying maxim, Travail, famille, patrie (Work, Family, Fatherland). Gide's bon mot also echos a line from Arthur Rimbaud:
'I do not love women: love is to be reinvented, everyone knows it. A secure position is all they're capable of desiring now. The position won, heart and beauty are set aside: all that is left is cold disdain, the food of marriage today. Or else I see women, with signs of happiness, of whom, me, I could have made good comrades, promptly devoured by brutes with the sensitivity of the stake…'" (Un Saison en Infer, 38, translation mine)As of July 21st, Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno had grossed $51,947,045 in US ticket sales. Assuming a ticket price of $10, we could estimate that over 5 million Americans have seen it. In the history of film, I would contend, so much laughter has never been generated by an explicit and gay sex scene! It's truly amazing that no one has yet pointed this out or only pointed it out to state that it was vulgar. That most movie goers have responded with laughter is progress. Though the movie may have been critically bashed, no one has mounted a lynching party, yet.
The other body in this traumatizing gay sex scene was, however, invisible. As Lacan would joke: anyone who got squimish during this scene or thought it was vulgar is actually "symptraumatized." Heavier sex goes on in American Soap Operas. Bruno has a quickie with the ghost of Milli from Milli Vanilli. If a special effects department had inserted his ghost into the film, it would have received an X rating from the MPAA and no one would have laughed. If you ignore the douchey introduction by the YouTube vlogger, the below video turns the mirror of the Brüno film experience back around on the audience.
What makes this scene funny or vulgar unlike, say, the ridiculous pottery wheel scene of Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost (1990)? I contend that it is precisely because the audience was left to generate their own fantasies about Bruno's interlocutor in this scene that generated the predominant mediatic narrative of trauma that has accompanied this film. The empty signifier on the other side of the unconscious allowed most people to laugh at gay sex, rather than be revolted by it.
My message to gay people who were "offended" by the film: Ultimately, if we cannot laugh about our sex, if our sex cannot be campy or humorous or fun, it becomes an empty and joyless mechanical exploitation of another person's body. Humor interrupts what would otherwise be a boring activity. Humourless sex is not worth fighting for. It is not worth an expensive and politically exhausting battle for same-sex marriage. Check your hearts, check your minds, and remember what the fight for gay liberation is all about!
Make no mistake: the joke is on all of us. Brüno demonstrates a point that any faggot born in America's heartland will appreciate: the hinterlands of "normal Americans" are a much more fun catwalk to strut your outrageous swish, provided you have a camera crew to document the petting zoo and keep the animals from ripping you to shreds. Gay sex tapes should be sought out, filmed, and released on the Internet of every politician, Democrat or Republican, who mobilizes politics promoting Marriage and Family. If you cannot actually film one, fake it; the fiction will be stranger than whatever facts come sputtering out of their mouths and whatever alibis they can produce. Marx & Engles discuss precisely this tactic, using fags to blackmail or take down conservative politicians, in a letter from 1868.
"Out of the city and into the periphery!"
Or, if you prefer, I'll give a shout out to my boy over at Socialism and/or Barbarism, with a line from the other, more anarchic, side of the human psyche. The line is from Heath Ledger's Joker in the new Batman: The Dark Knight film...
"Why so serious?"
It's okay, and sometimes subversive, to laugh at the joke.