Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On Bruno

Bruno is one of the funniest movies of the year, possibly even better than Cohen's previous farce, Borat. So it's surprising and somewhat troubling that Bruno went from Number 1 at the US box office with a hefty (if slightly less than expected) $30 million weekend gross, to Number 10 in the space of three weeks - making little more than its $40 million budget. What's worse is that the majority of critics and audiences saw the film as too crude, 'trying too hard' and simply not funny. David Rakoff at Salon, along with many other commentators, went further and accused Cohen's 'gay face' of reinforcing stereotypes and being offensive to homosexuals.

The true offensiveness however lies in the critical response. The 'too crude' comment is almost completely hypocritical in light of the widespread praise and record breaking success of The Hangover - an inexplicably overrated flick that grossed more than $250 million and still ranks in the top ten at the US (and Australian) box office after several weeks. A lame, safely crude comedy with a far more broad and offensive portrayal of homosexuals, The Hangover feels like a 13 year old boy trying to impress his older brother (the film was originally written as PG-13 and then later rewritten as R). In contrast, Bruno is the sublime of crude comedies - its humour so crude it violates any safe distance from which to enjoy it.

So when reviewers argue that Bruno's provocative antics failed to realise a good enough social insight, or worse, offended homosexuals, they completely miss the point. The self serving, liberal provocation of homophobes is only half the punchline. Far more controversially, the film seeks to satirise the popular mediated image of homosexuality. Cohen's Bruno embodies a pure fantasy figure, but one that is shared by right wing homophobes and the liberal mass media. For homophobes, Bruno materialises and brings into direct confrontation their image of the homosexual as sexually invasive and a threat to the child. But for the mass media, in a double reflexive twist, Bruno represents the liberal conflation of homosexuality with campness taken to its logical yet absurd endpoint. What both sides share is an image of homosexuality as fantasy, as potential - of homosexuality as camp. Bruno not only reveals the dependence homophobes and homosexuals have with this camp image, but by breaking down the fantasmatic distance that sustains it, the film also exposes its absurd libidinal substance.

Under the camp framework, homosexuality exists purely as euphemism, a constantly reflexive identity. You can suggest but you can't be. The homosexual is funny but detached, stylish but clean, sexually provocative but never threatening. Yet this conflation of homosexuality and campness is largely historical. Campness originated in the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when homosexuality was something to be concealed and encoded. Camp behaviour was thus a way for other homosexuals to send signals to each other and find sexual partners, their actions manifesting as ironic artifice because of the closeted conditions of the time. As Johann Hari writes:

So camp behaviour represents the values of the 19th-century closet. To survive and to retain any sense of self-esteem, the gay men of that generation developed a camp outlook on life. Its main features were irony, theatrical frivolity, an aristocratic detachment from the worries of straight people, parody, and an emphasis on style over substance. It made sense then. But I've got news for you: the closet is broken, and we're never going back - yet too many gay people are still trapped on an outmoded camp-site.

What makes the camp attitude a parody of itself today is the rise of the mass media and its inherantly reflexive attitude and obsession with expose. Today, the outrageous is normalised, the private is public. The saturation of popular culture has established a common self-referential attitude. Rather than being subversive in this context, campness is completely commodified. It's no surprise that popular shows like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy portray homosexuality as more a lifestyle choice than an actual sexual identity. Homosexuality qua the mass media is largely without substance: detached, ironic, and apolitical, within a self-imposed 'edgy' context. Bruno embodies this media stereotype but taken to its absurd endpoint - a narcissistic reflexiveness that revels in false provocations. He 'pushes the limits' with a photoshoot of a crucified black baby; he tells an angry talk show crowd 'they can't handle the truth'. It's not just that the people's reactions are part of the satire (although the association of the child with homosexuality is arguably the most symptomatic image of homophobia), but that the framework of provocation itself is a satire on Bruno and the reflexive image he represents.* What's being satirised isn't homosexuality but the reactionary camp identity that frames it.

Ironically, what's missing in this camp/gay conflation is actual sexuality. Sex only exists in camp in so far as it is suggested. The subversive achievement of Bruno is that it takes this euphemistic sexuality to the point of hallucination. In the most surreal spectacle of the film, Bruno gives an imaginary blow job (and much more) to Milli Vanilli's invisible spirit. The scene marks a hallicunatory clusterfuck of fantasies to rival David Lynch's 'Daddy wants to fuck' scene in Blue Velvet. Not only do you have the fantasmatic figure of Bruno (ie. a character that could not exist without the fantasies of liberals/homophobes) having imagined and increasingly bizarre sexual relations with the ghost of a dead 80s celebrity (Rob Pilatus incorrectly referred to as 'Milli'), but this act itself is also watched/ignored by a phoney psychic who falsely conjured up the spirit. And of course, 'Mili' was himself an infamous fraud, a vehicle for projection, having mimed his own songs, which in turn were not even originally sung by him (his role merely the marketable front man). The conflux of fantasies is stretched to such a degree that the Other, that is the Other who must be convinced of the fantasy (ultimately the cinema audience), is itself revealed as fantasy.** Bruno brings the euphemism of camp to its logical conclusion, that is to a point of rupture, yet without ever becoming anything less than euphemistic. The effect is the sublime of the ridiculous. We have no idea from which position we should be looking from. Any sense of grounding, of distance, is completely subverted, the mode of suggestion itself loses its symbolic efficiency.***

By revealing the absurdity of such a euphemistic identity, Bruno exposes the reactionary and ridiculous nature of both camp and homophobic attitudes. Both sides perpetuate each other by keeping the fantasy image of the homosexual at a distance. That is, both sides fuel their libidinal economy (their means of projection) through homosexuality's suggestive behaviour and its concealed nature (even outing sometimes merely privileges the concealment). The actual homosexual meanwhile remains hostage to this camp framework. Similarly, the critical reaction confuses Bruno's purely camp portrayal with that of homosexuality itself, rather than as an extreme effort to expose its difference. Indeed, before the film came out, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, concerned about Bruno's embellishment of camp stereotypes, requested a disclaimer be placed at the beginning of the film which would advise the audience that Bruno was intended to expose homophobia. Yet the effect of such a disclaimer, apart from misinterpreting the joke, would have been to make the film truly homophobic. By designating a safe liberal vantage point from which to view the film, the disclaimer would have served only to affirm the homosexual/camp conflation and thus sustain the libidinal distance that helps fuels homophobia. Leagues ahead of such reactionary groups, Bruno proves its controversial cred by frustrating any such safe position.

*There is an almost a redemptive naivety in Bruno's belief in society's limits and the power of outing in an age where such symbolic constraints cease to exist. Bruno's awareness in today's hyper awareness is almost innocent (and thus the perfect evolution of Borat's more retro 'innocence').

**Perhaps this framing of the audience's own euphemistic identity accounts for those viewers who complained they "felt homosexual" after watching the film.

***A similar hallucinatory quality is present in the film's climax where Bruno masquerading as Straight Dave mimes sexual acts with his assistant after initially pretending to wrestle him, provoking anger and tears from the drunk homophobic audience as well as fulfilling Bruno's fantasy of controversially outing himself.



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