Monday, July 13, 2009

Bruno's American Dream

A rootless cosmpolitan comes home (to a studio)

The following piece has been published in the current edition of the History News Network.

In a culture that honors -- often to the point of self-flattery -- the virtues of tolerance, it's hard to be genuinely outrageous. But Sacha Baron Cohen is working at it as hard as anybody out there today. As is often the case with cultural transgressors, the locus of his appeal is the young. (I myself was introduced to The Ali G Show by my students on a long bus ride back from a field trip a few years ago.) That's not to say all young people embrace him, any more than he will offend everybody over the age of 30. But a generational lens is not a bad place to begin to understand his power, in part because it gets outside some of the typical ones through which he is typically viewed. Like, of course, sexuality, the overt topic of his latest movie, Bruno.

Bruno, of course, is a richly overdetermined text on the nature of homophobia, a topic on which it will no doubt generate fruitful discussions for a long time to come. But to me, the real drama of the movie came from a different category of identity: Bruno is an immigrant. In that regard, he's appears like his not-so distant relative, Borat, protagonist of the 2006 movie of the same name, though Borat had a sweetness to him, an irrepressible love of the United States, that shone through even his most embarrassingly hilarious moments. But Borat was a visitor who went home, however much he and his village were transformed by his experience. Bruno, by contrast, is an outcast in his native Austria, thanks to a wardrobe malfunction involving velcro. Once in America, he shows every intention of staying, as indicated, for example, by his desire to get married (to a man, of course) in California. And Bruno has a characteristically American Dream: to become famous.

It's this dream that's really the drama of Bruno's life. Love is at best a fashion accessory; sex is something he takes for granted (at first, anyway). But becoming famous -- not for any particular reason, mind you, simply to be famous -- is a daunting prospect. And to achieve this dream, he will stop at nothing. Early efforts in acting, a talk show, and charity work prove fruitless, however, and after an unfortunate incident involving a handcuffs and other paraphernalia, Bruno decides his homosexuality is his problem. If he wants to succeed like Tom Cruise or John Travolta, he's going to have to assimilate. And he understands that to mean going straight. Whether or not Bruno is right about this -- or whether or not he's right to think, like the evangelical ministers he consults, that homosexuality is social construction and therefore one that can be remade -- is less important than his perception that this is the price of his dream. It's what leads him to his crisis moment of the story, where he is tortured by a dominatrix only too happy to beat him into sexual submission. Bruno (narrowly) escapes that fate. But the episode becomes a turning point that allows him to formulate the brilliant plan of cultural vengeance by which he will appear to honor the codes of his adoptive (redneck) country but achieve his dream on his own terms. In other words, a global Hollywood ending.

Bruno is by no means a perfect movie. It has smug liberal air about it, and while Cohen with some justice no doubt prides himself on being an equal opportunity offender, there is an (interracial) class skew to his humor. And he's certainly capable of more than his fair share of cheap shots. Much has been made of libertarian Ron Paul's mounting disgust with Bruno during a hotel interview he unwittingly takes seriously, but I'm not sure Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, or, for that matter, Barney Frank, could have -- or should have -- done any better in dealing with what could easily be termed sexual harassment. I'm actually more impressed by the unflappability of some of Bruno's victims (who in some cases literally hold their fire) than their outrage or discomfort.

But at the heart of this film is a piercing piece of social criticism that goes far beyond sexual orientation: an attack on an American Dream of fame and fortune that is as banal as it is widespread. Here I'm reminded of a lyric from the classic Counting Crows song, "Mr. Jones": "When I look at the television I want to see me/staring right back at me." Like the character in that song, who wants to be like Bob Dylan without any of his talent or effort, millions of Americans (and would-be Americans, at least until the approaching day when the media capital migrates somewhere new) define their aspirations in terms of the secular grace conferred by the talk show, that favorite setting for Sacha Baron Cohen's satires. We inhabit a democracy of desire, which, in both its almost total unavailability for fulfillment, and the often remorseless means by which we would attain it, is as psychologically oppressive as a totalitarian regime.

If Bruno teaches us anything, it's the imperative of finding a source of friction in something, or someone, other than ourselves -- not instead of ourselves, which is another form of totalitarianism -- with which to get a life that does not finally rely on the admiring attention of others. Will Bruno finally come to his senses, find true love with his adoring assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), and apply his undeniable verve with couture in a more productive direction? There's not a lot of interest, much less hope, in that particular fantasy, particularly when you've got Bono, Slash, and Snoop Dogg in your video. And Elton John to add a sly wink.

The paradox of Bruno is that Cohen has clearly labored with tremendous energy and attention to detail to make a movie about a fabulously empty existence. To say that this movie is a work of fierce intelligence is no cliche. I have a reasonably good idea of what Cohen is against at this point. I'm a good deal less clear about what he's for. Could he make a funny movie about that?