Saturday, August 1, 2009


I just came home from watching Bruno, Sasha Baron Cohen's latest provocation, which made me laugh until I cried and choked for breath. Utterly tasteless, he had to attempt to offend as many well-thinking politically correct people. Make fun of the gays, check, Holocaust and Hitler jokes, check, Austrians as Nazis, check. Personally, Mel Brooks' The Producers might be a big hit but even though I pride myself on being able to find the humor in anything, I wince anytime anyone makes a joke using the Holocaust as a punchline.

People tend to spend a lot of time guessing which scenes were set up and which ones were staged. (in the immortal words of the Smiths) What difference does it make? First of all, since Big Brother and The Real World, we all know that there is no thing as "real" "reality" in "reality" TV or films for that matter. The naive shock and awe of Candid Camera is long gone. Reality TV has made us all able deconstructionists, semioticians, and skeptics. It's as if everyone suddenly read Barthes and Foucault while watching Real Housewives of Atlanta.

They also ask whether or not a movie featuring such horrible stereotypes of homosexuals might only perpetuate them, fanning the flames (bad pun) of homophobia. First of all, what self-respecting homophobe would go see a movie about a faggot, and a foreign one at that?

A better question might be: if Borat was from one of the 'Stans which are so remote and unknown to Americans that it may as well be an imaginary country, thus safe for ridicule, are the gays equally fair game? We know from watching President Obama's actions thus far that the gays are apparently the last group that is not entitled to civil rights. Even our first black president draws the line when it comes to the queers' having marriage equality and equal rights in the armed services, to name but a couple of examples. When it comes to homophobia, we need to beware of some of the liberals, as well as the bigots.

Although like Borat the movie was juvenile and could have used some editing (as does my writing, but that's why this is a blog and not an article), there were some brilliant parts such as the extended sequence where he met with a Fundamentalist Christian claiming he converts gays to straights. Each time he asked the bigot what are typically hetero activities, cut to Bruno taking part in these things. Martial arts, wrestling, hunting, you name it. All homosocial, all plagued with us versus them macho posturing. A lot of the scenes took place in Alabama, we were wondering if that's because like Kazhakstan, it's "remote" enough that people don't know who Baron Cohen is, and are not in on the joke?

I could not help but think of Jake and Dinos Chapman. I remember one installation featuring children in contorted sexual postures, their body parts obscenely scrambled so penises came out of ears and mouths became vaginas. Some figures gave Hitler salutes or wore little cub scout type uniforms with swastikas. This shock value effect isn't really original. Just read Salvador Dali's "memoirs" and look at his painting "The Enigma of William Tell" among others. We might also think of Anselm Kiefer's "Occupations" series in Interfunktionen. And then there was Tom Sach's "Prada Concentration Camp," closer to the Chapamans' and Baron Cohen's tone. Similarly, Baron Cohen performed numerous sex acts or pantomimed them, gave Hitler salutes, joked about Auschwitz, put young children in a scene where they simulated the Crucifixion. Aiming to provoke, with no real purpose other than to shock well-meaning liberals, to push buttons by making light of topics that remain the ultimate taboos when it comes to humor or satire. And at the end of the day most of the gay and sexual content might not be out of place as boyish locker room humor.

The seemingly hour-long movie previews were also fascinating windows into early twenty-first century cultural notions of gender roles and sexuality, heteronormative and homophobic, violent, and ruthless.

There were two movies having to do with bored heterosexual couples. One involved a group trip to one of those adult's only mega beach resorts in the Bahamas -- maybe, because what I love about the resorts is that nowhere in the ad do you see what country you are actually going to, it's some vaguely paradisiacal beachy location with an evocative name -- that ends up being a couples' boot camp. Hilarity ensues as a series of confusing burlesque episodes transpire. One of these: a yoga instructor called Fabio (hello? could that reference be any more dated? apparently this movie is aimed at conventional heterosexual people aged 35-45) performs postures that simulate heterosexual sex with the wives, and gay male sex, with the husbands, apparently to arouse laughter.

The classic high school morality play facing off the good girl/bad girl as a horror film was homophobically spun. It featured a bad girl (Megan Fox) that turned out to be a vampire/bisexual. How original!!!! Playing on the subtextual cultural memories of Angelina Jolie's public persona, and on Fox's resemblance to her, as well as her own recent admission that she likes girls, too, the story becomes even more loaded. We see a bad girl brunette dominant partner and the noble girl blonde that sets out to defeat the evil deviant. The dark dominant seductress lesbian and the pliant submissive blond fantasy trope is a long standing one when depicting ladies that love other ladies, so this is not original. In any case, I imagine that this one will surely contribute to lowering the gay teen suicide rates.

The final straw was one called "Gamer" where non-felons and felons played a virtual reality video game that turned out to be "really" real. The criminal players manipulated by the upstanding male citizens are men incarcerated on death row! They fight to the death, of course, and never win. Thus, they try to escape. This one takes the game theory "Prisoners' Dilemma" to a whole new level. I wonder how this one plays in countries that don't condone the death penalty? Clearly this one is skewed to US audiences in a country that has an appalling human rights record and that until recently had leaders that institutionalized torture for prisoners of war.

I also find it interesting to see not only in academia (see my posts "A Gathering of Nerds" and "Testing the Waters" for art history nerds' fascination with "gaming") but in corporate parlance. I was speaking with friends about workplace situations (artworld and non-artworld) and we instinctively used gaming as a term, as in, "this person gamed another person" and "they took this person off the chess board." Like the popularity of reality TV shows premised on taking your opponents literally off the board/house/island in order to survive, everyone now knows that this is the value system we need to follow in the late 20th and early 21st century. I assume philosophers that specialize in "game theory" (by the way, I had no idea such a thing existed until I went on a date with someone that specializes in this recondite? field) will be or are in tremendous demand, perhaps as workplace consultants in HR departments or as Life Coaches for ambitious careeists?

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