If there’s one thing satire shouldn’t make you do, it’s
yawn. The only time I’ve ever nodded off in a theatre was while
watching Barry Levinson’s 1997 political satire Wag The Dog. My
narcolepsy sums up what I thought of the film—two eyelids down. (For
fans of poli. sat., the upcoming Britfilm In The Loop, with its mockery of
Dubyaspeak and Blairblah, looks much better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQrqMkCuHqA).
Satire should go down like a shot of absinthe or sambuca—quick,
hard, with a sting and a slightly bitter aftertaste—not hit you like
Nyquil. But satire’s not always so easy to pull off on-screen. It can
work a lot better on paper, where a certain voice can be maintained
throughout. (The best example is one of the earliest—Swift’s
cheerily logical explanation of why Irish babies should be sold as food to
the English to alleviate Irish poverty caused by the English: http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html)
Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Brüno has just sashayed into theatres, fits
into this ancient satirical mould, adopting a mask as part of a
persona-driven satire (another obvious example is Stephen Colbert’s
stuck-in-Limbaugh blowhard on The Colbert Report, showing just how toothless
and red-faced TV news has shamelessly become). Cohen’s persona is,
appropriately in our celebrity-era of movie-making, an outlandish figure
ready-made for TV or a documentary: Ali G as interviewer or Brüno as
model or Borat as tour-guide.
A good persona needs to draw as much laughs with them as at them, so that
overall they’re more an archer of barbed zingers than a target of them.
Among the best at this are The Yes Men, culture-jamming activists who do
“identity correction,” usually taking corporate personas and
corporations’ logic to an outer limit that exposes those personas and
that logic as true idiocy trying to manufacture yes-men consumers out of us.
They showed off “vivoleum” at the GoExpo in Calgary in 2007
and had some of their exploits covered in a 2003 documentary, with another
documentary coming out this year.
But Borat and Brüno’s satirical stance, aim, and accuracy seem
much fuzzier. Borat is anti-Semitic, which Cohen can get away with because
he’s Jewish, but that identity-politics rationale vanishes with
Brüno. Cohen isn’t gay, and some reviewers are saying that
he’s just fitting his Austrian über-model into some broad gay
stereotypes, rather than offering a nuanced but often oblivious (like, say,
Colbert’s newscaster has become or most of Steve Coogan’s
characters) persona who can expose the intolerance or foolishness of those he
meets. Others have accused Cohen of basically doing “blackface”
with homosexuality. Some critics have wondered if Brüno is mocking
homophobia or getting into bed with it—that’s a problem, because
its satirical thrust should be obvious.
Lots of other thrusts are obvious, because some of Cohen’s satire,
as it devolves into skit or confrontation, can be Sandler-ish juvenile,
stripping jokes down to the genital level. So there’s nude wrestling in
Borat and a talking penis in Brüno, as if homosexuality is just about
sex, like gay-bashers say:
There’s something sort of Jackass stunt-y about Cohen’s
satire, with him getting lots of points for daring (or cheek, especially in
the case of Brüno v. Eminem at the MTV Music Awards: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp024zrH8Yc&feature=related)
when he confronts, in seemingly non-staged situations, politicians or
celebrities or even someone who could beat the snot out of him (Eminem makes
sense, at least, if only because he’s known for his anti-gay lyrics).
But why always Americans, and often middle-American Red-staters at that?
It’s like stereotype vs. stereotype.
Part of it may be that Cohen is, in a sense, trying to bite the celebrity
culture that feeds the publicity for his stunts—the stars at those same
MTV Awards who go “oo-ooh!” at the actor and rapper’s
homoerotic clinch—by pissing on the red carpet and showing up the fame
game for the hollow, self-satisfied tinsel-fest it is.
But the problem with that kind of satire is that it can get sucked into
the black hole of self-regarding, mirror-on-the-wall CelebrityWorld; after
all, how can you really puncture the bubble of self-important TV and movie
stars when they can survive such absurd coverage, posing as serious, sober
“news,” as CNN tracking down where Bubbles the chimp is after
Michael Jackson died? The spun, soap-operatic stories will go on
and when a fantasy clown-land is getting straight-faced coverage, maybe
there’s not much point in the personas coming out to play. V