Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 26, 2009


Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

Last night my wife and I went to see “Brüno”. I went more out of a sense of duty to my chosen avocation of leftist film critic than any expectation that I would find the movie amusing or progressive. I suppose its failure as comedy is not hardwired to its questionable social message, but all in all it was not a pleasant experience. About half the audience guffawed at the crude jokes that carried the movie along, but the movie has been a flop at the box office, largely a function of negative word of mouth, including via Twitter.

This morning as I was mulling over what I would say about “Brüno”, a profile of Sarah Silverman was airing on CBS Morning News. My wife, who is not familiar with Silverman, chuckled at her jokes, which are largely efforts in poor taste delivered in faux naïf style. Here’s a typical Silverman joke:

My genes are poisoned, and I know that for a fact. My sister Laura is the family historian, you know, and she found out — we’re Russian and Polish, ya know, Jews — she found out that the village that our great-great-great-grandmother came from in Russia was raped and pillaged by — and I don’t even know what pillaged means, but definitely raped — by Mongolians. So I’m, I am part Mongolian rapist.

I explained to my wife that Sasha Baron Cohen’s brand of humor is identical to Silverman’s. It is an attempt to derive humor through outrageous situations and by flouting good taste. In Cohen’s case, there is a pretense that this has something to do with social commentary; with Silverman, it is just an attempt to develop a career. Of course, Cohen’s major interest all along has been identical although one has to wonder what kind of career is in store for him after this latest turkey of a movie.

Interestingly enough, I found that I made the same connection to Silverman in my review of “Borat” from March 2007:

In an interesting article that appears in This Magazine, Pike Wright compares Sasha Cohen favorably to Sarah Silverman, another Jewish comedian who has achieved some notoriety for “political incorrectness”:

During an appearance on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2002, Silverman recounted how a friend had advised her to avoid jury duty by writing a racial slur on the selection form—“something really inappropriate, like ‘I hate Chinks.’” Instead, sugary-sweet Silverman explained how she wrote “I love Chinks” because she didn’t want to be considered a racist. An Asian-American media watchdog group protested the use of the slur until the network apologized. Silverman did not.

So does she really think it is OK to say Chink? Silverman never breaks character by smiling at her own outrageousness (as in, “Oh my, did I just say that aloud?”), so we’re left wondering who the real Silverman is. Unlike Cohen, her act intentionally cultivates this ambivalence. If we knew, we could decide if her act is full of racist jokes or full of jokes about racism. Couldn’t we?

If the whole premise of “Brüno” is to expose the homophobia of a backward American population, an easy target if there ever was one, the movie does not really deliver the goods. Oddly enough, the most ostensibly bigoted characters seem rather tolerant all in all, despite the provocations of the lead character.

In one scene, as Brüno is embarked on a self-help mission to become straight, he goes on a hunting trip with three men from the rural south who look for all the world like the ones who killed the gay youth Matthew Shepard. But try as he may, he elicits very little in the way of hate speech or behavior. As the four are sitting around a campfire under the stars, Brüno asks them how much they remind themselves of the girls in “Sex in the City”. They really do not take his bait and most likely regard him as an oddball that they will have to put up for a while rather than a threat to their heterosexual identity.

Brüno escalates his provocations by attempting twice to invite himself into one of the men’s tent in the middle of the night, as if in “Brokeback Mountain”. The second time he shows up completely naked. The man says something like “Go away, you queer” but that’s about it.  If that were the extent of homophobia in the U.S., there would not be much need for a gay movement. If anything, the people who are “punked” by Brüno and by Borat before him are pinnacles of tolerance no matter how outrageous Cohen behaves. In “Borat”, when he is at a dinner party in the South, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. Moments later he returns with a box of his own feces. His hosts take this in stride, assuming that they are dealing with somebody lacking in social graces rather than a movie star trying to provoke people into a state of rage for the benefit of his cameras. If this is satire, it is really pretty toothless.

Another object of Cohen’s supposedly fearless satiric instincts is celebrity worship and the hunger for fame as personified by the Brüno character that comes to Hollywood to make it big in the movies. One has to wonder if this is an unconscious projection of Cohen’s own ambitions as he has plotted out his own ascent to stardom. All this has been orchestrated carefully by his PR team but in a way to make it appear that he rejects being accepted by the tastemakers of the world.

The most notable example was his appearance at the MTV awards when he stuck his bare ass in Eminem’s face, after being dropped into the lap of the has-been white rapper from overhead cables. Afterwards Eminem and his posse stormed out of the auditorium, thus providing fodder for all the stupid show business TV shows the next day. It turned out that the entire event was staged as a publicity stunt. This foreshadowed the movie in many ways since most of the outrageous stunts performed by Cohen were done with the cooperation and foreknowledge of various straight people in on the jokes—such as they were. All of this reeks of the kind of phoniness that the “edgy” entertainer supposedly disdains.

Finally, a word on the “fashionistas” being satirized by Brüno, who is represented as the host of a fashion show on Austrian TV when the movie begins. If the Southerners in “Borat” were easy targets for Cohen, the models and designers who crop up in the latest movie are even fatter fish to shoot in the barrel. When he gets some model to state that walking down a runway is “difficult” or persuades some designer to show his pubic hair, the audience gets a cheap laugh.

I have a different take on people in the fashion industry, largely out of input from my wife who teaches at Fashion Institute, one of the most prestigious schools preparing people for the garment industry in New York. She says that despite their desire to crack into an industry without any redeeming features, they are as sensitive and idealistic as kids preparing for any other profession.  They are for peace and for social justice in overwhelming numbers. And, just as importantly, they see designing clothes as an outlet for artistic impulses that might never have gotten an opportunity to be expressed in the highly competitive fine art markets. Frankly, I would rather spend a few hours of my time with any of these kids than the insufferable Sasha Baron Cohen.


  1. This may be more to your liking then: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/movies/19lyal.html?_r=2&ref=movies

    Comment by Jenny — July 26, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

  2. I didn’t like Borat, partly because I felt there was a nasty undercurrent of Ashkenazi chauvinism aimed at uncultured goyim. But there was also a streak of really unwarranted cruelty in that Baron Cohen is really getting his laughs at the expense of polite and good-natured people who are just going along with his antics.

    There’s that, and him having done essentially the same act for a decade or more. The guy has some talent as a performer, but he really needs to get another act.

    And the same goes for Silverman. I find her somewhat amusing, but is she capable of doing anything other than breaking taboos in a faux-naif style? I await evidence that she is.

    Comment by splinteredsunrise — July 26, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

  3. This too may be more to your liking. I imagine you’re familiar with these, shall we say, more principled pranksters. Looks like a little bigger budget than the last one about them.

    Thanks for a good review. I saw it a few nights ago for similar reasons, and had pretty much the same reaction. Juvenile gross-out jokes and shooting fat fish in a barrel. *yawn*

    Comment by macon d — July 26, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  4. The Sarah Silverman joke is not even original; its source is a line about drunken Cossacks in none other than Annie Hall, which was later pinched by right-wing columnist Florence King and turned into an extended rape joke. So Silverman is literally employing third-hand humor in her attempt at groundbreaking edginess.

    And the most priceless thing about Borat was the hypocrisy of pretending to expose American bigotry while engaging in what was essentially a minstrel show with stereotypes of impoverished people from Eastern European and/or Central Asian countries.

    Comment by Steve — July 26, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

  5. Sarah Silverman is great, I was sort of ambivalent about her until I saw her the delivery of her joke in “The Aristocrats”.

    If you don’t like Sarah Silverman after this, you don’t have a (good) sense of humor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3GnuJPy9QA

    I found Borat mostly amusing, Bruno was below-average. More cringes than laughs.

    Comment by Bhaskar — July 26, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

  6. By the way the first 4:25 minutes of that video is just an above-average rendition of “The Aristocrats” after that comes the part that she almost got sued for, but it also demonstrates her amazing delivery.

    Comment by Bhaskar — July 26, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

  7. Sarah Silverman was great as Monk’s stalker/girlfriend, other than that she’s had her moments from time to time. Her TV show, which I managed to get through about 1 1/4 episodes, was quite possibly the worst show ever on TV (not sure if it’s still on, don’t care).

    As far as Borat and Bruno, thanks but no thanks. Not interested.

    Comment by Eli Stephens — July 27, 2009 @ 1:23 am

  8. I am inclined to think that we need to bear in mind something like ‘Breaking taboos is the last refuge of the talentless’. It takes zero talent to shit into a bag and stick it on someone’s dining table. Similarly in the movie ’11 Commandments’ an “actor” at the end of the film appears to put his finger up his ass and then hold it under the nose of another “star” in the film. No talent required to do that at all. And that is the insidious nature of so much of this “reality” film & television. It is like a virus destroying the impulse to art. In one of his poems Yeats wrote complainingly about his ‘fascination with things difficult’. Well we have gone full circle and become fascinated with things easy, all too easy.

    Good on you, Lou, for slamming this piece of schlock.



    Comment by Gary MacLennan — July 27, 2009 @ 1:51 am

  9. //If you don’t like Sarah Silverman after this, you don’t have a (good) sense of humor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3GnuJPy9QA//

    WTF? She says straight faced to the camera that someone raped her. I had to look around to see if she was telling the truth or not, either way, that’s just sick.

    Comment by Joel — July 27, 2009 @ 1:55 am

  10. That’s the perfect example of her delivery— and she said Joe Franklin did it– not someone. Joe Franklin.

    Comment by Bhaskar — July 27, 2009 @ 5:01 am

  11. //That’s the perfect example of her delivery— and she said Joe Franklin did it– not someone. Joe Franklin.//

    I disagree. It’s just a horrible thing to say. It’s not funny, it’s shocking and there is a difference.

    Comment by Joel — July 27, 2009 @ 6:40 am

  12. Like most of us, I prefer Woody Allen’s early movies but not for the fact that, as he also assumes (Stardust Memories), they are funnier than his later works, but because they reflect the authentic core of our subjectivity, i.e. we are helpless victims and anonymous puppets of the spontaneous ideology and we are nobody in the social game unless we cannot strive hard to attach ourselves to a Truth. Just as in the case of Chaplin (with the exception of The Great Dictator, where he acquires a proper subjectivity through fidelity to the French revolution), in the end it is usually the Truth of Love what provides subjective consciousness to that humble and neurotic New Yorker.

    I was pondering over his “Zelig” in the last couple of days, probably the only movie that I’ve so strongly identified with its main character. However, every time I attempted to write on it, I found myself rambling through various texts from the obvious “Being and Event” to the unimaginable (in the sense of its loose connection with the subject) “What is to be Done.” Finally, I’ve arrived to the conclusion that “Zelig” is not simply a movie about a human chameleon who eventually constructs a consistent personal identity through unconditional love and positive transference of a well intentioned psychoanalyst. But, Leonard Zelig himself is the symptom of the world where we love or hate the other only in the condition that he or she complements the image of our own and fits in our fantasy scene. Thus, it is actually the psychoanalyst (Farrow) who is redeemed from her fantasy of attaining recognition and fame by curing a helpless patient who has a unique disorder. She escapes from her narcissistic illusions and realizes her own nakedness in the symbolic order not by the recognition of many but by the recognition and love of one peculiar man.

    Here lies the essential perversion of aggressive Kantian ontology which is clearly discernible in Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest movie Brüno. It is not a movie about a homosexual man who exposures the prejudices ossified in the symbolic order with hostile and obscene jokes, rather, it is about the anxiety of society in front of the evil neighbor, a sociopath who metaphysically assumes subjectivity out of thin air, who duplicates the objective violence regulating the symbolic order with his or her pseudo-antagonist subjectivity (whether he is an intrusive homosexual or a vulgar immigrant) which has already been conditioned by the spontaneous ideology. Therefore, for the very reason that his character supplements our own image, fits in our fantasy, Mr. Cohen leaves no room that enables us to escape from the fantasy scene where we are horrified against the evil neighbor who exploits our work without compensation, to use us sexually without our consent, to appropriate our goods, to humiliate us, to inflict suffering on us, to torture and kill us.” Far from exposing our homophobic prejudices, Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Brüno is a proper pervert not because of his sexual position, but because he offers his homosexuality for the enjoyment of the dominant ideologies, and as a result, he actually supplements our narrow-mindedness and thwarts any possible attempt to overcome narcissism from the beginning.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — July 27, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  13. It doesn’t help that Bruno looks like blackface for gay people.

    Comment by Martin Wisse — July 27, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  14. And what is the deal with casting straight actors as gays anyhow? First it was Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia”. Then Ledger and Gillenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain”. And then Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. What’s up with that?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 27, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  15. Loius, I don’t know if your question is rhetorical — it clearly is an outrage — but it’s clearly all about the money. Those straight actors you listed have name recognition (as does S B Cohen, as “the guy who did Borat”) and will bring in the crowds. And so, gay actors don’t get such roles, and thereby have no chance to gain name recognition. Catch-22 all over again.

    Comment by macon d — July 27, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  16. It’s tiresome crap from start to finish and if it’s humorless not to appreciate it, I guess I’ll just have to be humorless. But even Mark Twain is said to have commented “You show me a man who knows what’s funny, and I’ll show you a man who knows what isn’t”.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — July 27, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

  17. You had this argument in the early 1980s when Chinese activists mobilised against the movies having Chinese characters played by white actors in yellowface. IIRC, the studios argued that there weren’t any Asian actors with enough name recognition. Catch-22, indeed.

    Comment by splinteredsunrise — July 27, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

  18. Thank you for posting this. Hopefully, it’ll educate a couple more people about the reality of Brüno as a comedy.

    I share pretty much every opinion you have of this movie. I never saw Borat, but I definitely was exposed to the Borat craze. I figured that I’d get into Brüno before the craze started all over again so I could be ahead of the game this time. Besides, Brüno’s appearances on David Letterman and other shows were decently funny, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad.

    I was wrong. Although there were some points in the movie at which I was laughing a lot, I recognized that I was kind of forcing myself to laugh — because I figured I was expected to — and I didn’t find it that funny. Going into the movie, I couldn’t possibly see how gay rights activists were angry about the movie, since I figured it’d be a clever social commentary comedy that would expose the extremities of homophobia. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and I could completely understand — Brüno only perpetuates stereotypes.

    Besides that, I left the theater just generally feeling unclean, having seen way more of Sasha Baron Cohen’s penis than I ever wanted or expected to.

    Comment by polarimetric — July 27, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  19. How much more mileage can be had from making fun of rural whites ? The United States is far more tolerant now than then 20 years ago, and unrecognizable from 50 years ago.

    Comment by purple — July 27, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  20. A visit from Michael Moore out of character, with just a camera, exposes more than what Cohen ever will.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — July 28, 2009 @ 1:21 am

  21. “I disagree. It’s just a horrible thing to say. It’s not funny, it’s shocking and there is a difference”

    Good… God. Is there a pill available that can give the Left a sense of humor?

    Comment by Coldtype — July 28, 2009 @ 3:12 am

  22. Fascinating how this author (linked below) exposes the Zionism latent in Cohen’s drivel:


    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 28, 2009 @ 6:10 am

  23. Speaking of Zionism, how about that repulsive Adam Sandler movie : “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan”? I caught it on one of the premium channels last month and was left utterly pissed off. Has Zionism gotten incredibly virulent in this epoch or what?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 28, 2009 @ 6:20 am

  24. It’s not worth spending more words on “Bruno”. But the question Louis raises in number 14 is important. Should gays play gays and straights straights? It seems to me that an actor’s (and director’s) talent should be the first consideration. Just now in London you can see–if you can find a ticket–a “Waiting for Godot” with two eminent actors who are ‘militant’ members of the gay community. None of the critics I’ve read or heard have referred to the actors’ sexual tastes. This is as it should be (though there isn’t much sex in Beckett’s people one way or the other.) A great film director like Visconti, himself gay, got a good actor like Burt Lancaster to convince even Italians that he was a womanizing Sicilian nobleman in “The Leopard”. He got a pretty good gay actor, Dirke Bogarde, to project the right sexual ambiguity in “Death in Venice”. When Visconti cast his lover Helmut Berger in “Ludwig”, he got Berger to deliver just the right slight hint of camp. On the other hand using a black actor as Hamlet in a white cast (as Peter brook did a couple of years ago) can be distracting or anyway change the nature of the play. This isn’t to say that the old Hollywood practice of temporarily pulling the eyelids closer in the head of some midwestern girl to play an Asian isn’t ridiculous.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — July 28, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  25. 15.

    Bruno is SBC’s character, he’s been playing him for years. It wasn’t a casting decision. They guy “who did Borat”, invented all these characters on the Ali G Show years ago.

    Bruno was a lot less amusing than Borat and is probably the weakest of his characters.

    Comment by Bhaskar — July 29, 2009 @ 2:04 am

  26. Who are some famous (openly) gay actors? James Dean was homosexual by most accounts (bi-sexual by some), but obviously it wasn’t openly gay.

    Comment by Bhaskar — July 29, 2009 @ 2:05 am

  27. After sounding off about “Bruno” with friends, I thought I’d better sneak around and actually see the movie. But this presented a problem. There were two versions circulating in London, one for 15, 16 and 17 year-olds and one for mature smut-hounds of 18 and over. Finally BSC was posing a question for the mind. Why couldn’t the kids see Bruno romping with his pigmy pal and his dead buddy? Why couldn’t they see him up close to that couple on the job at the party? The kids had to content themselves with the higher- issue jokes on Palestine, homophobia and abortion. It’s mind boggling to think of some studio executives sitting down to a power lunch to work out these fine distinctions.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — July 29, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  28. Famous openly gay actors:

    1. Rupert Everett
    2. Ian McKellen

    Comment by louisproyect — July 29, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  29. Add 3. Simon Callow, presently in the London “Godot” with McKellen.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — July 29, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

  30. Coldtype — “Is there a pill available that can give the Left a sense of humor?”

    Afraid not. The Democratic Party as a whole, but especially the “progressives” and “liberals,” are the pocket-protector-wearing-Poindexters of American Society.

    It’s just another aspect of the “we know what’s better for you than you do” mentality of the Donkey Brigade. They’re prepared to tell each and every one of us, one at a time, exactly what are the **serious issues** of our day, the ones that must not be made humorous– EVER!

    Comment by Charles F. Oxtrot — August 11, 2009 @ 2:07 am

  31. Funny. Funny. Funny.

    Comment by Funny Blog — August 13, 2009 @ 6:32 am

  32. “If anything, the people who are ‘punked’ by Brüno and by Borat before him are pinnacles of tolerance no matter how outrageous Cohen behaves.”


    In the films this is sometimes the case, but not overall.

    Most obvious are the drunken frat boys who made racist/sexist comments and then tried to sue Baron-Cohen for portraying them on film exactly how they were.

    There are also these pertinent clips:

    (you’ll notice that the anti-Semitic old man initiated the rant, he was not prompted).

    (Bruno in the Ali G Show)

    And I don’t doubt that most people in the fashion industry are good people, as you seem to know more of them than I do (although I wonder what a Marxist is doing in such a blatantly capitalistic industry?) but come on, don’t tell me these guys didn’t bring the ridicule upon himself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRXvlNK60cI
    Or how about that designer who, when Bruno asked, said the Nazis were well-dressed and said he wanted to go to the Middle East and kill them all?

    Comment by ~ T — September 2, 2009 @ 12:27 am

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