Homo Panic! at the Cinema

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Convenient Political Correctness is what stunts Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor and keeps him from being a great comic artist. It’s why his 2007 film Borat ultimately was worthless. Because Borat catered to liberal/conservative partisanship, even GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination) came to expect that Baron Cohen’s latest film, the homophobia charade Bruno, would conveniently line-up with their program. (When GLAAD “wasn’t brought into the process” of Bruno’s production, they protested; apparently unembarrassed about demanding a priori censorship.) Evidently, Baron Cohen’s convenient political correctness teaches hypocrisy, not fairness or free expression.

GLAAD’s objection to Bruno—in which Baron Cohen portrays a Eurotrash fashion-model-turned-journalist—comes from the few skits that challenge a media-sanctioned special-interest group. Bruno’s silly fame-whore puts gay stereotypes to the same humiliation Borat gave to the non-special-interest group, the country Kazakhstan. Fact is, when Bruno declares, “The fashion world is superficial and vacuous, so I go to Los Angles to become the hugest Austrian superstar since Hitler,” Baron Cohen essentially repeats Borat’s Red State/Blue State antagonism—but still weighted in favor of the New York media elite. L.A. types, including a pair of celebrity charity publicists, get trashed while Manhattanites are spared any suggestion of opportunism or harboring political incorrectness.

Bruno is no more homophobic than was Zoolander—just openly ribald: Caught in a hotel orgy where he outrages the decorous staff, Bruno is surrounded by whips, chains and gerbils. The butt of Baron Cohen’s joke is determined by his smug insistence that he knows what’s worth laughing at—different from knowing what’s funny. This is what makes his mockumentaries detestable. His clown-protagonists, from Ali G to Borat to Bruno, don’t learn anything about the United States, they simply rubber-stamp familiar snark. When Baron Cohen exhausts staged-and-scripted routines, he targets/betrays real-life civilians who have welcomed him into their confidence. Toothless hillbillies, religious conservatives, even unglamorous politician Ron Paul who is subjected to unwanted advances, get pilloried. (“I couldn’t even shtup RuPaul,” Bruno sighs.)

Ambush humor is mistaken for a form of political debate. As practiced by Baron Cohen, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Michael Moore, it signifies how low comedy has sunk during the era of Anti-Bush Liberal Backlash. One daring moment has Bruno trivialize the Mideast crisis (“I have one shithole left to fix”) by bringing together Mossad and Hamas spokesmen. His sung advice—“Don’t kill each other, shoot a Christian”—is a bizarre leveler; it goes to the heart of much secular-liberal sentiment while pretending to be even-handed. Yet, Baron Cohen’s real mission is ridicule. Compared to the good-natured mid-20th-century comedy seen in Aviva Kempner’s new doc Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Baron Cohen’s misuse of Jewish humor loses its time-honored humanity.

Actress-writer Gertrude Berg’s legendary sitcom The Goldbergs (first a 1940s radio program, then a TV series that ran from 1949 to 1955) popularized the urban American Jewish mother—an archetype many Jewish sophisticates have been running from ever since. Kempner’s proud embrace of this pioneering show stands in perfect contrast to Sacha Baron Cohen’s current acclaim. Using comedy as a weapon of political bias differs from Gertrude Berg’s post-WII social advance.

Scholar Alfred Kazin noted, “The positive, creative role of the Jew as modern American [began], not in the universities [the pedigree The Village Voice cited for Borat’s creator], not even in journalism, but in the vaudeville theaters, music halls and burlesque houses where the pent-up eagerness of penniless immigrant youngsters met the raw urban scene on its own terms.” Kempner’s doc shows how Berg ingratiated Jewish culture into the American mainstream; she uses clips and a brisk history of Berg’s family life for evidence.

In Kempner’s first B&W kinescope image, Berg as Molly greets the audience through her sitcom’s Bronx project airshaft window: “‘Hello’ is such a little word for such a big feeling. I want to say hello to you with all the letters in the alphabet,” she enthuses. Her big smile and bosomy breathing present a disarming fullness of emotion—the prototype for Shelly Winters’ great Mama performance in Next Stop, Greenwich Village. Unafraid of this “type,” Kempner gets testimony from NPR’s Susan Stamberg (“Yes, she still had the apron, sort of an Old World touch, but she was an assertive woman that Molly”) and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (“She was no shrinking violet. She was out there doing things and leading others”). For Kempner, Molly’s emotional appeal insinuated cultural and political power—resulting in today’s TV moguls Norman Lear and Gary David Goldberg, who offer tributes. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is really a lament for contemporary Jewish comedy’s loss of ethnic confidence. Kempner’s nostalgia becomes irrefutable in those faded images of Berg’s beaming face and discreet intelligence.

The doc’s weak point is its 1950s Blacklist griping—shockingly called “the most shameful period in American history.” This overstated grievance recalls Baron Cohen’s misjudged politics. Unlike haimish Molly Goldberg, Bruno and Borat are comic jackasses; though not identified as Jewish, they horrifically traduce the empathy of the Jewish comic tradition.

Neither Bruno nor Borat offer an organized critique; staged and Punk’d scenes are loosely connected. Even a skit on celebrity baby-bartering turns into a satire on gay adoption that turns into a talk show parody no more revealing than a real TV talk show. The fallacy that Baron Cohen’s comedy is politically pertinent derives from its pandering to Lefty biases. This insults genuinely thoughtful political humor, as in Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 absurdist collage, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. Makavejev’s stated objective was to create, “A zone of liberation, an ensemble of explosive ideas, images, relations, associations.” He revealed the human contradictions within totalitarianism and the struggle for democracy; today’s political rivals can’t abide contradictions. Baron Cohen (and his odious collaborator-director Larry Charles, who excreted the ridiculous Religulous) merely seek to polarize and capitalize. Baron Cohen knows what side his ass is buttered on.


Bruno
Directed by Larry Charles
Runtime: 83 min.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Directed by Aviva Kempner
At Lincoln Plaza Cinema & The Quad
Runtime: 90 min.

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