I’m going to Greenbelt over August Bank Holiday – to perform no less. I’m going to be playing an exhibition match of Countdown against anyone who fancies taking me on, and then taking questions from the crowd on being an inveterate quizzer and other stuff, or something like that. And I’ll be part of a strong gay presence at Greenbelt – my friend Ben is heavily involved in the organisation of things once again, and figures such as Gene Robinson will also be there. But not everybody is happy about this. Viz this awesomely offensive little tirade from one Dr Lisa Nolland of the Mainstream Anglican:
And if you thought that was bad, here’s the response:
Ben shared this with me yesterday. Frankly I found it so OTT that I was as amused as much as I was incensed. I was also slightly nonplussed at the categorisation of Athlete and Royksopp as “gay” bands. Perhaps Dr Lisa (it has a ring to it, a bit like Judge Judy) would like to explain exactly what she means by “gay” bands. It should also be evident now that Simon Hughes is not Britain’s best-known bisexual. That’s Duncan James. Anyway, the Dr Lisas of this world should be mercifully conspicuous by their absence at Greenbelt, with its shameless “gayification”. For which read “tolerance of LGBTs and other minorities, which is more in keeping with Christian ideas of loving acceptance than a lot of so-called Christians and their faiths”.
I wonder what Dr Lisa would make of Brüno, Sacha Baron-Cohen’s new film, in which he plays a screamingly camp Austrian fashionista. Brüno is one of those films about which it is difficult not to have an opinion, although I have to admit that I’m still working mine out. In the film, Brüno starts out as the host of his own taste-making show, before a catwalk incident involving a Velcro suit leads to public humiliation and a deliriously tasteless Josef Fritzl reference. Dumped by his boyfriend, Brüno heads to America in search of fame, his pathetically adoring assistant’s assistant Lütz in tow. Unsuccessful attempts at acting and TV presenting lead him to try his hand at supporting a “cause” – the cause being the Middle East peace process – and when that proves unsuccessful and he loses his adopted African baby, he heads to the American South in an attempt to become straight; before matters resolve themselves in a manner of speaking.
Like Baron-Cohen’s other characters, Brüno is essentially a device for getting ordinary people to say outrageous things. Or in this case to react to someone being outrageous. And here is where the film is likely to prove divisive. Brüno is an extreme stereotype, and clearly not meant to be representative of gay people as a whole (it’s telling that Matt Lucas’s name pops up in the credits in a consultant capacity, as Brüno is distinctly reminiscent of another comedy homosexual). And this extreme portrayal of a gay man – camp, preening, ridiculously dressed, obsessed with sex – could be seen as being necessary to elicit the desired reaction from the various individuals whom he encounters in the film’s latter sequences, on the road to his attempted straight conversion. Most unsettling are his camping trip with a trio of rednecks, followed by a cage-fighting sequence (which becomes something else) witnessed by a hollering crowd whose expressions mutate into disgust and hatred; save for one or two individuals who evince a look of fascination, and not necessarily appalled. It’s scenes like these which I, at any rate, found very hard to watch except through my fingers. Just how far were Baron-Cohen and his team prepared to push things at the risk of being subject to severe violence (assuming the subjects of these skits weren’t in on the joke; and with the probable exception of a scene involving Paula Abdul and a charity song at the end, I’m assuming they weren’t)? It’s more unsettling than funny because you are reminded that, whilst Sacha Baron-Cohen has a safety net (i.e. he’s straight), real LGBT people living in the southern States (and plenty of other parts of the world) have no such recourse. They could never afford to be so blatant, not whilst such virulent hatred and ignorance is channelled in their direction.
Also sailing not so much close to the wind as into a Force 8 gale are the scenes in which Brüno attempts to broker peace in the Middle East. A misguided attempt at mediation between Israeli and Palestinian representatives is then followed by an interview with the leader of an Arab group in which Brüno insults Osama Bin Laden and is angrily told to leave. Once again, you have to wonder just how much danger Baron-Cohen was putting himself (and his team) in for the sake of comedy.
Brüno is, on the whole, a very disconcerting experience – comfortably camp and outrageous early on, it veers between inducing nervous laughter and sheer terror later on. Is it offensive to gay people? I’d say, on balance, no, at least no more offensive than it is to various other groups in the film. If you want offensive to gay people, then look at Chris Moyles (on second thoughts, don’t). At least Baron-Cohen, in his own way, is using a stereotype to confront and subvert homophobia by making its practitioners look ridiculous. Whilst satirising intolerance in the Bible Belt and the Middle East is akin to putting a ton of cod in a small barrel and then firing at them with a Kalashnikov, few people would be as prepared as Baron-Cohen is to put his arschenhaller quite so much on the line in order to make the point.