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December 4, 2009

You'd better kiss my [fat] ass: Brüno, Precious, and the Quest for Stardom
FILED UNDER: "Pop Culture"
TAGS: Film studiesHollywoodliteraryOprahSasha Baren Cohen
By Max

bruno_precious.jpg

Some things may happen when you watch two different movies in the same week: having nothing in common, you can't help suspecting that somewhere, somehow, they have a connection - a relevant one. So I was trying to figure out what could be the link between Brüno and Precious: I had watched the first one because it just had been released in DVD in the States and the second one because Oprah Winfrey had decided - and I agree with her - that America had found the equivalent of a new Color Purple. Alas, all I could find at first was that both movies are eponymous, provocative and successful, but this was not meaningful enough. Thinking more about them, or letting them haunt me for a while (I love to do that!), I sensed that both Brüno and Precious were cast as anti heroes more than heroes, and that they were looking for fame in a strong, obsessive way. The content of the fame they were looking for did not matter, by which I mean the reason why they would become famous, or the talent that would explain why they deserved celebrity. Fame mattered above all as a goal, regardless of its means, as the reward changing one's life in a magic, arbitrary way.

Brüno thinks he's already a star, he just needs people to realize it and worship him as the idol he's always been. As people are ungrateful, or blind enough not to recognize him as an innate star, Brüno flies from Austria to Los Angeles in order to help the whole world understand he's simply fabulous and incredible. His obsession with stardom requires all his time and energy and does not leave space for anything else: Brüno doesn't have any sense of ethics or spirituality; he has no time and no will to deal with existential issues about his or other people's lives. Brüno embodies what happens in a society based on consumption, individualism and political correctness: the advent of an empty, cynical consumer enjoying life as an endless TV show and requesting his slice of fame - but much more than the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol thought everyone could claim. The inhumanity of Brüno comes from the fact that he stands for the unbearable, yet comic paragon of a narcissistic subject ready to destroy people and insult their values if it helps get the attention of the paparazzi. Brüno is not just a caricature of a shameless, unscrupulous dandy desperately trying to make it in LA, he is more the vision of horror we can sometimes see in the mirror because we live in this society in which entertainment and the privatization of morals culminate in the quest for stardom as the ultimate, superficial and only thing worth wishing for.

Another interesting question raised by Brüno is "How can you become a star when you're openly gay?" The movie articulates the double bind analyzed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of The Closet in a brilliant way. This double bind is still functioning today. I like to interpret one of the scenes of the movies, when Brüno is getting anal bleaching, as a metaphor describing how society is processing our subjectivities through the lens of marketing and idolatry. Far from being eccentric and crazy, Brüno is like us and shares the same cultural determinations: he's just one step further, showing us the way. At this point, the comedy is a tour de force; it becomes political satire and leaves us with a sense of emergency.

Precious is definitely further away from Brüno's selfishness and self confidence. It's euphemistic to say that life has been tough with her since she's always been beaten by her parents, raped by her father who ended up giving her two kids and one virus (HIV), and not to mention exploited physically and psychologically by a resentful, cruel mother in a poor, dangerous neighbourhood in Harlem in the 1980s. Her mother keeps telling her that she's stupid and useless, that she should have aborted instead of raising such an ugly animal. For the spectator it's a miracle that Precious (what an ironic name) manages to grow up in this constant hell. When she's being raped by her father, or whenever she's trembling on the verge of despair, Precious runs away from reality and finds herself sexy and glamorous on the stage of her dreams, surrounded by smiling, beautiful boys watching her with admiration and tenderness on the beat of nice music. Then Precious wakes up, back to the abuse and humiliation.

Her quest for fame should not be understood as capricious, it's rather a survival technique, a line of flight to distract her from the unsustainable rumination of pain, lack of love and loss of luck. Thanks to an alternative educational program ("Each one teach one") and the chemistry with her lesbian teacher (Miss Rain), Precious discovers a sense of dignity and the expressions of care and trust in the gaze of compassionate new people in her life (Mariah Carey as a social worker - actually very convincing -, and Lenny Kravitz as a nurse to die for). Step by step, she builds her own self, enjoys some privacy away from her mother and, above all, gains the power and the will to speak for herself, to write in her name - hence her memoirs, on which the movie is based, and by now its international fame.

Thus, stardom means a lot for both Brüno and Precious, and in the end they both achieve it, but here trajectories are just opposite: Brüno proved how inhumane he is willing to become in order to be a star - just any kind of star -, whereas Precious was reached by fame as the indirect consequence of a long, hard, emotional initiation to integrity, courage and self esteem. Eventually, what Precious and Brüno have in common, in spite of their striking contrast as cinematographic genres and psychological characters, is that they both point the crucial impact of the quest for stardom from a sociological perspective, and the space for political agency attached to it.

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