Posted by: Stenros | August 10, 2009

Pervasive Games in Films Part IV: Brüno


I’ve been blogging about films that have inspired pervasive games somewhat irregularly. The next entry was supposed to be David Fincher’s The Game, but I haven’t had to time to watch it again. Instead, I have to say something about Brüno. It doesn’t actually feature a pervasive game, it is pervasive play. Previous parts: I, II and III.

Brüno, 2009

I knew what to expect when I went to the theater: I have been following Sacha Baron Cohen’s career haphazardly and had enjoyed especially Borat, I had seen the trailer for Brüno and I had been reading a lot of the hype that that online and print media had been throwing my way. In addition, I had been following the filming of the movie as Towleroad always noted when Baron-Cohen-as-Brüno would pop up. Even armed with all this foreknowledge the movie did manage to surprise me. There are two moments near the beginning of the film (the champagne bottle and the talking urethral opening) that left me grasping for air.

Yet even these two scenes, though they are exceptionally well executed and funny, are surprising and shocking only in regards to their context. It’s not like I haven’t run into stuff this grotesque on the internet. Had I seen these after clicking on a link saying: “LOL! NSFW!” it would hardly have made as big an impression. I just did not expect to see these things on the big screen. And still those two scenes established the film as having “no boundaries”, even if I simultaneously knew that the film was rated R in the States, and R has a lot of restrictions.

And that is the key. Brüno is all about context.

Critics and commentators have been discussing Brüno with an air of dread. The questions they are asking are whether the film is funny and is it homophobic. The beauty of Brüno is that these questions cannot be answered if we cannot judge the context correctly. We need to know if the film is “real” or not.

Brüno features scenes that are scripted and scenes that are real in the sense that at least some of the people involved do not know that they are being filmed for this particular movie (however, they are aware of the camera) – and everything in between. Most of the scenes fall in the ambiguous zone where we cannot know. This has been frustrating for some reviewers, and much more so than in Borat. (I suspect that it is because the reviewers care more if gays get offended than if Kazakhs get offended. But the line between real and fiction is also more blurred in Brüno.) Indeed, there are reviews that have judged the film based on certain scenes being “real” or “fake”.

bruno-microphoneYet there are so many diffenet levels of real-ness in Brüno. Though I think it is theoretically possible to postulate the real-ness factor of each scene, the matrix that would be needed would be fairly complex. (Salon has a partial list for Borat.) I’ll let Thomas de Zengotita show how complex:

Real real: You fall down the stairs. Stuff in your life that’s so familiar you have forgotten the statement it makes.
Observed real: You drive by a car wreck. Stuff in your life where the image-statement is as salient as the function.
In-between real real and observed real: Stuff tat oscillates between the first two categories depending on the situation. Like, you’re wearing something you take for granted, but then you are introduced to someone attractive.
Edited real real: Shtick you have down so pat you don’t know it’s a shtick anymore, but you definitely only use it in certain situations. Documentaries and videos of all kinds where people are unaware of the camera, although that’s not easy to detect, actually. Candid photographs.
Edited observed real: Other people’s down-pat shtick. Shtick of your own where you are still working on it. Documentaries and videos where people are accommodating the camera, which is a lot of the time, probably. Politicians on talk shows.
Staged real: Events like weddings and formal parties. Retail clerk patter. Politicians on talk shows.
Edited staged real: Pictures of the above. Homemade porn.
Staged observed unique real: Al kisses Tipper. Survivor.
Staged observed real repeated: Al kisses Tipper again and again. Achor desk and talk show intros and seques. Wheather channel behavior.

In the interest of time we skip the subtler middle range of distinction and go to the other end of the spectrum:

Staged realistic: Movies and TV shows like The English Patient and NYPD.
Staged hyperreal: Oliver Stone movies and Malcolm in the Middle.
Overtly unreal realistic: SUVs climbing up the sides of buildings. Digitized special effects in general, excepth when they are more or less undetectable.
Covertly unreal realistic: The model’s hair in shampoo ads. More or less undetactable digital effects, of which there are more and more every day.
In-between overtly and covertly unreal realistic: John Wayne in contemporary beer ad (because you have to know he is dead in order to know he is not “really” in the ad, whatever that means).
Real unreal: Robo-pets
Unreal real: Strawberries that won’t freeze because they have fish genes in them. (Thomas De Zengotita, Mediated, 2005)

Of course, there isn’t even a category for misrepresentation, real behavior meant for one show (televised peace talks) shown in another (candid camera comedy). Michael Wesch has talked about this as context collapse.

bruno-horseI’m not sure if we need to decide if the film was real or not. The ambiquity of not knowing creates a zone between fact and fiction. Yet this section need not be scary and anxiety-enducing I-don’t-know -land. It could just as well be categorized as I-don’t-care. Pervasive games have shown that not knowing if something is connected to a game (“fake”) or not connected to the game (“real”) can be very pleasurable. Just as a pervasive game player learns to treat anything encountered in the process of playing as both potentially related to the game and potentially not related to the game, this double consiciousness works in all reality entertainment. We already have the skill of relating to Big Brother or The Real World as “real” carefully chosen people, who perform for the benefit of the camera, partly according to a script, in a completely edited television show.

Of course, this double consciousness is nothing new in itself; indeed, the satisfaction of satire is based on the reader understanding the surface meaning and then getting the hidden meaning (Bryan Alexander has written about this in connection to ARGs). the difference is that now we don’t know which interpretation is “correct”. While watching Brüno we see each scene – at least – as if it was real and as if it was true.


  1. I love that de Zengotita’s list. I tried to look for a fuller list with the midground covered, but I don’t think one exists.

    His book is excellent throughout, of course.

    – M

  2. It is a great read. If anyone is looking for an intelligent and fun book to take with them to the beach about the mediated time we live, I wholeheartedly recommend this book.Anyone who just goes ahead and talks about “blob” instead of postmodernism is okay in my book.

  3. Ak, I need to catch up on this guy. I think the last time I saw Cohen was in Burton’s _Sweeney Todd_.

    Should I start with _Borat_?

  4. Bryan,

    Personally I think Borat is the place to start, definitely.

    – M

  5. From your lips, Montola, to the ears of Netflix. :)

  6. I have to agree with Markus, Borat is a good place to start. Of course, while you wait for the Netflix package, you can check out skits from his UK TK show. YouTube is littered with them…

  7. […] This is the fifth part of the increasingly irregular series on films that have inspired pervasive games and play. This time I revisit the film that countless people use to explain what pervasive games are. “It’s like Fincher’s The Game, except for real.” Previous parts: I, II, III and IV. […]

  8. […] ones that somehow tie into popular culture. The posting about pervasive games in films (I, II, III, IV) have always been popular, as have our commentaries of ongoing controversies (Anna Odell, Invoke, […]

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