It’s Funny Because It’s False

Sunday morning – attend my first Quaker meeting at Muswell Hill. I go out of curiosity, having read a little about George Fox and Quaker practice in advance. It really is people of all ages just sitting silently in a room for an hour, chairs arranged in an oval shape around a table, with no indication of who’s in charge. No hymns, no sermon, no dressing up. In fact, I worry if I’m a bit over-dressed for attending a famously minimalist form of worship.

Sometimes people get up unprompted to speak about a matter of personal faith (‘giving ministry’), but they keep it brief, and it’s back to the silence. I find it all intriguing and mind-opening, if a little baffling (the organisational structure of the Quaker church still confuses me). What I do approve of is the concept of a religion based on shutting the hell up for once, particularly in these times of blogging and Having Your Say and Twittering and Comment Is Unqualified. Like the night job before, it also helps to knock the corners off my ego; I even find atheism too ego-heavy these days.

For the first twenty minutes, though, this hoped-for Quaker silence is rather compromised by a neighbour’s electric strimmer right outside a (closed) window. Eventually someone from the room goes outside and asks them very, very nicely if they could desist until after twelve. ‘But I’ve nearly finished,’ replies the female neighbour, off. It must have worked, though, and there’s no more irritations for the rest of the hour. Not even an accidentally left-on mobile phone.

This dilemma of Quaker tolerance leads to a couple of speeches made as ‘ministry’ at the meeting: is it right to ask a non-Quaker to stop using their powered gardening tools between 11am and noon on a Sunday? Given that the neighbour must be aware they live next to a place of worship whose main purpose is this very hour of silence once a week? Would this one person mind awfully turning off the thing until afterwards, in consideration for the forty or so people gathered next door for centuries-old worship? Is that so unfair? ‘But I’ve nearly finished!’

Afternoon – tea and cake with Suzi, Minerva and Torquil (from the New Sheridan/ Chap scene) at High Tea in Highgate, followed by drinks at The Angel across the road. We discuss, among other things, preferred pets. It occurs to me that I’d rather like a cockatoo. Yes, yes, double entendres aside. Either that or a macaw. I often look out for the London Zoo macaws when walking through Regent’s Park: they can be seen from the park’s Broad Walk. I find them a cheering sight, and wonder if I could ever share a house with one.


Speaking of ancient but still droll innuendo… Yesterday – to the Apollo cinema in Regent Street to see Bruno, the new Sacha Baron Cohen faux-documentary. I have a low tolerance of much laddish, bad-taste TV prank humour, but I do have a soft spot for Mr Cohen’s style, which must now border on the vintage. I love his sheer fearlessness, his devotion to deep cover (he’s clearly had his body waxed for Bruno), and the sense he’s out on his own with an original angle rather than playing to a crowd.

As in Borat, he combines prank interviews and filmed set-ups alongside lots of fleshing-out of the title persona amid a rather flimsy narrative arc. We don’t really care about the actual plot (gay Austrian reporter Bruno seeks love, fame and fatherhood), and it’s annoying when the film tries to make us. You can’t have it both ways: a satirical avatar used in the real world doesn’t cut it in a fictional universe (as the not so funny all-fiction Ali G film proved), so it’s hard to care about Bruno’s emotional life with his assistant. We’re aware they’re both actors playing characters, while all around are real people who may or may not be in on the subterfuge.

The only times the fictional bits DO work is when the reaction sought is not that of an on-camera victim but of the audience, thanks to a smattering of decent jokes  like Bruno’s reference to Hitler as ‘just another Austrian guy who only wanted to try something new’. Then there’s the explicit glimpses of Bruno’s inventive sex life, which venture into regions of deviancy that must still be fairly uncharted for a mainstream audience. One scene combines close-up male nudity and surreal special effects with an imagination worthy of Dali.

Just as Borat had to go to America and only meet Americans (and certainly no one really from Kazakhstan), so the film contrives to surround Bruno with straights, preferably homophobes. At times, he’s like a swiss army knife of reaction comedy: he is The Lone Gay Man baiting homophobes (pure Bruno), The Lone Foreigner baiting Americans with his mispronunciation of English (Borat), or if all else fails, he is just The Lone Irritating Idiot (Ali G style – mistaking Hamas for hummus while discussing Israel and Palestine). On occasion the audience must fear for Cohen’s personal safety – he spends a night camping in the hills with a group of suitably gruff huntsmen, and even tries to creep into one of the men’s tents naked. He gets the reaction he was hoping for – abuse – but one wonders if there were a few less funny threats or even acts of assault off camera.

Sometimes the victims escape with their dignity intact. When Bruno tries to marry his boyfriend at a Californian registry office – where gay marriage is currently illegal – he dresses up his other half in unconvincing bridal drag. To his credit, the marriage clerk reacts calmly, apologising that he can’t go ahead with the ceremony.  He isn’t a redneck homophobe or an open-mouthed Everyman, or an anti-gay politician or evangelist. He’s just a man doing his job, being very sporting about having his time wasted by British comedians in prank mode.

I also felt sorry for the perfectly likeable locksmith called to assist when Bruno is stuck on his hotel bed chained and strapped to his boyfriend in a tangle of leather and toilet brushes. This sheltered-life locksmith walks away from the scene shocked, which is funny, but also upset, which isn’t. I assume – I hope  – that the joke was explained to him as soon as the scene was in the can.

The theory that Bruno is about breaking taboos and playing games with innate homophobia is debatable: ultimately it’s just about making audiences laugh. They get the big joke about what’s real and what’s not.

At least, I hope they do. I’m reminded of a British comedian’s tale of meeting an Australian who didn’t go to the movies much:

‘You seen that Mr Bean?’ the Australian said, deadly serious. ‘The guys a f—ing idiot!’

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