The essence of Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy lies in its daring. This crazy British guy will do just about anything.
His genius comes from the fact that he manages to lure Americans -- culturally conservative ones, usually -- into satirizing themselves by exposing their biases and phobias and hang-ups. He's not really accomplishing much other than to make some people mad and other people laugh and himself a boatload of money.
It is important to say that his films are not for everyone. I touted his "Borat" to some people last year. I thought they'd watch it alone and perhaps get it. But, oh, no. They gathered folks from the neighborhood. They still haven't forgiven me. I think it was the scene with the hairy fat naked guy that spoiled the evening, as well as permanent interpersonal relations.
As "Borat," Cohen managed, for example, to concoct a situation in which conservative Alabamians effectively revealed that they didn't so much object to his bringing his own excrement to their formal dining table as that he later tried to bring an African-American woman to that table. You had to be there, I guess.
That's what he does, you see. He goes around the country portraying an odd, extreme foreign character and getting himself recorded on video interacting with people who don't know, at least for a while, that it's a put-on. Then he releases it all as a movie. Some viewers guffaw. Some wince. Some turn away. Some walk out. Some engage in internal warfare among those options.
People sue Cohen sometimes, or a lot, which he treats as overhead. All of that is to say that "Bruno," his latest film character and movie of the same name, said to be somehow more raw and edgy and daring than "Borat," opened Friday in theaters everywhere, including, I see, in one of my favorite towns, Fort Smith, Arkansas. It happens that the closing scene stars Fort Smith.
Perhaps you heard about what happened there last summer about this time. Placards went up announcing an evening's entertainment featuring dollar beer and caged fighting at the Fort Smith Convention Center. Hundreds of old boys lined up for those enjoyments. They perfunctorily signed waivers upon entry allowing themselves to be photographed for a documentary. So the audience got quite looped on the beer and then the caged bouts began.
Then came the evening's final event. "Bruno," a gay Austrian fashion designer, stepped into the cage and challenged a fellow to a fight. Right there in front of hundreds of drunken ruffians, the fight inevitably turned to mutual attraction and near-lovemaking, to homo erotica, between Bruno and his combatant-turned-lover.
They say the audience reaction was ugly and violent and frightful, not to mention predictable, which, of course, was Cohen's idea. He needed police help making a safe departure.
Cohen had staged a similar event a few nights before in Texarkana, but Fort Smith earned more screen time on account of more impressively thrown plastic beer cups.
Why did he pick two border towns, one Arkansas-Oklahoma and the other Arkansas-Texas? I suspect it was because he didn't want to chance his investment on a restrained and tepid response.
Am I recommending you go see this film? Heavens no. I've learned my lesson. I'm telling you about it merely for journalistic purposes.
Anyway, if you went only for the Fort Smith scene, I suspect you'd walk out long before that, maybe when Bruno trades an iPod for an African child, names the lad O.J. and takes him on the American talk show circuit.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.