The indexicality of fake German in Brüno

13 07 2009

The ‘gloriously provocative’ [H/T: Xan Brooks] Brüno is remarkable in at least three ways. First, the film is at times hand-over-mouth appalling yet lavatorially hilarious. Say what you want about Sacha Baron Cohen (infantile, neurotic, bourgeois), but the man has balls (no pun intended). Hasidic hot pants in Jerusalem, anyone?

Second, while some of the scenes were clearly staged, others (like the grande finale) apparently were not. I bow humbly before the producers for gaining access to all those political figures, subcultures and social settings. I also found it quite revealing to learn how Baron Cohen dupes his interviewees. That takes time, practice and preparation. And ignorance, bigotry and prejudice too. Lots of it.

Third, I credit Baron-Cohen’s linguistic performance in Brüno for extending the indexical range of mock German. This is more difficult than it sounds. I normally associate a fake German accent with dispassion, authority and expertise (just ask David Cameron, Herr Flick ‘from ze Gestapo’, Frau Farbissina). Baron Cohen’s umlaut-friendly performance (“vassup?”) in Brüno adds an effeminate, camp flamboyance to fake German.

Put more technically, by endoginizing a “gay electro-Austrian-Germanic” figure of personhood, Baron Cohen makes Brüno socially performable and (instantly) recognizable as an aggressively homosexual Viennese fashionista. Similar processes of enregisterment are brilliantly described in Asif Agha‘s work.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Bruno. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP (The Guardian)

Sacha Baron Cohen as Bruno. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP (The Guardian)


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12 10 2009
Michael McIntyre on indexical order « Tom Van Hout

[...] McIntyre on indexical order 12 10 2009 I have written about this before, but Michael Silverstein’s concept of indexical order is so good it makes me smile. [...]

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