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Too Big for Satire: Sacha Baron Cohen and Sarah Silverman Miss America

Showtime was surely being facetious when, in the run-up to the July premiere of its Sacha Baron Cohen prank show Who Is America?, the network promoted the series as “perhaps the most dangerous show in the history of television.” But in the wake of last night’s stinker of a finale, even a generously ironic reading of that claim is laughable. Showtime engineered a buzzy start to the series, keeping its existence under wraps until just a couple of weeks before the premiere, and screening the first two episodes — which boasted the strongest sketches of the season — in-person only, for critics who had signed nondisclosure agreements. The message we were meant to absorb was clear: Cohen’s daring new program was not going to pull any punches.

If we’d been sharper, we might have realized that the secrecy was an admission of the show’s delicacy, its dependence upon surprise — that it wasn’t that big a deal on its own and had to be puffed up into one. Time after time, when confronted with the opportunity to hold his unwitting scene partners’ feet to the fire, Cohen went for a light singe instead of a sick burn. Even when people behaved in genuinely damning ways, goaded along by Cohen’s characters, the series suffered from a fundamental disconnect between what were intended as “gotcha” moments and the way such moments play out on TV at a time when politicians and media provocateurs regularly call for their opponents to be jailed or worse. What’s really shocking about Who Is America? is that it’s not shocking at all.

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Most of the finale centered on an elaborate joke in which Cohen, in the guise of Israeli terrorism expert Erran Morad, puts a trio of Trump-supporting white men through special “training” on how to infiltrate America’s most dangerous group — antifa. Morad selects one man to accompany him to the Women’s March in San Francisco, where both men dress up as “radical lesbians” in pink knit pussy hats and put “tracking devices” on three individuals in the crowd. Using an iPad, Morad shows the man the location of the three targets, and instructs him to press a button to detonate the device and kill one of them. The man does as he’s told. “I feel a little queasy,” he remarks, but it’s just a brief moment of pause. Then he calls the experience “wonderful.”

So much for the gotcha. This segment and others throughout Who Is America?’s seven-episode first season (Showtime hasn’t disclosed whether there will be a second) remind me of a very different show with a similar problem. Hulu’s I Love You, America With Sarah Silverman, which premiered last fall and returns for a second season on September 6, is an unabashedly sincere program dedicated to bridging the gaps that divide Americans today. A “late night” talk show, if a streaming series can be described in such archaic, clock-bound terms, I Love You, America is filmed in front of a studio audience, with taped remote segments and a guest each week who sits down for a one-on-one with Silverman.

In the show’s first-ever episode, Silverman has dinner at the Louisiana home of a white, Trump-voting family that was displaced by Hurricane Katrina; she’s the first Jew the family has ever hosted. But despite Silverman’s enveloping warmth, it’s hard to take the show’s stated aim — to connect with “un-like-minded people” — at face value. When Silverman leaves their home after the meal, one family member who earlier had confessed to being a birther remarks that it was so nice to talk to a person with different viewpoints without being judged. Like so many Who Is America? bits, the segment ultimately does nothing but make a racist conspiracy theorist feel seen and heard.

I Love You, America may posit itself as a sweet antidote to the bitterness of so much contemporary political comedy, but more often than not that approach renders the series jarringly out of touch with political reality. And, like Cohen’s show, Silverman’s series never delivers on its promise to reveal something about America that viewers likely don’t already know. (Her show is basically Heal the Divide, one of several fake reality shows that constitute Who Is America?, this one hosted by an NPR T-shirt–sporting, pussy hat–wearing liberal.) With the aid of heavy prosthetics, Cohen appears as several characters who, through their interactions with politicians, tech executives, reality-TV stars, and ordinary Americans, will provide a collective answer to the show’s title question.

With the exception of a few genuinely damning segments, however, Who Is America? quickly betrayed its pledge to peel back the curtain on the dark corners of this fractured country. Most sketches devolved into adolescent-boy fart-and-dick humor — a series of missed opportunities that recall South Park’s bungling of the 2016 election. (Who Is America?, which has an all-male writing staff, also falls into the same both-sides trap as South Park, treating wounded Hillary supporters as the hysterical equivalent of the goons who chant “Lock her up.”)

In one episode, Cohen appears as a Finnish YouTube star of a toy-unboxing show, with dyed-red hair and a pair of loudly checked overalls, and sits down with Trump backers David Clarke, the former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and, in a separate segment, Joe Arpaio, the cruel, immigrant-hating former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, whom the president pardoned last August after Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court. In the presence of these two despicable humans — both oversaw correctional departments that were responsible for horrific human rights violations, some of which resulted in the deaths of inmates — Cohen reverts to wordplay jokes about golden showers and hand jobs, and relies on the toy-unboxing for laughs.

Nothing is revealed here; this is the liberal equivalent of the conservative rallying cry “own the libs,” and the viewer’s reward is often just a befuddled expression on the face of Cohen’s target before a sketch abruptly ends. The show presents itself as a no-holds-barred shock-fest, but there’s not much about Who Is America? that feels truly risky in the manner of Terence Nance’s kaleidoscopic series Random Acts of Flyness. And, like that of I Love You, America, Cohen’s apparent goal of exploring America’s multitudes belies his show’s actual focus on belittling, baiting, or simply giving a platform to white Americans in particular. It’s the entertainment equivalent of pundits who focus on the white working class as the one and only demographic politicians need to court, rather than the full spectrum of enfranchised — and increasingly disenfranchised — Americans. In the vernacular of Random Acts, these shows suffer from whiteness.

It’s almost as if Cohen and his collaborators, and Silverman and hers, have too much faith in format, in the power of a familiar TV template, to win hearts and minds. What Cohen and his production team don’t seem to understand is that the presence of a camera doesn’t mean what it did fifteen or twenty years ago, when Cohen began his career as a gonzo, on-the-street comedian. We are under constant surveillance, often of our own volition, and anyway, what are the chances that the dude who dressed in drag to “infiltrate” the Women’s March has even one friend who watches Who Is America?, or for that matter, even knows what it is? Who has this guy been exposed to in the first place, and does he even mind that he’s been exposed? And if his peers were to see his performance, it wouldn’t be his pernicious beliefs that would turn them off, but the fact that he dressed as a liberal, gay woman — just as the Georgia state senator who participated in another of Colonel Moran’s “training sessions” in an earlier episode and subsequently resigned from his position likely did so because Cohen got him to pull his pants down and expose his bare ass, not because the show laid bare the senator’s blatant Islamophobia.

Cameras record people in power doing lots of shameful things these days, and most of those people — not least of all the president of the United States — simply shrug it off and keep moving. The fact that the show’s producers got O.J. Simpson to sit down in the season finale with Cohen’s Italian mogul character Gio Monaldo and laugh off jokes about killing one’s girlfriend means precisely nothing. Simpson is a free man. He wrote a book called If I Did It, confessing to the crime while claiming, with a wink, to be innocent. What has been exposed, here? If Who Is America? has demonstrated anything, it’s that political satire isn’t terribly effective in the age of Infowars — a show whose creators claim the mantle of satire when confronted with legal challenges even as they court an audience that takes host Alex Jones’s lunatic rants as gospel. A dangerous TV show is one that gives people with noxious views a platform to spread their poison and boost their brands. But I doubt that’s the kind of danger Showtime had in mind.

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Pranked Conservatives Squeal: Sacha Baron Cohen Fake-Newsed Us!

Last week, while President Trump was off in Europe being a dick to Queen Elizabeth and pals with Vladimir Putin, Sacha Baron Cohen was giving the rest of us a double treat with his new CBS/Showtime series, not only by pranking right-wing politicians (including several well-known gun nuts he convinced to do insane promos for a guns-for-children program) but also with the resulting angry denunciations he drew from the dopes he punked — including Sarah Palin, Roy Moore, and Joe Arpaio — and the conservatives who rose to defend them from the one thing, besides universal healthcare and white minority status, that really terrifies them: being made fun of.

I hardly need explain that conservatives hate when artists make them look bad, and wage what they are pleased to call “culture war” to dispel this aesthetic black magic. As bullies particularly hate to be laughed at, they have a special animus toward comedians.

This is the reason for their years of shit fits over left-wing clowns, from Will Ferrell as George W. Bush to Zach Galifianakis trading rimshots with Barack Obama, and especially Jon Stewart and other liberal faux-newsman types — see, for example, Liberal Fascism author Jonah Goldberg in 2008, consoling himself after his disastrous Daily Show appearance with fan mail (“I found it impossible for me to sit through whatever you call that television appearance — it certainly wasn’t an interview — without feeling nauseated”).

This tendency has metastasized in the Trump era, something that’s to be expected, given that Trump is the ultimate conservative bully; also, Trump’s primary appeal is inchoate rage against elites, which includes popular artists, whom the average Trump supporter probably thinks got to be on TV or in the movies by swearing a blood oath to the Democratic Party on a Pizzagate child sex altar.

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One would think Cohen’s reputation for pranks was by now universally understood, having begun with his Da Ali G show eighteen years ago and continued through several popular movies, including the 2006 hit Borat. So it was a delightful surprise to see right-wing pols and pundits crying in the press that they’d been hoodwinked into saying horrible things because they thought Cohen was a real supporter — though none of them explained why that would make their endorsement of crazy ideas any less appalling.

Give some Cohen victims like Dick Cheney credit for taking their punking like pros, but Palin responded with her usual word salad, referring to “Hollywoodism’s disrespect and sarcasm,” saying the show mocked “middle-class Americans,” and doing the old stolen-valor thing, claiming Cohen had pretended to be a disabled veteran — which afforded Cohen a fresh opportunity to make fun of her: “I was in the service — not military, but United Parcel.” Arpaio made himself so ridiculous even Breitbart couldn’t cover for him (“He said he thought it was unusual that they didn’t offer to powder his face before the interview”).

The brethren stepped up to defend Palin and other victims of Cohen’s satirical sneak attack.

“New Sacha Baron Cohen series a Hollywood hit job on GOP, source says,” reported Hollie McKay at Fox News. “I couldn’t believe how unbelievably partisan it is,” said the unnamed “source.” “They also interviewed Bernie Sanders but didn’t mock him at all.” (Reportedly Sanders tried the unique strategy of calling out the ridiculous things Cohen said to him as ridiculous instead of promising to support them.)

Another unnamed source — this one reputed to be “close to Palin” — told Breitbart the show was “meant to mock Trump voters as a bunch of ignorant and offensive kooks.” This “source” strained verisimilitude a tad, particularly in declaring the prank would “backfire dramatically” because it was “the epitome of a contemptuous Hollywood enclave that hates the ordinary working class Americans who swept Donald Trump into office. This is exactly what the American people voted against in 2016.” (“Close to Palin” apparent means “press agent.”) But it appeared at Breitbart, whose readers probably think Sinclair Network must-runs are the spontaneous effusions of news anchors, so no one will notice.

Some of the cleverer conservatives tried PR techniques that were ancient in the days of Hedda Hopper: declaring the show a dud that no one should watch, and insisting that Cohen was a fading star using conservatives to revive his flagging career.

“ ‘Dumb,’ ‘Pointless,’ ‘Boring’: TV Critic Absolutely Destroys Sacha Baron Cohen’s New Show,” announced Joseph Curl at Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire. Curl praised Dominic Patten of Deadline, declaring that, unlike critics who liked the show — which opinion was after all just “the predictable take for Hollywood, which clearly despises President Trump and all Republicans” — Patten was simply “looking at the show without the normal liberal bias, just trying to inform potential viewers whether they should bother to tune in,” so his was the one honest opinion of the show and naturally the same as Joseph Curl’s.

Fox News’ Carley Shimkus and Howard Kurtz did their bit. “What Sacha Baron Cohen did to Sarah Palin was horrible,” huffed Shimkus, but she cautioned that when people react, Cohen “loves it, he feeds off it, it’s why he does what he does, so I do think that some of these conservative politicians sort of fell into that trap” — though, she quickly clarified, “You can’t blame them for complaining about this.”

“So we’re playing into his hands because we’re giving it some airtime,” harrumphed Kurtz. “Does CBS owe the public some kind of response to these low, slimy tactics?” Shimkus thought so, but again cautioned that seeking comment helped Cohen, because he “was completely irrelevant two and a half weeks ago.” “I’d frankly forgot that he even existed,” nodded Kurtz.

Thus, Shimkus and Kurtz agreed Cohen was counting on conservatives like them to talk about the show, as they were doing, and that was too bad.

At The Stream, John Zmirak called Cohen “Just Another Stale Comedian Attacking Safe Targets,” and also said he wanted to “punch Baron Cohen in the face for disrespecting veterans,” and furthermore, “I want to see the sketch, because it will probably be hilarious.” Adding to the confusion, Zmirak admitted he was once a fan of Cohen, but “by the time of the movie Borat, Baron Cohen largely abandoned his even-handed satire.” That’s right, Borat’s when Cohen went all-in for the libs; the bit where he wrestles his manager naked is pure gay propaganda.

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“Comedy used to be the one thing that transcended politics,” lamented The Federalist’s Joseph A. Wulfsohn, but now “the comedy branch of Hollywood,” which actually has its offices in Oxnard, “has chosen to narrow its target audience by alienating the roughly half of the nation who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election.” Those poor Pennsyltucky coal miners haven’t had a good laugh in eighteen months — nice going, libs! Liberals can do this, Wulfsohn went on, because “the Left owns comedy. They have for decades.” Liberals also own chocolate and rainy spring mornings, and they won’t share, but that’s another column.

The real problem with Cohen’s “so-called ‘comedy’ ” — yeah, I know it sounds like one of my gags, but he really did call it that — was that it was “lowering” America into a “bottomless pit of blind hostility and pessimism towards Republicans and Trump supporters,” wrote Wulfsohn. “Comedy is supposed to connect us as humans. Now it’s tearing us apart.” Therefore we should unite and together help the president scoop up babies at the border, put them in cages and make sure their parents can never find them again.

The brethren got some support from the Main Stream Media; after all, the dopes who believe in Palin, Moore, and Arpaio watch TV and buy magazines, too, and so rate some ass-kissing. People magazine reported that “a source” — ha, ha, ha — told them Palin “walked out of the prank interview after the disguised Cohen asked her a ‘horrible’ question about Chelsea Clinton.” Gasp! Surely bothsides can agree this is now a bipartisan matter.

“Is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Show ‘Who Is America?’ Too Deceptive?” chin-stroked E! News. “When it was Ali G, it was kind of fun to watch him just dupe everybody, because the stakes in the world felt kind of low,” said host Will Marfuggi. “Do you think that viewers will respond to this kind of political humor in this climate or is he too volatile?” To put it another way, should we only do political satire when things are actually OK? Didn’t The Great Dictator just make Hitler worse?

By the show’s opening on Sunday, normal viewers knew there was some sort of controversy over the show, while for conservatives there was no controversy at all — merely the conviction that, whatever bad or crazy things their leaders appeared to be doing, it was all a trick and a trap, a bid for attention by a Hollywoodist has-been and — like everything they see and hear about Donald Trump (even if it’s on tape) that Trump says didn’t happen — fake news.

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Sacha Baron Cohen Is Back to Help America’s Politicians Embarrass Themselves

For those who thought Sacha Baron Cohen’s in-character interview shtick couldn’t withstand the comedian’s post-Borat fame, a new Showtime series is here to prove you wrong. Who Is America?, premiering tonight at 10 (for subscribers, the first episode is online now), features Cohen in a variety of disguises, exposing America for the sloppy circus of hatred and grift it’s become since his most famous incarnation immigrated from Kazakhstan to the land of freedom and opportunity. This time, though, he’s got some new arrows in his quiver: a trunkful of prosthetics and a nation devoid of shame.

The opening credits sequence features a montage of famous, stirring speeches by past American presidents, set to images of golden fields of wheat and triumphant events like the moon landing; then, like a record scratch, Donald Trump appears, infamously mocking a disabled reporter at a campaign rally. From there, Cohen and his team of producers proceed to humiliate congressmen, RNC delegates, lobbyists, and more by setting traps into which the show’s unknowing participants enthusiastically nosedive. (Beyond obviating the need for a marketing budget, the number of politicians who have issued statements in the wake of Showtime’s announcing the series, claiming they were unduly duped by Cohen’s trickery, is almost more entertaining than the episodes themselves. It’s not a sideshow; it is the show.)

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Cohen uses several characters to set his traps, including Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a cowboy-hat–sporting conspiracy theorist who claims to have a PhD and directs viewers to his website, Truthbrary.org (as in, the opposite of lie-brary); Dr. Nira Cain, a self-professed “self-hating white male” with a ponytail and a potbelly who bikes around his native Portland wearing an NPR T-shirt and a pussy hat over his helmet; Rick Sherman, a British ex-con and aspiring artist; and Erran Morad, an Israeli terrorism expert and one-time Mossad member with a scar slashing through one eyebrow and an appropriately lumbering gait.

Each character’s scenes are presented in the style of their own separate reality shows, with unique title fonts (Dr. Cain’s segment is titled “Healing the Divide,” rendered in pink lettering against a blue sky), music, and editing to suit the distinct personalities of their hosts. Who Is America? is as much a critique of reality TV as it is American politics (at this point, what’s the difference?). All that tone-hopping can make the show a little disjointed, but it’s certainly never boring. At times Cohen struggles to keep his American accents on course as he veers ever so slightly into his own British intonation. But with the exception of Rick Sherman — whose portion of the pilot had little to do with American politics and thus seemed lifted from another show entirely — Cohen employs these alter egos like a sharp shooter, pointing them in the direction of carefully selected interviewees who mostly proceed to make fools of themselves, as if on cue.

In the first episode, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. interviews Bernie Sanders (billed as “Bernard Sanders,” whose name flashes across the screen on a chyron embellished with the Confederate flag); the point of the short interview seems to be to make the senator look befuddled, which he does when Cohen’s character claims Obamacare made him sick and proposes putting the 99 percent into the 1 percent, thus solving income inequality once and for all. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nathan Fielder is credited as a director on at least one episode.) Later, Dr. Cain sits down to dinner in the well-appointed home of a Trump-voting delegate and her Trump-supporting husband, and shocks them with tales from his gender-norm-defying family life.

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By far the most outrageous and damning segment is the one involving the ex-Mossad agent, Erran Morad, who says it’s crazy to suggest arming teachers to stop school shootings — we should be arming the children. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, he finds plenty of eager Republican representatives willing to shill for his idea to arm toddlers with guns that look like stuffed animals and have names like “Puppy Pistol” and “Gunny Rabbit.” He calls the plan “Kinder Guardians.” “My son was in the very first program,” Erran tells gun-rights advocate Philip Van Cleave, “may he rest in peace.”

He and Van Cleave make a bonkers instructional video, then head to D.C. to find politicians willing to back it. Apparently, this did not require herculean effort: After Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz dismisses Erran’s request — members of Congress are not just going to endorse a random dude’s radical plan, he contends — the show cuts to several current and former members of Congress doing just that: right-wing politicians Dana Rohrabacher, Trent Lott, Joe Wilson, and Joe Walsh all give Kinder Guardians their stamp of approval via on-camera testimonials in which the statesmen spout scripted nonsense.

I’m not allowed to disclose what happens in the second episode, but you could wager a guess based on the above. The truth is, funny as Who Is America? may be, much of its content won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s been paying attention to American politics over the past decade. Cohen has been targeting politicians in gonzo interview segments since the late 1990s, but that format means something different now, particularly in the United States. Who Is America? unabashedly feeds into the right-wing fever dream that the liberal Hollywood elite is out to get them, and it makes it easy for politicians like Walsh and Sarah Palin, who recently outed herself as another of Cohen’s unwitting subjects, to play the victim card. It’s hard to imagine conservative voters will be swayed by this incriminatory portrayal of their elected officials — an entire alternate media reality has been erected for just such voters, and this show will likely give it more ammunition.

It’s no longer news that people will say and do damn near anything in the presence of a camera and with the promise of exposure, and the idea of shaming a politician into genuine remorse or meaningful action is laughable. In a way, the erosion of true checks and balances — of consequences — in American politics works in the show’s favor. Look what these people will do and say! Have they no shame? Nope!

But that lack of shame also demonstrates the uselessness of guerrilla-style shock comedy as a catalyst for real-world change. The series vows, “Four unique voices will reveal who is America.” But we know; we’ve known. The question is no longer what have we become, but what are we going to do about it. So laugh all you want, but when you’ve caught your breath, register to vote.

 

Who Is America? airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime

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The Ambassador: The Horror, the Horror

The blitzkrieg of award season is right around the corner, and with it, we can expect an onslaught of stunt performances, designed to wow Academy voters and feature editors (and also viewers?) with their evident degrees of difficulty and demonstrable totality of transformation. With Daniel Day-Lewis having strapped on the Lincoln beard for Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master offering Joaquin Phoenix a chance to return to mainstream good graces after the all-in lived performance of I’m Still Here, it’s hard to imagine an experimental Danish documentary siphoning off too much Best Actor attention. But make no mistake: In The Ambassador, Mads Brügger—who, as both featured performer in and auteur of films that seek to capture reality through fiction, is sort of the Euro film-festival equivalent of Sacha Baron Cohen, when Cohen was interesting—gives what has to be one of the riskiest and most committed performances of the year.

In 2010, Brügger won the world documentary prize at Sundance for his first feature, The Red Chapel, a hidden-camera comedy in which Brügger posed as the impresario of an experimental-theater troupe made up of two Danish-Korean comedians—one of them severely developmentally disabled—in order to smuggle cameras onto a “cultural exchange” trip to Pyongyang without raising the alarms of their North Korean hosts. The Ambassador, like Chapel before it, is a document of a lie created in order to tell the truth. It begins with Brügger purchasing a diplomatic title on the black market in order to travel to the Central African Republic (CAR) in the guise of an ambassador from Liberia. To his title brokers and to his new African associates, Brügger claims his goal is to use his perceived position (and bribes, secretly funded by the Danish Film Institute) to go into business with blood-diamond miners and move the gems out of the country under the cover of diplomatic immunity. Because he needs a business front, Brügger also claims to be building a match factory in the incredibly disadvantaged region—one staffed by Pygmies.

As Brügger tells it, the CAR is “a Jurassic Park for people who long for the Africa of the 1970s,” making it “a magnet for white men with hidden agendas.” It’s also so rich in resources—cobalt, gold, and oil, as well as diamonds—that postcolonial France still considers the region its “savings bank” and keeps the country under constant surveillance in part to protect its interests from that new-kid-on-the-block carpetbagger, China. In character, Brügger ingratiates himself with his local fixer by faux-casually mentioning that he has “a problem with Asian people,” and produces anti-French and anti-Chinese propaganda to sell his would-be match-factory employees the notion that this pasty foreigner is on their side.

In Chapel, Brügger included footage suggesting that he dropped the act whenever his North Korean hosts couldn’t see him, and even in front of them, Brügger and his collaborators carried on frequent back-channel conversations in Danish that served to remind the audience that a tenuous prank was underway. In The Ambassador‘s prologue, Brügger declares, “Here ends my life as a Danish journalist,” and in the opening credits, he’s seen costuming for his new role. From that point on, when he’s on-screen, he never breaks character. Brügger himself has contextualized the performance with a comparison to that pinnacle of colonial misadventure fiction, Curious George, calling his ambassador “the Man With the Yellow Hat gone bad.” With his wardrobe of linen pants tucked into riding boots, fishing hat, ostentatious cigarette holder, and aviator shades, Brügger’s conception of the decadent, blithely exploitative Westerner in Africa is like Hunter S. Thompson meets Carl Denham from King Kong—perfect for the figurehead of a film that’s part gonzo journalism, part dangerous exhibition to domesticate the unknown by filming it.

It’s an open question as to whether Mads’s act was transparent to anyone else we see on-screen. Often the angle (and shit video quality) of the footage suggests that it was captured on a hidden camera, but sometimes the subjects seem to know they’re being filmed. We occasionally see the camera being hidden in advance of a meeting, one way the director points out the staging of the undercover act. Another method: acknowledging the questionable ethics of the act itself. Brügger knows he’s never going to build a match factory, and he knows promising the destitute locals jobs that will never exist is, like, not a nice thing to do. Via voiceover, he admits to “giving these people a false sense of hope. But diplomats do this every day.” In other words, he would arouse suspicion as a faker if he didn’t seem to be exploiting the penniless while profiting from alliances with the thugs oppressing them.

The Ambassador bursts out of the gate and then slows into an endurance exercise for Brügger and the viewer: How long will he be able to pull this off? You watch both fearing that something spectacularly tragic could happen, and knowing that if this film exists, it probably didn’t. The movie’s publicists sent out a press release clarifying some backstory and specifying what happened after the last scene, which I won’t reiterate here because I think it constitutes as spoilers. The Ambassador‘s wrap-up is vague and sudden, and necessarily so: In order for the movie to work, you need to wonder if maybe, at some point, Brügger stopped acting and really became the crooked international asshole he was supposedly just pretending to be. The magic of Brügger’s performance is that it earns that suspension of disbelief.

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Culture Clash Yuks in Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator

In his third collaboration with director Larry Charles, Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the young, dumb dictator of fictional North African nation Wadiya. Under Aladeen’s rule, oil-producing, uranium-enriching Wadiya is a hostile threat to global peace and capitalism. And yet, Aladeen himself is so attracted to Western culture that he has commanded a parade of American celebrities to have sex with him (Megan Fox plays “herself”), taking Polaroids afterward as proof. It’s not a “Fuck you, America!” power thing (that’s a fetish saved for another character, one The Dictator codes as unequivocal slime). “I really want someone to cuddle,” Aladeen confesses, then gazes longingly at walls covered in photos of his celebrity conquests. A poor little rich boy with no limits and no one to love, he’s sort of the Muslim-extremist version of Arthur.

He might not even be a murderer: Without the self-absorbed leader’s awareness, everyone Aladeen sentences to death is smuggled to safety by his resistance-minded executioner. Soon, Aladeen’s brother (Ben Kingsley) attempts to sell him out, hiring a goat-fetishizing look-alike (also played by Baron Cohen) to serve as Aladeen’s double as they all travel to New York to defend Wadiya’s nuclear program to the U.N. The plan is to have the real Aladeen killed, then coach the fake into using the U.N. speech to renounce Aladeen’s regime and announce Wadiya’s impending transformation into a democracy. (Kingsley’s character is no human rights champion: He needs Aladeen out of the way to exploit Wadiya’s oil.) The dictator escapes his scheduled assassination and ends up outside the U.N. in bum garb, leading the gathered protesters in a cry against the “illegitimate” leader addressing the assembly inside.

This draws the attention of Zoe (Anna Faris), a crunchy Brooklyn activist who mistakes Aladeen for a dissident and welcomes him into her refugee-staffed Williamsburg food co-op. While plotting to overthrow the impostor and take back Wadiya, Aladeen uses his disciplinary talents to reform Zoe’s store and falls for her in the process. This subplot activates the film’s most successful joke: Of course a despot who rails against democracy while accumulating gold-plated Hummers and watching Real Housewives would feel at home in a place where “resistance” to the American mainstream revolves around the rigid dictates of political correctness and the consumption of luxuries like coconut water. Faris gets most of the films freshest, funniest bits: Zoe’s memory of her time in a “feminist mime workshop” made me laugh harder than anything Baron Cohen did the whole movie.

Ali G and Borat were such genius characters because Baron Cohen immersed himself so totally while thrusting himself out into the real world and into contact with unsuspecting strangers. The Dictator, in contrast, exists purely in movie world: Although there was apparently much improvisation on set, there’s no interaction with “real” people. Baron Cohen reportedly stayed in character between takes on The Dictator, but I’m not convinced he stays in character during takes. The character doesn’t seem to amount to much more than an imprecise, inconsistent accent and an unapologetic, played-for-laughs proclivity for rape, in a film dedicated to the rehearsal of old-hat culture-clash stereotypes that generally fail to unearth anything new about any of the cultures involved. Aladeen is so implausible as a real-world construction that neither character nor actor takes him seriously—in one early scene, during a speech about how Wadiya is developing uranium for “peaceful purposes,” Aladeen gets the giggles. Twice.

One of Aladeen’s accomplices realizes that the Supreme Leader has been transformed by his Brooklyn sojourn when he starts working Yiddish words into conversation, but he shouldn’t be surprised, given that Aladeen’s comic sensibility is thick with borscht. (“Twenty dollars a day for Wi-Fi?!?” he exclaims on checking into his hotel. “And they call me an international criminal!”) Eventually, the staleness of Aladeen’s one-liners starts to seem like the joke in and of itself—that’s gotta be the only reason why there’s an Eat Pray Love punchline in this movie . . . right?

Much of the material that isn’t dusty feels strained, as if the film is reaching to simulate the anarchic no you didn’t! moments that Baron Cohen’s previous vérité experiments stumbled into. But even in its manufactured boundary-pushing—a flash of full-frontal Baron Cohen, another scene set partially inside a birth canal—The Dictator never really risks anything.

As a comic stunt and a political statement, the film seems to exist to support its climax, in which the “real” Aladeen tries to sell America on the perks of a dictatorship but ends up illuminating America itself. (“Your media would appear free but be secretly controlled by one person and his family!” “You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group!”) As a punchline hammering home the film’s core polemic—basically, that “freedom” and “tyranny” aren’t black and white or mutually exclusive—it’s pretty great. But it doesn’t justify the film-long setup that precedes it. It suggests what could have been had Baron Cohen and Charles played the material a little straight and given the movie’s world stronger ties to our real world. Great satire, after all, is funny because it’s true.

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The Red Chapel Crashes North Korea

The Red Chapel documents director Mads Brügger’s trip to Pyongyang with Jacob and Simon, South Korean–born comedians raised in Denmark (the former is a developmentally disabled teenager who describes himself as “spastic”). To the North Koreans, the trio billed itself as the Red Chapel, a Kim Jong-il–friendly theatrical troupe on a cultural exchange. Only the audience knows that the Red Chapel is actually a reference to Rote Kapelle, a Soviet spy cell that infiltrated Nazi-occupied Europe, and the “cultural exchange” is just a ruse to sneak a camera into this closed state. A Borat-like performance experiment with considerably higher stakes than anything Sacha Baron Cohen has yet attempted, The Red Chapel is primarily a document of the Danes’ struggle to stay undercover once inside, a mission branded by a fellow Danish comedian as “pure suicide jazz.” You get the sense that not even Brügger is sure how far this could go, until the first rehearsal of the group’s “show” (a nonsensical pastiche of amateur tap dancing, fart noises, selected scenes from The Princess and the Pea, and a suspiciously sincere cover of “Wonderwall”), when the North Koreans peg them not as spies, but bad performers. The double act increasingly wears on Simon and Jacob, and as Brügger insists that they barrel full steam ahead, The Red Chapel becomes an infectiously funny, gonzo glimpse into the sausage-making process of propaganda.

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KANSAS ON THE RIGHT

Sacha Baron Cohen’s method of filmmaking is all the rage these days: Put a camera in front of a few typical Americans, and let them make fools of themselves. The latest specimen of the genre is What’s the Matter With Kansas?, based on Thomas Frank’s book about how conservative political strategists won over the hearts and votes of the middle of the country. But director Joe Winston doesn’t use a narrator; instead, the Kansans in this film speak for themselves—with sometimes painful, but endearing, results. After the world premiere, CUNY professor Frances Fox Piven moderates “The Future of Conservatism: A Debate,” which pits New York Observer national correspondent Joe Conason and New York Times editor Chris Suellentrop against National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez and conservative author and editor Ryan Sager.

Thu., Aug. 6, 6:30 p.m., 2009

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Three Foreigners Who Made Baron Cohen’s Brüno Possible

‘Borat was so 2006,” the tagline for Brüno reads, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s lavender Molotov cocktail is very 1882—the year Oscar Wilde arrived in the U.S. to give an infamous lecture tour that lasted 10 months. Wilde was the first foreign flaming creature to arrive on our shores to provoke; nearly a century would pass before two other Euro-homos, Quentin Crisp and Rosa von Praunheim, would shake things up stateside. Though Baron Cohen may fall at the opposite end of the Kinsey scale from his nellie creation, Brüno has now become part of the pantheon of sodomite outsiders looking in. Below, more on the three who paved his way:

“I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

So Wilde is reported to have said when he arrived in New York City on the S.S. Arizona. Though Brüno seems to declare nothing but his anus when he lands at LAX, both provocateurs left the Old World seeking greater fame. Wilde, speaking up to six times a week, lectured on aestheticism, dropping, as Richard Ellmann notes in his indispensable biography Oscar Wilde, truth bombs like, “We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art.” Both Wilde and Brüno criss-crossed the States, making stops in Alabama: the Austrian flamer to go hunting in Cullman County, Wilde to speak at the Frascati Amusement Park in Mobile. Brüno’s leopard-skin singlets and ass-cheek-revealing hot pants cause double-takes, much as Wilde’s knee breeches and silk stockings “polarized opposition.”

Ellmann’s summary of Wilde’s speaking engagements—”His tour was a series of more or less successful confrontations in which his flagrant and unconventional charm was pitted against conventional maleness and resultant suspicion”—could just as easily describe Brüno’s gonzo methods. Wilde’s doctrines, frequently dismissed as effeminate, “constituted the most determined and sustained attack upon materialistic vulgarity that America had seen,” as Ellmann notes. Baron Cohen’s fruity alter-id aims for the same, going after the more debased aspects of our culture: celebrities, PR consultants, stage parents, ex-gay ministers, talk-show audiences, and cage-match enthusiasts. Even the writer’s temperament—”Wilde sought no enemies, and managed to be kind even to the incompetent,” Ellmann says—seems reflected in Brüno’s duplicitous naïveté.

“When I was young, a homosexual man was thought to be effeminate.”

With his glossy lips and limp wrists, swish Brüno plays into the horror and disgust of the femme fag—just like Quentin Crisp (reminiscing above). Londoner Crisp, whose ease with epigrams led many to think of him as an heir to Wilde, first came to New York in 1978 to tour with his one-man show, later moving to Gotham for good as a septuagenarian in 1981. The rouged, scarf-draped raconteur, who died in 1999, proffered opinions that were equal parts self-regard and self-loathing. In his foreword to his 1996 book, Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, Crisp sniffs, “The gay community, because it insists on being equal with real people, has decided that homosexual men are not an inferior race and so parade an egregious masculine image. . . . They mate with other gargoyles of masculinity, scorning or regarding with pitying contempt those of us who cannot rise to such manliness.” Crisp would surely approve of Brüno’s emphatically un-butch romantic choices (a pygmy flight attendant, Milli of Milli Vanilli) and how doggedly the Austrian’s “bride” gives chase.

“Fashion has to be a second skin, which suggests the size of the cock.”

Brüno quite literally demonstrates the above, one of several scathing lines from Rosa von Praunheim’s incendiary first feature, It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse But the Society in Which He Lives (1971), a savage attack on gay-male self-destruction. But just as Baron Cohen’s Viennese fagshionista has some LGBT groups worked up, so did the Berlin-based von Praunheim’s film provoke queer wrath when it played in New York in 1972. After presenting It Is Not at the Gay Activists Alliance headquarters in Soho, von Praunheim engaged, as Vito Russo notes in The Celluloid Closet, in “an intense confrontation” with the audience, who “expected a gay liberation film from Germany; instead they discovered that von Praunheim had made a film which attacked them mercilessly.” Undeterred by this reception, von Praunheim continued making films about gay life in the States; in 1979’s Army of Lovers or Revolt of the Perverts, the director, expressing the importance of making the private public, asks his students at the San Francisco Art Institute to film him having sex with a porn star, lustily engaging in acts that Brüno can only pantomime.

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Sacha Baron Cohen in Queerface for Brüno, Mumblecore Boys in Bed for Humpday

“Heterosexuals can’t understand camp because everything they do is camp,” opined an associate of the old Playhouse of the Ridiculous, a theater known for its good-natured, anarchic sexual farce—a piece like Turds in Hell, which offered a farrago of sodomy, sadomasochism, incest, coprophagia, bestiality, homosexual behavior of every kind, dildo-swatting, and erotic practices beyond description, all played for laughs.

Such, more or less, is the method of the new Sacha Baron Cohen extravaganza, Brüno. Communist Poland supported a sort of Yiddish theater without Yids; is it possible to have Ridiculous comedy without queers? Brüno, directed by guerrilla filmmaker Larry Charles, is often hilarious. Lynn Shelton’s mumblecore bromance Humpday, a sexual sitcom, is also very funny. Are they minstrel shows? Co-opting gay culture? Evidence of new tolerance or ineradicable prejudice? Or are they just using queer-ness to talk about something else?

The eye-batting, lip-pursing, petulantly self-regarding host of the Austrian TV show Funkyzeit, Brüno is a star—and regarded as such from the disco flourish that first heralds his appearance in hot-canary lederhosen to his final triumph before a wrestling-fan rabble bellowing “straight pride.” Brüno itself is vulgar vaudeville of the highest order. It’s conceptually comparable to John Waters’s radically ridiculous Pink Flamingos in its programmatic desire to outrage, but, unlike Brüno, Pink Flamingos came from somewhere beyond the pale. Whatever else happens in Brüno‘s world, nobody eats shit—literally, that is.

Baron Cohen casts the straight world as his straight man, although it hardly seems likely that audiences will respond as indignantly as the “real-life” focus group assembled to evaluate the pilot for Brüno’s American TV show, A-List Celebrity Max-Out mit Brüno. Still, Brüno has something to offend everyone—or had. Just before the movie’s Los Angeles premiere, a scene in which Brüno “interviews” a befuddled LaToya Jackson—coaxing her to imitate brother Michael as she sits perched on the back of a middle-aged Mexican laborer stolidly on his hands and knees (the only available furniture)—was cut out of deference for the Jackson family. Baron Cohen can make a Jesus joke or bait Hasidim, but his anti-clericalism has limits—mocking Michael Jackson would be blasphemy. This is unfortunate because the late sacred monster and his newly resurrected fan base are intrinsic to Brüno’s critique of show business.

Brüno’s irrepressible outré sexuality is only the most provocative aspect of his mad exhibitionism. Brüno burlesques homophobia the way Borat did anti-Semitism, but its true subject is the nature of celebrity—or rather the dialectic between celebrity and otherness. Le freak, c’est chic. To the degree that Brüno has a plot, it follows its “schwarz-listed” fashionista to Hollywood, where he hopes to become “the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler.” (Hitler? In another bit of misplaced tact, Brüno’s gubernator compatriot is conspicuously unmentioned.)

Like any star, Baron Cohen resolves contradictions—he’s an open-minded bigot, an amoral moralist, an honest conman, a clever fool, and a performer whose crudeness is filled with grace. Even more than Borat, Brüno attests to the actor’s skill at verbal and physical comedy. Baron Cohen’s fluent falsch Deutsch rivals the bluster Mel Brooks used to write for Sid Caesar—although not even Brooks would have dared use Auschwitz as a synonym for arschloch (asshole). Whether wreaking havoc on a fashion show or pantomiming a blowjob or using a martial arts instructor as a foil to dramatize homosexual panic, Baron Cohen is a superb clown. He’s also fearless—prancing into a “God Hates Fags” demonstration, outrageously cruising a group of backwoods hunters (whom he compares to “the Sex and the City girls”), and crashing a hetero swingers’ party (which takes Brüno pretty close to an X). There’s a reason why the ring in the Arkansas wrestling arena is surrounded by a chain-link, barbwire-topped fence—Baron Cohen’s gag might well have gotten him crucified.

Even after Borat, Baron Cohen manages to confound ordinary people and dim-witted professionals—although the setups and supportive editing strategies seem here more apparent. He pranks a hotel’s room service with an elaborate s/m tableau and visits a Christian “therapist” who specializes in converting gays to straight: “Can I still play the clarinet? What if I put a flute up my shtinker?” LaToya aside, a few fellow celebs fall for his line. Is Congressman Ron Paul, whom Brüno chooses to confuse with RuPaul, really that clueless or was the Republican presidential candidate only desperate for publicity in allowing himself to be inveigled into Brüno’s hotel room for an “interview”? It hardly matters. That desperation is Brüno‘s universal principle. Thus, Baron Cohen reserves his most brutal satire for the use of accessory children.

Returning from safari, Brüno unpacks his souvenirs before an incredulous crowd surrounding the airport baggage carousel; the trinkets include a six-month-old African adoptee. Naturally, he uses the baby to get himself on a Springer-type TV show, infuriating a mainly African-American audience by explaining that little O.J. is his “dick magnet.” Others may be appalled when Brüno haughtily auditions a series of avid stage parents, getting them to agree to allow their babies to act on a set lit by phosphorus, work with “antiquated machinery,” dress up as Nazis, dramatize the crucifixion of Christ, and, if necessary, submit to liposuction. Outrage is entertainment! Baron Cohen has predicated Brüno on the idea that Americans will do almost anything to achieve their 15 minutes of fame—as will Brüno, not to mention his inventor. What’s more, we dig it.

Funny as it is, Brüno could not be as shockingly uproarious as Borat. No matter how well retold, a joke necessarily loses explosive force the second time around. But a great gag is a thing of beauty forever—so, too, a comic performance. As the primitive Asiatic “other” Borat (at once crypto Jew and rabid anti-Semite), Baron Cohen articulated a violent antipathy, inciting the unwary to agree with him. As the sophisticated, though stupid, European “other” Brüno (at once narcissistic celeb and frantic wannabe), Baron Cohen courts that antipathy himself. In both cases, he confounds his audience, creating a persona we hate to love.

Humpday opens with a pair of breeders in bed. (Everything they do is camp.) A youngish married couple, Ben (mumblecordeon Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore), confess that they’re too tired to procreate that night and then confess their mutual relief. As if in response, the doorbell rings at 2 a.m. and Ben’s long-lost college buddy, Andrew (Blair Witch Project survivor Joshua Leonard), stumbles in from deepest Mexico. Anna, who has never had the pleasure, watches the unexpected bromantic action with grim incredulity. Aggressively loud, demonstrative, and hairy, Andrew is not quite Sacha Baron Cohen, but he seems a credible representation of Ben’s id.

Reuniting an uptight married man with a footloose old pal, Lynn Shelton’s third feature offers a (much) more extreme version of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, also a sort of buddy movie, also shot in Seattle. In this case, the lost weekend is steeped in sexual anxiety. Friday night, Ben has to retrieve merry Andrew from a house called “Dionysus”—home to a bi cutie (the director herself) and an omnisexual assortment of roisterers. No orgies, but plenty of stoned dancing. Anna, who has prepared her signature pork chop dinner, sits home alone. She stews; Ben gets stewed. (Everything they do . . .) Prompted by news of an amateur porn festival—sponsored by a local alt-weekly—Ben finds himself proposing to co-star with show-off Andrew in a mad art project, dude-on-dude action, totally straight, yet somewhere “beyond gay.” Maybe they’ll be famous. The only problem: Just who is going to bone whom?

Having thus invested its protagonists in a game of “chicken,” played to justify their respective life choices, Humpday delivers some excellent situation comedy. Mutatis mutandis, the scene where Andrew and Anna have a get-acquainted drink and Andrew inadvertently exposes Ben’s boastful lie that his wife has signed off on their “project” is pure Honeymooners. (Bang, zoom, straight to the moon!) Ben can’t tell Anna why he wants to have sex with Andrew, only that it’s very, very important to him. And, terrified that Ben might think he really did have a yen, Andrew can only sigh, “I wish I was more gay.” Of course. Just as Brüno is more of a comment on celebrity culture than the love (or hate) that dare not speak its name, Humpday is actually less a queer comedy than a satiric view of macho. Appreciative as Shelton may be of her dudes, she has another agenda. Each in his own way, the guys have been freaked by a manifestation of assertive female sexuality—although the term “pussy-whipped” is never used.

Utterly functional, Humpday is a movie of close camera placement and seemingly improvised dialogue. Everything is “awesome” unless it’s “weird”—which is how it feels when the dudes meet for their tryst, set up the camera, and strip to their boxers. “We need to let our bodies take over,” one hazards. With everything building up to the spectacle of two (straight) guys getting it on, Humpday is ultimately about itself. Shelton claims that she contrived an open ending. What happens? Don’t ask, I won’t tell. Suffice it to say that, last seen beating their midriffs like apes, Ben and Andrew confront the fear but not the desire.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

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Free Will Astrology: June 30 through July 7

ARIES [March 21–April 19] Time to diversify your energy sources, Aries. It’s as if you’ve grown too dependent on oil—metaphorically speaking—and have neglected to develop relationships with wind turbines, natural gas, and other means of generating power. What if, in the future, oil becomes scarcer or wildly expensive? And what if, over the long haul, its by-products degrade your environment? I suggest you start now to expand the variety of fuels you tap into. It’s a perfect moment to adjust your plans for your long-term energy needs.

TAURUS [April 20–May 20] Your mirror may lie to you this week. Even pets and heroes and normally reliable suppliers might not be completely there for you. Fortunately, I expect that secondary sources will come through. Other people’s mirrors may reveal a clue you haven’t been able to find in your own. And a previously overlooked connection might become your own personal wellspring. Moral of the story: If you’re willing to be flexible and forswear all impulses to blame, you won’t be deprived of what you need.

GEMINI [May 21–June 20] Having discovered I can read the minds of animals, I’ve started a new sideline as a ghostwriter. Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with Prestige, a Gemini pig. Brezsny: What do you like best about being a potbellied pig? Prestige: I’m greedy, but cute. I get to eat like a pig, yet not be victimized by the negative judgments people usually project onto pigs. B: Is there anything you’re worried about? P: I need to make my caretaker understand that for the next few weeks, we Geminis will need more than the usual amounts of food, love, praise, everything. B: Anything you’d like to say to my Gemini readers? P: Don’t let anybody make you feel guilty for wanting what you want.

CANCER [June 21–July 22] The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tse said, “People of the highest caliber, upon hearing about Taoism, follow it and practice it immediately. People of average caliber, hearing about Taoism, reflect for a while and then experiment. People of the lowest caliber, hearing about Taoism, let out a big laugh.” Now substitute the words “your splashy new ideas” for “Taoism” in Lao Tse’s quote, and you’ll have your horoscope for this week. Also remember that he said, “No idea can be considered valuable until a thousand people have laughed at it.”

LEO [July 23–August 22] Nietzsche’s dictum might be useful for you to keep in mind right now, Leo: “If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.” Since I’m sure that the turbulent waters through which you’re navigating will not kill you, I’m looking forward to how this journey will upgrade your confidence. But there’s more to be gained, beyond what Nietzsche formulated. It’s also true that if it doesn’t kill you (which it won’t), it will make you wilder and kinder and smarter and more beautiful.

VIRGO [August 23–September 22] According to my projections, you will not, in the coming weeks, meet a secretive stranger who’ll play you like a violin. Nor will you be lured to the warehouse district after midnight to pick up the “missing stuff.” And I highly doubt that you will be invited to join a cult that’s conspiring to seize political power following the events of December 21, 2012. No, Virgo. Your fate is far more mundane than that. It’s more likely that you will soon meet a forthright stranger who will play you like an accordion. You will be drawn to a location at midday to pick up the “missing stuff.” And you will be invited to become part of a group that has the potential to play a significant role in your quest for meaning in the coming years.

LIBRA [September 23–October 22] For years, I’ve remembered most of my dreams every night, so I’m good at spotting trends. Last week, I dreamed that three of my Libra friends were pole vaulting at the Olympics. Four nights ago, I dreamed that my two favorite Libran astrologers were rappelling up a skyscraper. Last night, I dreamed that four Libran celebrities—Mahatma Gandhi, Gwen Stefani, Sacha Baron Cohen (a/k/a Borat), and Kate Winslet—climbed a gold ladder to a café on a cloud where they drank magic coffee that made wings sprout on their backs. Is my subconscious telling me that it’s prime time for you to raise your expectations and upgrade your goals? Do my dreams mean you should rise above the conventional wisdom and rededicate yourself to your loftiest ambitions?

SCORPIO [October 23–November 21] Spiritual epiphany alert! Uncanny revelations imminent! Hope you don’t mind being awoken in the middle of your scheduled life by a delivery from the Great Beyond. Yes, my cute little bundle of psychic sensitivities: It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or an unrepentant infidel—you will soon be invited to have one of your logical certainties torn out by the roots and replaced with a throbbing vision of cosmic whoopee. Brace yourself for the most pungent fun you’ve had since your last mud-wrestle with the angel.

SAGITTARIUS [November 22–December 21] While appearing on I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here, ex–pro basketball player John Salley gave some advice I’d like to pass along. “When you see crazy coming your way,” he philosophized, “you should cross the street.” I do think crazy will be headed in your direction sometime soon, Sagittarius, and the best response you can have is to avoid it altogether, preferably in a way that it doesn’t notice you. That’s right: Don’t shout at crazy; don’t bolt away; and certainly don’t run up and give crazy a big hug. There are far better ways for you to gather your fair share of intriguing mystery; I’d hate to see you get bogged down in a useless, inferior version of it.

CAPRICORN [December 22–January 19] Everyone wants a piece of you these days, and they don’t care about how it will affect you. So beware of emotional manipulation, subliminal seduction, and the temptation to believe in impossible promises. To make matters more extreme, I suspect you may be pleased that everyone wants an extra piece of you—and might be tempted to conspire in your own dismantling. Instead, how about letting three trustworthy people—no more—take an extra piece of you? And be very certain that they have enough self-control to know when to stop taking.

AQUARIUS [January 20–February 18] You’re almost never one brick short of a load, know what I’m saying? Your elevator almost always goes all the way to the top floor. Rarely, if ever, do I have to warn you against playing with a deck of 51 cards. So I hope you won’t be offended when I say that it’s time to find that missing brick and service your elevator and buy a new deck. In other words, you’re due for your 40,000-mile checkup.

PISCES [February 19–March 20] magic (ma’-jik), n. 1. A mysterious event or process that seemingly refutes the known laws of science. 2. A willed transformation of one’s own state of mind. 3. A surprising triumph that exceeds all expectations. 4. Something that works, though no one understands why. 5. The impossible becoming possible. 6. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Arthur C. Clarke.) 7. A quality predominant in the lives of Pisceans during the period from July 1 through July 20, 2009.

Homework: Send testimonies about how you’ve redeemed the dark side to Sex Laugh, at uaregod@comcast.net.