3/22/12

DOUBLE FEATURE: "Freddy Got Fingered" dir. Tom Green (2001) + "Project X" dir. Nima Nourzedah (2012)

Call them slightly off-kilter cinematic book-ends to the last decade, Tom Green's absurdist satire Freddy Got Fingered and Nima Nourzedah, Michael Bacall, and Matt Drake's ultimate party flick Project X are two of the most significant and revealing mirrors to be held up to the Millennial generation yet.  Though these two films are entirely different beasts in some respects, it's the way in which they ask us to shift our expectancy of the genres from which they're born, and ultimately the nature of the world we're living in, that makes them so similarly interesting.  Of course, they are both widely hated.  But, I think it's nearly impossible to disregard that both of these films manage some significant accomplishments, especially in terms of the way they balance the tropes and conventions of the movies that precede them, and the precise and devastating way in which they operate as cultural critique, intentionally or not.  I will freely admit that they both qualify as "difficult viewing," at least for some movie-goers, but the more I reflect on the response to these pictures the more I find the critical response of the generation that bore them to be lacking.  In the case of Freddy Got Fingered, I understand why no one would have expected Green to make a film as sophisticated and subversive as he did, but it's not like he didn't try to tip us off.  Have a look at the film's poster art (also the subsequent DVD cover image)...

With the tag line "This time you can't change the channel," one might think the image simply acknowledges the fact that "Tom made a movie" (In fact, the film itself is highly self-reflexive throughout in its attempts to remind us of how ridiculous it is for a studio to sink money into a Tom Green film).  But, if you'll pardon the turn of phrase, we're the ones getting "fingered," or framed, as it were.  Perhaps the last word one would think of to apply to Green's work is "subtle," but take a moment to consider the image above:  it incites one to peer closer at it via the minuscule collage of images in the background, which only brings the viewer closer to being the subject of the image; brings them more into Green's frame.  The image is cleverly, even subtly, designed, hinging on the perceptive and physical gesture of curiosity that underlines the whole of Green's work, and that the film mirrors in its attempt to get audiences to "come closer";  this time the prank is most succinctly targeted at anyone who would pay to see it in the first place.

"Fear Factor"
If you'll take a trip in the "Wayback Machine" with me, 2001 was a year that marked a crescendo of "Gross-Out" entertainment, a time sandwiched between the first two American Pie movies, as well as the first two Scary Movie releases, a franchise that marked the beginning of a cycle of parody films typified by that year's Not Another Teen Movie.  Of course, humor has always relied on the occasional fart gag or dick joke, but (as my "In Conversation" partner Nathaniel Carlson once perceptively noted) the parody film seems to have instilled in a generation an understanding of comedy that replaced any trace of craft or cleverness with mere pop culture reference;  where there was once an actual joke (or, dare I say, something akin to Moliere's goal of "Educating men through entertaining them"), now there is only the reference. On TV this same sensibility was (and still is) being perpetuated by Seth MacFarland's "Family Guy," and "South Park" was just beginning a significant decline in quality after releasing the only film that begins to rival Freddy Got Fingered in satirical scope from that year, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.  Yes, the early part of the new millennium was a time still ruled by the Farrely Brothers and "Fear Factor," which debuted the same year Freddy was released.  And, once again, I understand that you may be suspicious that the guy who contributed the "dog-doo on a microphone" bit to the music video-less MTV of the late 90's would emerge as the film maker with his finger most firmly on the pulse of all this ridiculousness...but lets have another look.

Tom Green in Freddy Got Fingered
The scene I consider to be the "thesis statement" of Freddy Got Fingered happens early in the film, after a scene in which Gord (Green, knowingly too old for the role he's playing) receives a LeBaron convertible from his Mom and Dad (bravely played by Julie Haggerty and Rip Torn, both rightfully and perfectly invested) and takes off to fulfill his dream of becoming an animator, leaving his Dad in a state of celebration, and his younger brother Freddy (the titular character) a bit jealous.  The set-up is familiar, and Green hangs on to this thread of narrative familiarity throughout, which is an essential aspect of the film that Green maintains in just the right balance.  Of course, there are many detours on Gord's path to fame, many tied to what Green was all too aware was expected of him by the studio, and which he integrates into the narrative pretty brilliantly...which is to say, not much at all.  For instance, the "thesis statement" scene of Freddy Got Fingered, or Green's version of the razor across the eyeball, is a scene in which Green is almost demonically compelled to pull over his LeBaron and jerk off a horse.  This happens mere minutes into the film.  Entirely disconnected from the narrative framework of the film (aside from, perhaps, his patented mocking calls intoning "Look at meee, Daddy!  I'm a faaarmer!"), Green has offered us maybe the most succinct image to artculate the Millennial generation's inherited engagement with cinema and television.

Tom Green in Freddy Got Fingered
Not long after this thesis moment, Green begins to translate his TV shtick (much of which relied on his ability to  instigate working class people to anger in public spaces...or pissing off his parents), into scenes that push all expectations over the edge.  I think Green's choice not to make a "Jackass"-esque film version of what he did on television is crucial to the grandiose and daring nature of the satire he achieves in Freddy Got Fingered.  Green appropriates studio attempts to lamely cash in on anything that will turn a buck, knowing that he could push the boundaries as far as he liked within a market that had successfully created a youthful feeding frenzy around the exceptionally distasteful, and creates his scenarios with the disjointed glee of an anarchist.  He encounters more animals, this time the carcass of a dead deer that he proceeds to be so taken with that he wraps it round his body like a cape, only to be caught off guard by a charging semi truck that runs him down.  Giddy, Gord emerges unscathed, and continues his quest to be a famous animator.

"Zebras in America" 
Although Green does tie the film's narrative together with the conventional "rags-to-riches" plot points, he also allows entire scenes to emerge from mere turns of phrase, almost like a game of surrealist free association.  The deer carcass scene is propelled by Anthony Michael Hall's studio executive character turning down Gord's attempt to pitch his ideas by saying:  "You have to get inside the animals."  Later, Gord licks the broken bone emerging from his friend's leg after his father accidentally says "Get him a job" instead of "Get him an ambulance."  Later in the film, Gord begins a relationship with a phallus-obsessed, wheelchair-bound, amateur rocket scientist (played with bubbly charm by Marisa Coughlin) who casually advises Gord to focus his creative energies by getting something to eat and playing some music.  This advice emerges as a scene where Gord has attempted to draw, eat, and play music at the same time by creating a musical sausage pulley system.

"Daddy, would you like some sausage?"
Food and animals continue to be used throughout the film as devices for Green's larger commentary on the middle class, pop culture, and the film industry.  In a move that beautifully mocks the traditional TV-to-Movie expectation of augmenting the televised bits to movie proportions, the finale of the film involves Gord receiving a one million dollar green light to produce a cartoon called "Zebras in America," which he uses to rent a helicopter (in a sequence that contains one of the film's references to Apocalypse Now;  Viet-nam cinema is another blatant motif of the film that vaults the ending of the picture to delirious heights), buy his girlfriend some jewels, and covertly transport his father to Pakistan, where they mend their disputes through the gooiest desu-ex-machina in cinema history, a spray of semen coaxed by Gord from an elephant's penis.

Gord and his Dad in the aftermath of elephant ejaculation - Freddy Got Fingered
By this point in the film Green has augmented the idea of "Prank TV" that got Freddy green lit in the first place to a proportion that is often far from comedic.  The title of the film, for instance, is a reference to Gord's off-handed accusation that his father molested his younger brother Freddy (played with Tony Dow-esque charm by Eddie Kaye Thomas), which results in Freddy (a man in his twenties) being taken to an institution for victimized children where, in one scene, we see him sitting zombie-like with the other children as they watch the meat-hook scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  In fact, the way in which Green tempers the comedy of Freddy with horror elements is subtle, and what ultimately vaults the film beyond the expected comedy product.  Green simultaneously plays the hero within the comedy narrative while subverting it.  The rebel skateboarding through the mall at the beginning of the film (cut to the Sex Pistols singing the refrain: "the problem is yoooouu!") is a character that Green could have easily relied on for the comedic conceit of the film, but the lengths he goes to in distorting that character through the inter-textual and meta-fictional aspects of the film create a fun-house mirror that recalls Tommy Lee Jones defense of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers as akin to the paintings of Goya.  For me, Freddy is the more successful picture, as Stone only accomplished those heights in part (particularly in the incredible "I Love Mallory" sequence), but his message is similar to Green in that the true horror at play in the media age is the way in which it allows us to laugh off the truly aberrant;  to confuse the hero and the monster.

Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers
Nima Nourzedah's Project X
The segue may seem obvious here, but to critique the teenage characters in Project X, the audience that earned it well over 20 million on it's opening weekend, and the writers, producers, and directors involved as monsters would only be feeding the beast.  Instead, let's commend Project X for not cloaking the inherent ugliness that runs rampant throughout this drug-fueled, 17-year old fantasia.  Like Freddy Got Fingered, it combines elements of comedy and horror in delicate balance, via the 80's and 90's "party film" genre, as well as the recent trend of "found footage" movies, which has migrated from the horror/sci-fi realm of Cloverfield, the Paranormal Activity series, and the similarly lucrative teen-targeted product Chronicle.  As a "movie movie" (as my friend Kris would put it), I prefer Chronicle, a fairly successful picture that has a fun time melding the hand-held DV convention with it's premise of telekinetic teens, and pulls off a pretty hilarious high-flying multi-camera sequence in the film's finale.  But, compared to Project X, Chronicle seems like it has so little to show.  Chronicle is similarly involved in depicting the lifestyle of your average high school student and the extravagant house parties they attend, but considered against Project X, it feels wrapped in a lie.

 Josh Trank's Chronicle
Project X
Project X is unprecedented in what it reveals beneath it's genre, and contains some key music cues that tip us to the fact that it's creators understand a bit more about where it's coming from than one might expect, particularly in the opening's use of 2 Live Crew's "We Want Some Pussy," and, later, once all hell breaks loose, Metallica's "Battery."  Of course, any debate over whether or not Project X is corrupting our youth or not will very quickly seem as pointless as the 2 Live Crew debate of my high school days.  In fact, for fear of coming off as simply adding to the tired rhetoric of bashing the generation at hand, I have way more respect and admiration for the current generation on the whole than I do for my own, seeing as the closest we got to manifesting a movement as significant as Occupy Wall Street was collectively tuning into MTV to watch the video for "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)."  The juvenile critique of whiteness that the Beastie Boys eventually transformed into respectable hip-hop is revisited in Project X, this time finding the narcissism of R. Kelly, Kanye, Jay-Z, and Pusha T emasculated and re-contextualized accurately as the soundtrack to suburban white boy excess.

Project X
The Beastie Boys
Where Freddy Got Fingered seems to me a surrealist-inspired masterpiece, Project X is way more frightening in what it reflects.  Freddy's ugliness seems to have turned off most of Green's paying fan base, which I think was the intent, whereas Project X is frightening for the fact that it's target audience will easily pay for and laugh off the film's overbearing misogyny and racism, as fleeting and inconsequential to them as a Facebook post.  In fact, critics of the film have commonly likened the experience of it to having all the weight of a text or a tweet, and there is some truth to that, particularly in the way in which those communication mediums often operate in opposition to their intent.  But, by no means is that the whole story, as the ethics of a communication tool, be it a smart phone or a film, is always tied to its user.  In the case of Project X, the only extreme reaction of any kind it's designed to create is in relation to those it's not targeted to, which is part of the reason why I refuse to condemn it.  See Project X;  it has way more to tell you about the generation at hand than Juno or The Social Network could ever hope to.  Sadly, it's the opposite of Bertolucci's cinema obsessed homage to the late 60's Cinemateque Francais The Dreamers and it's simultaneously truthful and  romantic depiction of a world where seeing films, hashing out their significance, and taking it all seriously was the passion of the youth culture.  Similarly, the release of Project X reveals a portion of a generation for whom reality is masked by the various screens that occupy their lives.  But, with Project X the dream of The Dreamers has been inverted, replaced with an audience so disinterested in art that only a film that caters to an emaciated attention span will do.  By the time our hero, Thomas (Thomas Mann) realizes in one of the final scenes that the girl who was right in front of him the whole time is the pussy worth having, a narrative contrivance so blatantly placed that it might be brilliant, the triumph of Project X is complete.

Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers
Project X
Although I have read interviews with screenwriter Bacall (also scribe for the current 21 Jump Street movie), I'm not sure whether or not to give him credit in what might be the ultimate key to what Project X has to tell us, and that's the title.  Project X is a movie exec term for movie projects that don't have titles yet.  In this case, they made a product so perfectly designed to make money, so slick it could have only been directed by someone like Nourzedah, who had only made TV ads and music videos prior, that it didn't even need a title.

2 comments:

nathaniel drake carlson said...

Green's movie always seemed to me to be the apotheosis of whatever it was Chris Elliot was trying to do on Get a Life.

I think I liked Social Network more than you did but I agree that I actually found it less than socially relevant, which was a huge surprise. If it succeeds as drama it's because it indulges a classical narrative and character arc inquiry (this despite all the claims made about its groundbreaking style and structure, which is generally just fidgety edginess--probably the way it mirrors contemporary culture the most). It does not, however, begin to approximate the savage power of its trailer which promises another movie entirely, one that cuts hard to the core of contemporary social consciousness and character, exactly as you say the Nourizadeh film does. Wait till you see Bindlestiffs by the way (http://slamdance.bside.com/2012/films/bindlestiffs_andrewedison_slamdance2012); that may even one-up Project X.

Jason Hedrick said...

Chris Elliot probably deserves another shot at that show. I remember it's brief run fondly.

And, I think that someone will make a film that gets at what the "Social Network" only begins to reveal. I did not dislike the movie, but I generally have a problem with bio-pics that don't seem to have much else going on, of which there have been so many--coupled with the unrelenting critical praise that Fincher seems to garner (I won't retread that territory).

As far as "Bindlestiffs" is concerned, this is the first time I've heard of it...but I'm excited to hear that it marks Smith's move away from directing.