Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Perrin Classic Pictures (PCP)

While not in the same league as Walter Kerr or Vincent Canby, A.O. Scott seems secure as the New York Times' senior film critic. Scott takes a steady, middlebrow approach to reviewing, somewhat insightful but never alarming or unpredictable. This is less Scott's fault than the era we inhabit, where the written word disintegrates and films are extensions of corporate branding campaigns. A young James Agee would starve in this environment; a Pauline Kael would rattle and confuse her twentysomething editors. So it makes professional sense for Scott to be modest, but even that footing will give way in due course.

Scott has been reassessing older films, searching for something new to say. Given what's shoveled out on a weekly basis, I can't blame Scott for this: anything to keep the mind moving, though "Jerry Maguire" remains a muddled effort, I don't care how many times you watch it. Still, it's fun and more importantly time consuming to re-review movies you remember from whenever. And while I despise the Times and all that it represents, I'm going to follow Scott's retro lead, revisiting those films that influenced or moved me, making me who I presently am.

Today's specimen is "Freddy Got Fingered," Tom Green's intimate look at a young man's attempts to find himself creatively while hoping to please his stern, profane father. It's a classic coming-of age story, an exploration of identity, fidelity, social relations, and familial anxiety, released just before the 9/11 attacks shifted the national focus. Today, Green's alter-ego Gord might be in Afghanistan or wrestling with foreclosure, buried in debt. His concerns would be more life-and-death than the relative pastoral pursuit of a career in animation.

But Gord's dream of becoming a TV animator boasts nightmarish colors of its own. For him, it's all or nothing. Success must be immediate. Gord does not want to pay his professional dues, believing that his hellish home life is preparation enough. Here he confronts an animation executive (played by Anthony Michael Hall, a nod to a simpler America envisioned by John Hughes), demanding that his concept be purchased on the spot. Hall gives Gord some sage advice, which Gord follows in his personal, literal way.

Until he integrates this new awareness into his work, Gord must make ends meet, taking a job in a cheese sandwich factory. As Chaplin did in "Modern Times," Tom Green exposes the anti-human grind of mechanization, where workers are faceless cogs, easily disposed and replaced. Being an artist, Green's character rebels against this suffocating reality, attempting to inject some humanity in an environment that long ago erased any vestige of common emotion.

Unable to create for a living, Gord turns the family home into his personal sketchbook, making himself a character in a story only he understands. When he tries to bring his father along, Gord is met with philistine hostility.

Rip Torn plays Gord's dad Brody, a guy yearning to take pride in a son he doesn't comprehend. Torn is Green's straightman, an abusive Bud Abbott who believes that beating up the boy will turn him into a man. And as brutally antiquated as that notion is, Brody's relentless attacks eventually help Gord find the missing piece in his creative puzzle.

For centuries, violence has inspired art. Tom Green places this historical constant in American suburbia. The results are no less illuminating, if on the surface frightening and ominous. We are born into madness (a point colorfully made by Green as he whirls a newborn over his head, using the umbilical cord as a life-saving lasso). Art cannot overcome this, but it can soften the sting, and in Green's blood-coated hands, we laugh at the inevitable while acknowledging its primacy.

There are numerous other sub-plots in "Freddy Got Fingered." The title alone refers to a false charge of sexual abuse that is in reality a cry for love and recognition. Toward the end, Green shifts the film to Pakistan, where he and Torn arrive at a rough, mutual understanding, against a backdrop that would soon erupt in regional, if not global, chaos. The terror Gord endures is part of a larger condition. Green clearly sensed that something awful was approaching, yet did not allow it to overwhelm or cheapen his main characters.

Predictably, "Freddy Got Fingered" was reviled by critics. Most found the film tasteless and unwatchable, calling it one of the worst movies ever made. There was one major exception: A.O. Scott. In the April 20, 2001 New York Times, Scott observed:

"Like any mature artist, Mr. Green bows to the traditions that fed him while refusing mere imitation. His love interest, Betty, is a paraplegic (and an amateur rocket scientist) whose sexual interests include being whacked on the shins with a bamboo cane. Their romance owes something to the kinky humanism of John Waters and the Farrelly brothers, and Gord himself could be the younger brother of the overgrown paper boy from 'Get a Life,' Chris Elliott's sitcom from the cheesy golden age of Fox television.

"Mr. Green's style, toggling between antic and deadpan, is like a less hostile version of the work Michael O'Donoghue and Andy Kaufman did in the early days of 'Saturday Night Live.' Mr. Green is less an actor than a persona, and he resolutely refuses to mark the boundaries of his imposture or to resort to the winking, supercilious pseudo-irony that remains the default setting for so much second-rate pop culture.

"His assaultive forays into public space pay homage (perhaps inadvertently) to 70's conceptualist pioneers like Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, mixing in some of the sweet absurdism of William Wegman before he was captured by 'Sesame Street' (and with a preference for wild over domesticated animals).

"This movie's set pieces, many of which seem to revel in the double meaning of the word gag, are draped over a rickety but serviceable narrative trellis. The core conflict, between Gord and his father, is like something Ingmar Bergman might have written for SCTV. The elder Brody is a ferocious avatar of the work ethic, a dervish of brutality, shame and thwarted tenderness.

"The casting of Mr. Torn provides a fine piece of visual humor; with his lank hair and goatee he looks like a squashed, dried-out version of Mr. Green. As a director Mr. Green is competent, which is no small achievement, given the lurching sloppiness of so much movie comedy these days. His visual style is as relentless as his personality."

If only A.O. Scott wrote like this more often. But then, a film like "Freddy Got Fingered" appears once in a generation. We've had our turn. Let's hope that when the next Tom Green emerges, he or she won't be so battered by events that the comic message is lost. "Laugh you assholes!" has never been more pressing.

GREEN SEED: Scott comparing Green to 70's conceptual artists was more apt than perhaps he knew. Here's an early piece by Green, when he cobbled together videos for a public access channel in Ottawa. The beginnings of Gord are literally raw, but evident.