Extreme comedy or absurdist art?

Image credit: YouTube - Official Trailer

Here I am, sitting on my bed, legs propped up on my desk. In the corner of my room, copies of Chaucer and Timon of Athens lie stacked, slimmest to thickest, dust collecting on top as they sit there, increasingly unread. Instead of doing that very important prelim preparation though, I’m getting more and more anxious thinking about Tom Green, ex-husband to child-star Drew Barrymore and host of the now more-or-less forgotten Tom Green Show on late 90s MTV and Public Broadcast television. You see, Tom Green was a special breed of comedian, one of those who spearheaded the kind of gross-out shock comedy paired with people like Steve-O and Johnny Knoxville today. A kind of Canadian Eric Andre who appealed almost exclusively to teenage 90s kids, at the time too old to drink Capri Sun while also too young to describe skateboarding as anything other than ‘rad’. Rebellious and anti-authoritarian teens who were edgy enough to think that watching Tom Green abuse random pedestrians with two baguettes taped to his head was just about the best way anyone could spend their summer vacation circa 1997.

In 2001, a few years after the release of There’s Something About Mary – a sleeper hit by The Farrelly Brothers which popularised the outrageous late-90s gross-out comedy as a genre (and is thus partly responsible for the trash that came next) – Tom Green was given $14 million by 20th Century Fox and told to make a movie, one that would appeal to his prepubescent fanbase – that ever important teenage demographic. The result was a film so deep in the toilet that I’m kind of embarrassed to type its name, the reason why the title of this article makes no explicit reference to it. The movie’s name is Freddy Got Fingered. Yes, Freddy Got Fingered. And no, the plot does not have all that much to do with the title, really. But it’s a good thesis statement for what the film is and what it embodies.

Tom Green plays Gordy, an unemployed wannabe-animator living in his parents’ basement. Gordy spends his days skateboarding, making cheese sandwiches, and giggling maniacally at the stupidity of his own creations, chief among them ‘X-Ray Cat’, an anthropomorphic superhero who can see through doors (but only wooden ones, for some reason). The film’s main conflict can be found in the relationship between Gordy and his father, played by Rip Torn, who wants nothing more than for Gordy to move out of his basement, to get a job and to stop abusing animal carcasses and wearing scuba gear in the shower. I’d call this a plot but it’s so loose and basic, almost to the point of parody; looking for narrative consistency is like trying to find God in a bowl of really thick pea soup. Over the course of the film Gordy finally learns to believe in himself, indulging in a variety of family-friendly activities on his way to the top of the animation industry, such as: whacking a bamboo stick against his paraplegic nymphomaniac girlfriends’ legs; throwing a marble bust of Sigmund Freud out of a window after accusing his father of child molestation; impersonating a doctor and swinging a baby around by its umbilical cord; and watching his paraplegic nymphomaniac girlfriend on national TV achieve her dream of inventing a rocket-powered wheelchair that can go 0 to 60 mph in under 4 seconds. This is all before selling his animated magnum opus – Zebras in America – to an industry executive for one million dollars.

As you can probably tell, this film is pretty unwatchable for most people. I’ve watched it with oblivious friends, and from some of their reactions it seems to come close to joining the ranks of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Pasolini’s Salò in most uncomfortable film-viewing experiences. Antichrist and Salò contain horrific scenes of bodily mutilation, sadomasochistic sex and dead animals, stretching the boundaries of decency and good taste, and yet they are (somewhat divisively) considered to be masterpieces of European art cinema. To be repugnant is not to be bad – it is to be repugnant. Forcing your audience to go through extreme discomfort can be as effective an artistic device as any.

This seems absurd, and it is, really. But, after watching Green dribble on a piano while sausages dangle from the ceiling of his parent’s living room, this is something of the feeling you get. Not just a deep-seated self-loathing and a general sense that it’s going to be very hard trying to get out of bed for the next three days, but a genuine feeling that, maybe, Green has a little more to say than the sum of the dried up remains of elephant ejaculate. Structurally, the film resembles some rickety, rusty frame screenwriters may have used in the early 2000s, full of forced episodes of scratchy sentimentality not unlike Chinese water torture. Scenes move on from shots of Green licking exposed bones and hunting for underwater ‘treasures’ with his head down the toilet to bits where characters thank him with such sincerity and wonder it wouldn’t be out of place to suggest they intend to tell their grandkids about him. It’s so absurd it becomes subversive, satirical, transformative, even. The nuts, bolts and clichés of the genre the Farrelly Brothers popularized are subverted, turned on their head, dunked in the toilet. Green is a puerile Andy Kaufman, winking at us from behind a wooden door. He’s holding up a mirror to the kind of movies he’s imitating and shaving away the pretense, the disguises, all the things that make those movies digestible and certified stomach-friendly to the upstanding American elite. ‘Noticed how the love interest in those movies is always written to appeal to clearly defined adolescent male fantasies?’ Green shouts from atop his sausage-strewn throne, ‘Well, in my movie, she’s that to a T. No character to speak of, unless it involves sex or serves the purposes of a joke. She’s basically a pair of female reproductive organs in a wheelchair. And not just any wheelchair – a rocket-powered wheelchair.’

I’m not going to call Freddy Got Fingered a masterpiece or anything. It’s just interesting, like roadkill or a dumpster fire. There’s something compelling about watching a man burn millions of dollars of money on screen, and knowingly, too, as a joke, on his producers, his backers, his fans, all the while his chaotic, adrenaline-fueled eyes blind those of passers-by. Though it is not an Antichrist or a Salò, and though I doubt Green could have something great even if he were not bound to his ridiculous comedic persona, Freddy Got Fingered does have a little something over the comedy films of its time: even today, it’s not boring. It rides the line between chaotic and idiotic like a drunk man on a wire, and for that reason alone, it’s compelling, a piece of ill-conceived, ill-structured, kind of socially conscious satire. 


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