December 23rd, 2016


This is Why Food Hates Us

There are three kinds of hard truths; the kind you find hard to face, the kind other people find hard to face, and the kind everyone finds hard to face. 2016's Sausage Party is mainly about the second kind but it's more sensitive than you might imagine. Particularly for a movie about talking food getting massacred and mutilated. It is very funny, particularly the first half. It's funny because it's horrible.

The main character is Frank (Seth Rogen), a hot dog, referred to as a sausage to support the title, I guess. Maybe some people do call them sausages, I don't know, I'm a vegetarian, I don't know how you meat eaters do things. Of course, this puts me in an odd position--Wikipedia quotes Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the film, saying, "'What would it be like if our food had feelings?’ We very quickly realized that it would be fucked up.'" Well, cows and chickens and pigs do have feelings. I'm not pointing this out to be a smug prick, but because this happens to be a movie at least in part about being a smug prick.

In this reality, every item sold at the supermarket is sentient and, according to an opening number with music by Alan Menken, they all believe that when they're purchased and taken from the store, they go to a paradise called the Great Beyond. Later in the film, Frank has the task of telling everyone this is a horrible lie and that they're all doomed. When people don't want to believe this despite the evidence he produces, he calls them weak. Later when he marvels that no-one listens to him, his friend, another sausage named Barry (Michael Cera), says of course they didn't believe him because he just called them "a bunch of fucking idiots." Which was something I really appreciated after years of seeing Atheists agonise about how people can be so stupid as to believe in a magical guy in the sky. I remember when Bill Maher was a guest on Stephen Colbert's show a few months ago and he casually referred to the bible as being just a bunch of silly stories. I understand that Maher isn't concerned with offending Catholics like Colbert but he reveals either ignorance or pure belligerence when he dismisses all of Christian thought in one go. It's not merely rude, it's self-defeating, pushing people away from seeing things from his point of view. Which is exactly what happens with Frank.

But the film presents belief in the Great Beyond as merely a tale to make people feel good about dying, so it's not quite a decent analogy for the poetry and wisdom that can be found in religious teaching quite apart from any beliefs in the supernatural or ugly, intolerant imperatives. But that's one of the reasons I don't like allegory. Either everything perfectly stacks up, in which case you might as well just talk about the subject directly, or the correlation is inadequate to support an argument.

Sausage Party, in any case, is a very funny film, surprisingly inventive given that I would have thought the twisted take on talking food was a concept that had run its course on Adult Swim. But Sausage Party finds plenty of new gags, like the banana whose face falls off in a horrific war zone scene, or the awful experience of corn kernels who go undigested. The timing on all the gags is perfectly brisk and natural, these are writers and actors who truly understand the comedy of the grotesque.

Frank's relationship with the hot dug bun, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), also becomes funnier the sweeter it gets. It makes you feel like a perverted fourteen year old in the best way, putting just enough genuine feeling in a scene where the pair accidentally find themselves pressed against each other so that two parts of your mind, the part that thinks it's ridiculous and the part that thinks something really sexual is about to go down, correspond with each other perfectly.
Fred and Ginger

The Armchair Abduction in Lights

We've all heard about the Red Scare in the 50s. What must the world dreamed up by Joseph McCarthy been like, where Communists were secretly infiltrating the country through the Hollywood studio system? 2016's Hail, Caesar! imagines this world as only the Coen Brothers can. Both a loving satire of old Hollywood and a gleeful evisceration of paranoid right wing fantasies, it shows its love and makes its argument by being the inimitable collection of odd, very human Coen brothers characters.

I haven't seen any post-1970 film that captures the people of old Hollywood films as well as Hail, Caesar! does. I'm not sure how much of this is because filmmakers lack the skill or if they feel a modern audience won't take people speaking with period accents and diction seriously. But the Coens again show their talent for finding the right actors for the right roles even when one would never have imagined any of these actors in anything like these roles. Tilda Swinton is surprisingly Joan Crawford-ish and vulnerable in two roles as Hedda Hopper type gossip columnists; Veronica Osorio is delightful as a Carmen Miranda type whose name, Carlotta Valdez, is a reference to Vertigo; Alden Ehrenreich is a perfect amalgamation of Ken Curtis, Slim Pickens, and maybe a little Montgomery Clift. My favourite, though, is Scarlett Johansson.

She plays DeeAnna Moran, seemingly modelled on Esther Williams, a beautiful swimming movie star. But off camera, talking to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), she has the quick, earthy demeanour of Thelma Ritter. And wonderful unselfconscious crassness--I loved the way she kept referring to her mermaid tail as "my ass". I honestly wouldn't have imagined Johansson had this kind of performance in her.

The only person who really doesn't work is Channing Tatum as Burt Gurney, a movie musical star. The film invites a comparison to Gene Kelly which really doesn't do the dead eyed Tatum any favours. Serious, who the fuck is this guy? Why is he in movies? I still can't shake the feeling he was mandated by the Castigliane brothers from Mulholland Drive.

The movie centres on Eddie Mannix, based on the real life Mannix, who was a "fixer", covering up the dirt of stars' private lives. The film begins with a scene reminiscent of one from The Big Sleep--the same book The Big Lebowski is based on--with Mannix finding a starlet getting her pictures taken in a private home somewhere. So the film is sort of a detective story with Mannix's main case being the abduction of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who's taken from the set of one of the big biblical spectacles that used to be made in the 40s and 50s.

He plays a Roman officer who gradually turns Christian, a plot sort of like Quo Vadis, The Robe, and with a bit of Ben Hur thrown in. The movie amusingly juxtaposes hatred of Communist philosophy with the very Communist sounding Christian rhetoric one hears in these kinds of movies. To reference Thelma Ritter again, I thought of her scene in Pick Up on South Street where she talks about poor, working class folks having enough to worry about keeping a roof over their heads until they die without having to worry about Communists, too. The apparent complete ignorance of what Communism actually is being played with absolute sincerity.

Baird gets along pretty well with the group of Communists who've kidnapped him, who are a bunch of middle aged academics, the very fact that they've hatched this plot illustrating the sort of precious absurdity inherent in the whole Communist plot concept.

Twitter Sonnet #945

The noses shrank inside the extra cheek.
Inflating faces found the cloud parade.
A shorter pant withheld the sherpa's peak.
The visage cut through stone in snow cascade.
In green we washed too much, the lights diffused.
For anything a boot of stone'll smash.
A bulb or cup's not safe when ghost's refused.
Electric eyes surprise in darkened dash.
The sunbeam blanched to stall a gang ashore.
A withered bowl acclaimed in forms resends.
The water caught in tangled trees restored.
Misplaced in xylophone the heart ascends.
The lasso thought ignites spaghetti bowls.
A switching planet's spokes were movie holes.