Moving Pictures
Dec 13, 2017, 05:58AM

Tom Green Made His Dada Proud. Proooouuud.

Freddy Got Fingered used Dadaism to subvert Hollywood norms.

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Tom Green's 2001 directorial debut Freddy Got Fingered is predominantly remembered as one of Roger Ebert's least favorite movie of all time, a rare recipient of the zero-star rating. Desson Howe, writing for The Washington Post, quipped that the film fits better into the horror genre because of its obscene lack of taste. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman gave it an "F," calling it a "disaster, a case of a freakish yet dangerously one-note personality too besotted with ego to understand that there’s got to be more to a feature-length comedy than his own mocking, seething, look-at-how-smart-I-am-about-being-stupid self."

Ironically, this intensely negative reception only confirms the film's artistic success. Freddy Got Fingered is a Dadaist farce that criticizes cinematic tropes and the entrenched studio system by operating under its own unique brand of logic: the bare skeleton of a plot—wherein Green's character, 28-year-old Gord Brody, travels to and from Los Angeles in the hopes of becoming a professional animator, much to the ire of his hot-tempered father, played by Rip Torn—is loosely grafted on to what is essentially 90 minutes of absurd sketch comedy, involving horse erections, erroneous molestation charges, and multiple open wounds, all in the name of rejecting contemporaneous Hollywood standards; it makes perfect sense that respected critics within the industry, like Ebert, Howe, and Gleiberman, would hate this movie.

Like many prescient works of art, Freddy Got Fingered floundered under critical and commercial scrutiny at first: movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that only 11 percent of critics gave the film a positive review. What was initially considered ineptitude has revealed itself to be prophetic criticism, though. Green's debasement of the traditional Hollywood comedy would go on to influence and set the irreverent tone for subsequent movies and television shows like Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, Step Brothers, and Family Guy. The structural mayhem of Freddy Got Fingered is deliberate; in the tradition of the avant-garde performers at Zürich's Cabaret Voltaire, Green skews his comedy through Dadaism to jolt his audience awake and make them recognize the dearth of originality in American cinemas.

Dadaism is the modernist art movement that originated amidst the chaos of World War I in the neutral city of Zürich, Switzerland, a product of expatriated artists disillusioned with the blindly accepted standards of society and disgusted with the insensible violence engulfing most of Western Europe. Early Dadaists like Hugo Ball, Emmy Hemmings, and Tristan Tzara thought the world was devolving into utter mayhem, and believed their art should reflect this burgeoning surrealism that was becoming increasingly impossible to understand. For example, Ball began publishing and performing "sound poems" whose contents contained no meaning or imagery—indeed, they contained no real words at all.

Written simply for their sonorous effect when spoken aloud, one early poem, "Gadji Beri Bimba," begins with the lines, "Gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori/Gadjama gramma berida bimbala." Marcel Duchamp, another renowned Dadaist, operated on an equally irreverent scale, provoking his audience both on a visual and historical level. His 1919 piece "L.H.O.O.Q." is a postcard of Leonardo da Vinci's seminal portrait "Mona Lisa" with a mustache and goatee penciled onto the subject's face. When pronounced, the initials of "L.H.O.O.Q." reveal Duchamp's vulgar sense of humor: "Elle a chaud au cul" roughly translates to "She has a hot ass." Ball, Duchamp, and the majority of their contemporaries sought to shock anyone who accepted the status quo and trusted their leaders; they wanted their art to inspire critical thinking and deep analysis, not uniform appreciation.

In this regard, Dada was designed from the start to be more a catalyst of change than an incubator for success. Fittingly, the movement is best remembered for its influence, not its products. Dada is intrinsically linked to art history and meta-commentary: it intended to simultaneously upend the creative stasis in contemporary art on both a content and structural level. Ball addressed this in his movement's eponymous manifesto, writing in his singularly Dadaist manner, "How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanized, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop." The fact that the word "europeanized" is written in all lowercase letters is not a typo; it’s a statement and a provocation. Dadaists wanted to inspire originality, and it could not launch a new era of artists built on the concept of unique thinking while still beholden to the mores of its forebears. Tom Green felt the same way.

Dadaism—during its first and most fruitful iteration throughout World War I—was as much a lifestyle as it was a mode of artistic expression. According to Eli Anapur, Dadaists "looked for alternative modes of social functioning that would disengage them from the unsavory reality of the times, and which would produce a new social ordering more aligned with their desires and wishes". Green also practiced his own "alternate mode of social functioning"; it’s what gained him a fanbase in the mid-to-late 1990s. On The Tom Green Show—his unclassifiable and surprisingly popular MTV program that ran for four seasons—he pulled stunts like joining a little league soccer game without warning, stealing the ball from an unsuspecting 10-year-old while parents watched in horror, or picking up a dead bird from the street, holding it out to passersby and yelling, "You forgot your bird!"

Green never broke character because he was never putting on a character in the first place; he was merely exposing other people to his brand of logic. In a contemporaneous review for the show, Dan French wrote, "Green doesn’t perform for the camera. He performs for himself, and allows you to watch". The comedic auteur took this a step further and fully realized his subversive vision with Freddy Got Fingered. The film fits firmly in the Dadaist canon, evidenced by its anti-capitalist themes, nonsensical plot, and constant desire to offend.

This desire manifests on multiple levels, most obviously in its visuals: every single derisive critic lambasted the film for its frequent barrage of bodily fluids, including blood, placenta, and semen. There’s one element of "gross out humor" that’s notably absent, though: flatulence. This omission may trigger one's curiosity—why leave out the fart jokes, the one crowd-pleasing gag in this disgusting wheelhouse?—until Green's subversive intentions are remembered. Flatulence had been a staple in raunchy comedies since Mel Brooks' 1974 satire Blazing Saddles featured a group of cowboys farting around a fire. Transgressive back then—one of the "bigwigs" at Warner Brothers wanted to "bury" the film before release because he deemed the scene too offensive—fart noises had become common currency in American cinemas, as inoffensive as they were unfunny.

By Freddy Got Fingered's release date, Airplane!, Caddyshack, Shrek, Beavis and Butthead Do America, Mystery Men, and both Nutty Professor films, among others, had already included fart jokes. Green felt that flatulence—and feces, too, for that matter—were ineffective tools. He would have to up the ante if he really wanted to shock his audience.

And he succeeded. Ebert's summation of Freddy Got Fingered's most grotesque elements prove that the art world can still get outraged over attacks on good taste, nearly 100 years after Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q.": "Consider a scene where Gord's best friend busts his knee open while skateboarding. Gord licks the open wound. Then he visits his friend in the hospital. A woman in the next bed goes into labor. Gord rips the baby from her womb and, when it appears to be dead, brings it to life by swinging it around his head by its umbilical cord, spraying the walls with blood." Green doesn’t let the viewer ease into this gag-inducing onslaught, either. Ten minutes into the film, Gord stops at a stud farm on his way to Los Angeles and fondles an erect horse penis, screaming, to no one in particular, "Look at me, Daddy, I'm a farmer! This is fun!" The image comes full circle when—after relocating his family to Pakistan for no defined reason—Gord masturbates an elephant and douses his father in semen. Disgusting? Absolutely. But that was the goal: like the original Dadaists, Green wanted his contemporaries to think originally, not within the confines of pre-established comedic rules.

Freddy Got Fingered doesn’t only offend visually, though. The mere title is a provocation: not only is it tenuously connected to the film's main plot—Gord erroneously accuses his father of "fingering" Freddy, his 25-year-old brother who immediately gets escorted to "The Home for Sexually Molested Children" despite being an adult who vehemently denies that the abuse ever happened—but it makes light of child abuse, a longtime taboo subject in comedy. It also acts as a deterrent for casual moviegoers, who, without enough information, may mistake the movie for pornography.

Another scene featuring Betty—a paraplegic doctor and Gord's love interest, played by Marissa Coughlan—satirizes the "meet-cute." After flirting for a minute, Gord asks, "Are hospitals always this fun?" Betty stifles a smile, and then responds in a deadpan: "No, sometimes people here die of cancer."

Freddy Got Fingered's Dadaist lineage is perhaps best exemplified by the unique mind of its protagonist. According to Ebert, Gord is "unsocialized, hostile, manic and apparently retarded. Retarded? How else to explain a sequence in which a Hollywood animator tells him to 'get inside the animals [in order to better understand his animal characters],' and he skins a stag and prances around dressed in the coat, covered with blood?" How else to explain it? There’s no need to explain it: Green is reinventing the rules of logic with Freddy Got Fingered, defying audience expectations in the process. The infamous scene where Gord delivers a baby, bites off the patient's umbilical cord, and swings the infant around like a lasso is shocking on a visual level, yes, but also on a content-level: the child lives, and Gord leaves the hospital scot-free. He even gets Betty's phone number.

Betty is a subversive character in her own way, acting as a mirror—under harsh fluorescent lights—to all the female romantic interests in the raunchy comedies Green was reacting against. She’s the logical—or, more accurately, illogical—extreme to the beautiful brainiacs who fall in love with the scrawny and oftentimes creepy comedy protagonists. Take, for example, Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary: she plays an orthopedic surgeon who once dated Brett Favre, yet she still chooses to be with Ben Stiller's stalker-ish wormboy at the end of the film. While this may be intended to display her lack of shallowness, it really just belies the filmmakers' latent sexism. The traditionally beautiful woman falls in love with the charming but average looking male protagonist; it's rarely the other way around.

Betty and Gord's relationship conforms to this mold to an absurd extent: not only is Gord scrawny, but he is outwardly hostile, still living with his parents, and without a career for the bulk of the movie; Betty, aside from being pretty, is a literal rocket scientist who loves to suck dick. Her confinement to a wheelchair serves as an objective correlative for her complete lack of agency: she can't walk away from Gord, emotionally or physically. Taken with the fact that she gets off by being beaten with a bamboo rod and it's hard to deny that Betty is a character designed exclusively for male control. With Betty, Green calls out the hackneyed propensity to write doting, unrealistic female characters. He brings her characterization to an absurd, illogical level in order to critique his contemporaries.

Green's biggest target, though, was not his fellow directors; it was the Hollywood studio system. An anti-capitalist theme runs through Freddy Got Fingered, much in tune with the staunchly left-wing Dadaists. For example, Gord's date with Betty gets out of control when his dad interrupts their meal. The restaurant—which has a small orchestra entertaining its diners, all of whom are wearing formal attire, conjuring an opulent, aristocratic image reminiscent of pre-Revolution Russia—erupts into chaos as the father and son explode through the establishment. It culminates with Gord jumping on the bar, smashing a violin, and yelling, "This is a fancy restaurant!" The anti-Hollywood message grows more pointed as the film progresses: after Gord finally receives a $1 million advance for his cartoon, he wastes all the money on buying "jewels" for Betty, renting a helicopter, and relocating his family home to Pakistan while keeping his father in a medically induced coma. This pointless profligacy—which is one of the film's last scenes—is a meta-commentary on what Green did to his own studio. Freddy Got Fingered cost $14 million to produce. That alone is a repudiation of the Hollywood system.

Unfortunately, in the same manner as many of the original Dadaists, Green struggled to retain popularity after his brief, but intense, cultural ubiquity. He's far from a failure, though. Like the critics who eventually accepted Duchamp's genius, Ebert came around to Freddy Got Fingered, calling it "a milestone" in 2002. Green wanted to make a transgressive movie that shifted the tides of comedy. He succeeded. 


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