A&E » Film

Happytime subversion



On the one hand, I feel like in this day and age, the hashtag is turning everyone into poets...

On the other, it's difficult to know who even reads anything longer than 140 characters, so we're starting this week with a (hopefully copyright-free) definition. Sub·ver·sion: (noun) The undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution. For instance, "The ruthless subversion of democracy."

The Happytime Murders, opening Friday at the Village 8, is the latest in a strong line of cinematic subversion. Animation and other entertainment traditionally considered "kid stuff" has proven ideal for taking the piss out of and disseminating subversive messages broadly, because kid stuff draws less heat.

There's still a general perception that "cartoons" and other animated fare belong in the realms of the marvelous and mystical, so they are not worth taking seriously.

Fairy tales have been taking advantage of this forever. Television mastered it (The Simpsons started in 1989 with solid torchbearers Family Guy and South Park quickly following suit) and on the big screen, the gold standard is still 2004's marionette masterpiece, Team America: World Police.

And The Happytime Murders seems happy to keep the good times flowing. As the son of Muppet creator Jim Henson, and chairman of The Jim Henson Company, director Brian Henson is swinging for the fences and likely pissing a lot of people off with a movie full of Muppets who drink, smoke, swear, take drugs and have sex with cross-eyed hookers. (Sesame Street already sued the film, and lost).

Henson doesn't seem to give an eff, however. He literally grew up with Muppets and puppets, and seems to be taking glee from placing these childhood icons in an unexpected and morally corrupt context.

The story starts in a seedy L.A. underworld where puppets and humans co-exist, and a plush-nosed, detective named Phil is teamed up with his old cop partner Connie (Melissa McCarthy) to solve a puppet serial killer case.

Except evidence starts pointing to Phil himself as the triggerman. In a world of puppet druglords and addicts (and a puppet vulture who works at a sex shop), will Phil be able to clear his name and save his puppet-kind?

Henson, wisely, embargoed reviews and pre-screenings for this one, so no one is sure what to expect. But you can bet it pokes more than a little fun at Hollywood, society, expectations and itself.

Here's hoping Henson's subversion inspires some other filmmakers/studios to get their hands dirty.

Because these days we seem to be lacking in properly utilized subversive elements (not counting the anonymous noise of internet pundits and trolls). And Google has the numbers to prove it. Now that machines can read every book ever printed (a single Elphel323 camera can scan 1,000 pages per hour), we can track word usage in Google Books, all the way back to the year 1800.

In 1809, the printed word "subversion" came in hot, occurring 0.0005032040 per cent of the time. It doesn't seem like a lot, but remember, Google has scanned (and translated) over 25 million books, and I'm guessing they started with the old ones.

Not surprisingly, amidst all the paranoia, tattletale-ing, death squads and generally human shittiness of the two World Wars, printed usage of the word "subversion" declined quite rapidly. And although it did spike a bit during the '60s (1969 recorded a usage rate of 0.00002554760 per cent), it's been tapering off ever since. But has the power and authority of our established systems and institutions gotten any sunnier lately? Do they seem more friendly, open and honest?

Some do perhaps, and the argument can and should always be made that there was more human heroism during those World Wars than there was human shittiness, which is why the good guys won.

The machines fight the wars now, but we still need subversion to keep the powers that be on their toes and allow the masses a closer look, and maybe even a new perspective, at our own civilization. As an artist, if you're not pissing someone off, you're probably not trying hard enough.