Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Happytime Murders (dir. Brian Henson) Is Brilliant, Hilarious, and Deep.

The Happytime Murders was written by Todd Berger (as well as Dee Austin Robertson). The writing is superb. Over and over I heard things I wasn't expecting, instead of the cliches I've come to expect from movies. I laughed out loud--cackled and howled with laughter--many times. But the funny scenes were only one part of this film's achievement.

There's also the social politics dimension of a movie in which being a Puppet in a majority "meat -sack" world is like being Black in America. It's easy to dismiss this metaphor as heavy-handed in the film, but that would be to overlook the richness of what Todd Berger shows us about marginalization, prejudice, and systemic oppression, as the people with skin and flesh abuse the people with felt and fluff.

The Happytime Murders was directed by Brian Henson----whose parents were THE Jim Henson and Jane Henson, the puppeteering couple who invented the Muppets during their careers at Sesame Street. Jim Henson was at the heart of Sesame Street's unique feel, its visual idiom; it gave us the experience of seeing puppets behave as if they have souls. A great work of art.

And then... as the years went by, what began as a TV show for kids remained a TV show for kids, onto which there was soon built a mighty brand, with vast merchandising and global reach. To be clear: Sesame Workshop is a wonderful institution, whose work has expanded to include creating Muppets and storylines tuned specifically to the psychological needs of children with various kinds of traumas, losses, and stressors. But that's not the point.

The point is, Brian Henson's whole life has been lived in an environment saturated with the ethos of Sesame Street. I suppose a lot of his life is always already  coated with his father's genius. Sesame St. is a children's show; its ethos always is, and always must be, wholesome, innocent, and enchanted. The bowl of cereal Brian Henson ate as a kid was paid for by his dad's art, the Muppets, within Sesame Street. What would it be like to grow up inside that? And to see, as you grow, the franchise/company/brand grow too, outpacing you as it brings in millions of dollars year after year. How cloying it must be, how fraught, and how frustrating: to be forever surrounded by the culture of children's TV, especially in the form of the celebrated artistic work-product of one's own Oedipal rival. Making this film, The Happytime Murders, did for Brian Henson something like what making Wild Strawberries did for Ingmar Bergman: a working-through of the film-maker's relationship to his own father. In making this dirty film---it is trashy, violent (though bloodless!), hardscrabble-noir---with its depictions of puppet semen and coroners cleaning up puppets' murders, Brian Henson cleanses himself of the ethos of Jim Henson's invented world. That ethos is great for kids. But for a person trying to grow into being his own man (an individuated adult of 20 or 30 or 40, etc. ), the sweet-sweetness-world of Sesame Street must feel like an endless overdose of sugar. In The Happytime Murders, sugar is evil, a debilitating drug, like heroin.

Freud taught that there are only two mature defenses available to the psyche: humor, and sublimation. This film has lots of hilarious lines and scenes. But the main course is the massive sublimation of envy, competition, Oedipal aggression and resentment, filial love and admiration for his father, and who knows what else. It gets transmuted into an artwork that uses the father's unique kind of puppetry to tell a completely different kind of story, diametrically opposed to the sunshine-and-rainbows world of kids' TV. That world must meet children where they are, by providing an innocent little world, one with sorrows and misfortunes, but without evil or death or sex. So here is The Happytime Murders, full of sex and death and the evil of (prejudice against puppets, yes, and) the villainess, who turns out to have been motivated by unprocessed trauma, not just some arbitrary badness that comes with being the bad guy in the story. I love this movie.

Note: All the psychological interpretations and claims I make in this movie review are purely speculative. Not only have I never had any contact with Mr. Henson, I haven't read a single interview with him, nor any reviews of The Happytime Murders