Empathy & Politics in Shock Value Puppetry

Part of what’s so frustrating about our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, is that it could be a truly transgressive work of comedic art. A cartoonish musical about the horrific crimes of The Manson Family certainly sounds like the kind of premise that can only lead to hack #edgy humor, but John Waters was making jokes about Charles Manson & Sharon Tate in Multiple Maniacs to great artistic success while the real-life story was still developing in the headlines. The difference there is that Waters’s Manson Family humor had strong political implications as both a challenge to actively-policed censorship & as a reflection of the nasty undercurrent of 1960s counterculture; Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, by contrast, plays as for-its-own-sake shock value entertainment with no clear political purpose. Multiple Maniacs at least proves that citing Charles Manson as a humorous subject can lead to substantive thematic territory, so it might be worth considering that it’s Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s choice of medium that leaves the film artistically impotent. Using stop-motion animation, traditionally a children’s medium, to recreate Manson’s crimes in comedy-musical form does suggest that Live Freaky! Die Freaky! might have been too glib & self-amused from conception to genuinely engage with the politics & emotions of its sensationalist subject. There are exceptions that prove that theory untrue as well, however. Nearly two decades before Live Freaky! Die Freaky!’s release, Todd Haynes staged his own sensationalist, real-world tragedy with children’s dolls in a campy, over-the-top cult film – and managed to do so with genuine emotional impact & political messaging.

1988’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is perhaps most infamous for its illegality. Depicting The Carpenters singer Karen Carpenter’s tragic death from anorexia in the early 1980s in a mixed media artform, Superstar was sued out of existence by Carpenter’s family, ordered to be destroyed by the courts for its use of uncleared music & archival footage. Bootleg VHS tapes & low-quality transfers on sites like YouTube have kept the film alive, however, affording it automatic cult status. Live Freaky! Die Freaky! posits itself as an act of punk-flavored subversion, but has no legal or moral censorship actually challenging its existence; Superstar, by contrast, is literally a work of illegal art. Its political subversiveness reaches far beyond uncleared needle drops too. The surface-level details of Superstar seem like they belong to the glib, uncaring, Politically Incorrect brand of humor perpetuated in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!: most of the narrative is acted out by Barbie dolls, the dialogue & narration are deliberately over-the-top melodrama, its initial warnings of the dangers of anorexia directly parody the tones & tactics of old-fashioned After-School Specials, etc. What makes Haynes’s film so enduringly effective is that he clashes that sense of self-aware camp with deeply cutting feminist politics & genuine tragedy. Self-described as “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity,” the film finds grotesque evil in the calm, straight-laced surface of the Nixon era in which The Carpenters’ wholesome sound was meant to counterbalance the sexuality & anti-war protest of hippie music & “hard rock.” In tandem with a birth-to-death musician’s biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life & career, the film explains in documentary terms the symptoms & causes of Anorexia Nervosa, pulling no punches in its attacks on Carpenter’s family & society at large for the controlling, impossible standards they placed on her as a young woman in the public sphere. Her medical condition & subsequent death are explained to be a direct result of patriarchal evils in clear, direct, certain terms – which is automatically more of a genuine political & emotional approach to the subject than anything you’ll see in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, all while its campiness earns better, more consistent laughs.

Todd Haynes’s approach to puppetry in Superstar is partly what alleviates the film’s potential glibness. Like in his other swing-for-the-fences multimedia works (Velvet Goldmine, Wonderstruck, Poison), it’s just one tool in his arsenal among many – including rear projection, archival footage of live performances, human actors, and on-the-street interviews. He also challenges the initial quirk-humor of the Barbie puppetry by shaving down the Karen Carpenter doll’s limbs as her condition worsens, finding genuine horror & tragedy in what starts as a tongue-in-cheek conceit. There is no such subversion in Live Freaky! Die Freaky!. That film remains so glib throughout, in fact, that it “ironically” participates in the same misogyny that Todd Haynes’s film condemns. While Superstar refuses to shy away from challenging the real-life evils that inspire & “cure” anorexia (including condemnations of Carpenter’s controlling brother/music partner & the practice of force-feeding anorexic patients as “treatment”), Live Freaky! Die Freaky! finds empty humor in Charles Manson physically & verbally abusing women: a supposedly hilarious subversion because he’s played by a doll. Long before Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was made, Todd Haynes proved that the same Charles Manson doll could have been deployed for much more potent political & emotional purposes, that its choice in medium wasn’t holding it back from being a substantial work of cult cinema artistry. There was nothing holding it back in either form or subject, just in limitation of imagination & political conviction – a void of artistic purpose or necessity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade, and last week’s exploration of how its political context differs from John Waters’s own Manson Family humor in Multiple Maniacs.

-Brandon Ledet

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