Thursday, January 19, 2017

My Body is Disgusting: Swiss Army Man

by Cait Cannon and Rob DiCristino
The kids discuss their love of that farting corpse movie.

Rob: Hey, Cait! How’s it hanging? You and I were both big fans of Swiss Army Man, so I thought it would be fun to revisit it and talk a bit about how it stacks up to our other favorites of the year.

Cait: Huge! I get why people don’t dig it. They are wrong — but I get it. In talking with peers, the biggest problem they saw was how the ending shakes out. I didn’t go into the movie totally blind; I looked through the Daniels’ (ugh, name) portfolio and looked at work they had done pre-SAM, and it all sort of deals with the same stuff: they take movie tropes and end up totally inverting them through surrealism.

I’d like to hear what you thought about the ending: do you think it even matters? It is sort of like The Witch where (in my opinion) the last 20 minutes could have been cut?
Rob: So I just watched it again last night, and I actually think the ending is completely necessary. On a surface level, Swiss Army Man is about a guy coming to terms with his worst insecurities by processing them through someone else, which I think is sort of universal. The best way to understand something is to teach it. I heard one of the Daniels (ugh, name) explain it as “a suicidal man trying to convince a corpse that life is worth living,” and that really tracks for me. This broken and hopeless man (literally at the end of his rope) dives into his own private fantasy world, gradually building himself back up into a human being. The more Hank opens up, the more lively Manny becomes.

At first, I saw the whole last section as a sloppy and hurried way to slap an ending on a movie without a real narrative, but this time I saw it as Hank crossing that final threshold out of his fantasy land and back into real life. I love the absurdity of the final scene on the beach, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead giving that final “What the fuck?” That, plus the fart (“I did it!”) is the payoff of the entire journey.

Cait: I’m in the same boat. My boyfriend said he would have liked the movie better had they locked up Paul Dano’s character at the end or chosen something more decisive...but I don’t know if that would have done the movie justice. I also think it would have made people focus too much on the “did it actually happen?” line of thinking, ultimately unraveling the balance of sadness/delight the movie struck. I’m also not someone that needs to piece together the threads of realism in the movie, or wonder how it all came to being. There was a lot of chat online speculating whether or not the movie was a pre-death hallucination or what, but I don’t think that the story needs to be based in real life at all.

Rob: I know a lot of people were put off by the very idea of “the farting corpse movie.” What are your thoughts on how that kind of “lowbrow” comedy is used throughout the film?

Cait: I think lowbrow comedy is just using our physical existence as a punchline. We’re so uncomfortable about the internal goings-on of our bodies, especially if they don’t have a secondary purpose (the scene where Manny has an erection—the erection makes us laugh/feel weird because it’s out of the context of getting laid). Lowbrow comedy, I think in this instance, is mostly used to call out our separation from our bodies...kinda like that feeling of discomfort when you see your relaxed faced through the front-facing camera of your iPhone...if that makes sense to you? It’s sort of out of place, but at the end of the day it’s still us. So in the tradition of form fitting function, the lowbrow-ness of the movie is used in a really smart way—not as a comedic relief, but as a tool to talk about the reality of living, the animal-ness of it all.

Rob: Agreed. A fart might not be a good joke in and of itself, but it’s just like any other element in a story — the important part is how you use it and the feeling you’re trying to provoke from the audience. I think of something like Dumb and Dumber (which I love) where the joke is “He has diarrhea!” and compare it with this film where the joke is “Everyone farts, and that’s ok!” and I see an essential difference in pathos. I heard one of the filmmakers say that they chose farting because it was “the most honest sound a human can make,” which makes total thematic sense for Hank’s story. He’s afraid of himself and what people will think of him if he’s honest about who he is. What’s more dishonest than holding in a fart?

Take the “when I masturbate, I’ll think about your mom” conversation. I totally get why it’s off-putting for people, but there’s something about its presentation that immediately endears us (or at least me) to both guys. Hank is sort of explaining to Manny how his emotional trauma has led to social exclusion and suicidal feelings (and maybe coming to terms with it himself), and Manny is showing empathy for his friend in the most honest and childlike way possible. It’s like the “bag of sand” joke in The 40-Year-Old Virgin: it’s using something crude to evoke innocence.
Cait: Honesty is an interesting idea. I think it has a few ways “honesty” can be interpreted: sure, farting is one way to be an honest person in terms of your body and being vulnerable with people you love, but it also can represent our darker, more unsavory parts. It’s like holding back your ‘secrets’ or past when you’re just getting to know someone. I also think the movie tackles honesty within a male identity? Like, Manny’s and Hank’s relationship is romantic, deep, and intimate. Hank goes so far to start living as the woman he’s obsessed with to further the intimacy between Manny and himself. I don’t know if this necessarily goes so far as suggesting Hank is a trans-woman—which is another interpretation I’ve seen—but I’m wondering if this movie is challenging the distance that male friendship typically has in film (ie. the ‘no homo’-ness that exists in most buddy comedies, or male relationships existing as a punchline [see Judd Apatow movies…]). It’s especially interesting considering the directors are two men who advertise themselves as one unit. How do you feel about the gender roles they’ve got going on in this movie? Is it something that you put stock in?

Rob: That “two directors advertising as one unit” point is awesome; I’d never thought of that! It’s indicative of, like you said, how unironically comfortable this film is with male friendship. Since I read Manny as an extension of Hank’s consciousness (a kind of blank slate for him to project on) their increased intimacy reflects Hank’s increased sense of self-worth and agency. There’s that great bit on the river when Manny says, “I’m afraid that if I die, I might really miss you!” which leads to the underwater kiss of life. It’s such a romantic moment that plays totally sincere without any gender signifiers at all.

I was just thinking about some of Daniel Radcliffe’s line deliveries in this film. What did you think of his performance?

Cait: I don’t know if it was something that I paid too much attention to at first. It’s very deadpan but also very earnest and sweet. He sounds a lot like an internal monologue, but one that is without emotion or emphasis for much of the movie. I wonder if this straight read of his lines is meant to not have a bias? So we as viewers are left to interpret and soak up the information by osmosis, almost without thinking. I don’t know—what are you thinking about it?
Rob: I love Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man. I think it’s such an easy role to go big on (especially given the tone of the film), but he went for sincere, which works so much better. “My body is disgusting!” and “That’s so sad!” (in regards to the societal norm of holding in farts) are my favorite line deliveries ever. Learning that he refused a stunt double and manipulated a lot of the dummies himself gave me even more respect for the performance. I think it’s one of the very best of the year.

This has been awesome! Thanks for talking Swiss Army Man with me!

Cait: Hi bye! This has been a more fun version of AOL instant messaging, but smarter and with fewer sad away messages! So many exclamation points!

3 comments:

  1. to me, the ending of the movie is fine, and actually a good twist. what i don't like is the rest of the movie. i was bored by the 'outsider observing and reflecting on the habits on men'. there's a ton of movies and tv series like that, some are good, some are bad, this one is boring... to me. i actually walked out of the theater on my first viewing (to be fair, i was super tired) and finished it when it came out on home media.

    because usually, you describe a movie as 'farting corpse movie' with daniel radcliffe, i'm first in line.

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  2. I truly loved Swiss Army Man. For me, it achieves a perfect mix of emotions, which, in my opinion, is what defines great films. Swiss Army Man is at once triumphant and tragic, immature and profound, similar to the way many of Tarantino's films are at once funny and horrifying (I don't think I need to give examples). As a result, and similarly to the films of Tarantino, I understand that this movie is not for everyone.

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  3. The ending didn't bother me so much as the editing. This is when ambiguity becomes frustrating. The movie is fine and I really wanted to like it, but a rocky landing is a rocky landing.

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