The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Y2K Films: The Radical Legacy of Tom Green 

From French Revolutions to Gaullist weekends, freedom is violence.Jean-Luc Godard, Week-end (1967) 

The above quote is from a film that Godard released one year before director Norman  Mailer began filming three underground films financed entirely on his own. His most expensive  production was a film called Maidstone – a production without a script, as well as what would be revealed as a general sense of direction. Tied around a loose plot involving a chauvinistic filmmaker – played by Mailer himself, who decides to run for President, the film’s creation  seemed to have run on a pedigree of chaos, which involved prodding his fellow actors to react to  certain moments on camera instead of the usage of any line readings, at least whenever it didn’t  involve consistent drug use. This proved to be more frustrating than experimental, which  eventually culminated in co-star Rip Torn taking matters into his own hands and prompting an  “improvised” fight against Mailer’s character. This involved Torn attacking Mailer with a real hammer, and biting a chunk of his ear off, all to the petrified screams and cries from Mailer’s real wife and children attempting to break up the fight. When confronted by his wife, Rip Torn only defended his actions, stating that Mailer’s character simply had to die. This would end up becoming the climax of the film, which would be released in just barely above two theaters in 1971, only to fade into obscurity for decades, and bankrupt Mailer before it was even complete. In that same year, Tom Green was born. 

Born in Ontario, Canada, Green began stand-up comedy at the age of 15, but it wasn’t until college that he began a variety of different directions – including (but not limited to) talk radio and comedy rap; performing under such aliases as MC Bones and MC Face. But in 1994, Green began producing a non-paid public-access TV program called The Tom Green Show, that would eventually lead to MTV propelling the show down to the United States in 1999, in what would send tremors of shock comedy all throughout the nation. Green’s show was a variety-type structure that you’d only notice if it weren’t for the actual content displayed – including (but again, not limited to) the humping of dead moose, Green spray-painting lesbian porn onto his father’s car, or publicly vandalizing his own art that was hung up by Green himself without  permission days before at the National Gallery of Canada. Such acts committed would go on to acquire whatever version of a national controversy they were capable of having in the late-90’s. Green was as celebrated as he was damned, most particularly by Eminem on ‘The Real Slim  Shady’. But in 2000, being dissed on a rap track would only send you higher, as Hollywood executives began catching wind of Green and responded with roles in major features. Within one year, Green appeared as a cameo in Charlie’s Angels and prominently in Road Trip – the latter directed by Todd Philips, who would spend the following decade having actors like Green help mold his pre-Joker era of what I personally like to refer to as “Xbox Live Comedy”. If you know, you know. 

I would now like to take a break from Wikipedia-scourging to ask a question. What makes us thrive in discomfort? Is such a question too subjective to even be answered? The sensations audiences found in Green’s antics only allowed him to find further success, when all it  ould take for someone else to do the same thing and subsequently be labelled as an unfunny freak is the notion that somebody did it first. So what makes that somebody a genius? Is it that  they single-handedly pioneered a dawning era in contemporary comedy that would embrace something akin to anarchy? Is it the ceaseless biting of the hands that feed you solely because you’re ‘what’s hot’ right now? Perhaps the best answer to that question is what would  immediately end up happening to Green after his big Hollywood break; sometime before or after his appearance on the front cover of Rolling Stone that year. Yes, it would appear that you can never quite reach the top, as 20th Century Fox soon gave Green the creative keys to the city, which would normally extend to the lead role in a feature film. It’s not often that they’d go as far as to allow you the lead role in a film that you co-wrote and directed. But thus, history was made, and we have now approached our second decade ever since, lo and behold, Freddy Got Fingered.

Where do we go from here? How could I even begin? Providing a synopsis feels almost pointless. But for the sake of you, the reader, I’ll allow you this share of levity. Green plays an unemployed cartoonist named Gord, whose dreams are about to come true. He skates from his home, through a shopping mall, and into a bus depot to hop onto the next Greyhound to take him out of Portland, Oregon and into Hollywood to work full-time as an animator, where his parents and younger brother Freddy await to say their farewells. But his father Jim – played by Rip Torn, surprises him with a LeBaron; complete with “#1 SON” imprinted on the license plate. The love and pride between father and son couldn’t be stronger, despite the protest of Freddy, as Gord promises about four times to make his daddy proud. Within one minute into his stateside trek, he spots a horse and, uh . . . serenades it. I won’t be able to know for sure how far these scene  descriptions can go on a platform like this, so feel free to go on YouTube to find out what happens next. But eventually, Gord does make it to Hollywood, but only to wind up working in a cheese sandwich factory, and his dreams as a cartoonist wind up dashed by the head of an animation company who concludes that Gord’s drawings, while good, make zero sense and lack any structure. He almost immediately goes back home, and his father’s demeanor changes overnight. I’ve already skimmed through a solid four scenes I’d rather not put into detail here. 

But as soon as Gord arrives back home in Portland, a neighboring young boy comes to greet him before accidentally tripping and slamming face-first into Gord’s side-door. His father comes to escort him away as the boy screams in agony with a face gushing blood. It’s the foundation of the ensuing chaos about to erupt between Gord and his father. It’s also supposed to  be a comedic running gag. Whether it works on me I’ll leave entirely up to you. But alas! Jim’s disappointment in his son’s failure to realize his dreams run through Rip Torn’s landscape of a face. His work on Maidstone thirty-two years ago, that had cemented him as less of an actor and more of an agent of chaos, slowly becomes more channeled over time. But Green – the star of his own film, appropriately leads this circus, occasionally in the form of animal disembowelment and swinging a newborn infant from its umbilical cord, then later taping the cord onto his torso for pleasure’s sake (presumably). Scene after scene and scream after scream lend way to what I  believe is the film’s centerpiece, set during a family therapy session between Gord and his parents. As usual, things escalate as soon as Gord, marking permanent damage on his family  unit, falsely accuses Jim of molesting Freddy, who that very night is taken away by CPS. At this point, this synopsis is really only being inserted here in case you were under the presumption that  a film with the title ‘Freddy Got Fingered’ was one of taste. 

There is no end to the depths found in Freddy Got Fingered. It is a comedy less eager to make you laugh than it is with wanting to throw you in a fire. It is a film that actively hates you.  To say it has aged poorly would indicate that it somehow wasn’t produced in the worst possible age. So why do I write about it? Why did I just devote two paragraphs describing the story of a film as if insinuating it’s one worthy of its condemned legacy? Well, because it isn’t. A myriad of  plenty have spent the past twenty years deriding the film as something among the title of “one of the worst movies ever made”, including the late Roger Ebert, who despite his illustrious history in elaborate film criticism, wrote a review tainted with ableist slurs to describe the film. But as much as I would feel compelled to slather this piece with the hate Freddy has received over the years, it’s not like you won’t find coverage of it on literally any piece of information about the movie. Instead, I’ll provide a moment of understanding. After all, hate tends to be most receptive to the hate that came prior. Perhaps when you’re beheld to the vision of a man whose idea of a running gag involves the masturbation of various animals, at least when it doesn’t involve the violent maiming of an innocent child, it may be easy for opinions to form in the way you’d expect. 

But why do I admittedly cry from laughing at that innocent child being maimed? Why is  it that every time I think about going to bat for Freddy Got Fingered, I feel equally compelled to attach self-critique to it? I write this piece under the self-conscious concern that my peers will think differently of me for now being seven paragraphs into this essay in which I have officially decided to defend this film. What keeps me writing is knowing that I’m not alone. The terms ‘radical cinema’ and ‘neo-surrealist art’ have often been passed around by the film’s loyal fans.  But what I’ll say here instead is that in the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard helped establish the more notable traits evident in the French New Wave of filmmaking. Before his venture into directing, he and other writer-turned-directors would contribute to a French magazine called Cahiers du Cinéma, where Godard would often write about eschewing the traditional format of storytelling most prominent in films released at the time. With directing, he opted to engage in experimentation; something akin to a fine line between freedom and nihilism. And it was within the late 60’s in which his work would fluctuate between labels like ‘Maoist’ and ‘revolutionary’. Whether that period was informed by his arranging of the 1968 Cannes protests in response to France’s civil upheaval that same time, or the radical philosophies prominent in his work at the time (e.g. La Chinoise), could be not much beyond either-or.  

Point is, as Godard progressed in his art and personal beliefs, he had also spent a lifetime growing his disfavor for American cinema and its refusal to bask even a step away from its own  afety of conventional storytelling. The more his filmography went on, the more likely you’d be to find his criticisms through either his film work or writing. But what I ask here, is that should Mr. Godard ever find out about this blog and this post contained within it, would it be too much to consider the creative contributions of Tom Green as an objection? Could he find it within  himself to give thought to the idea that it wasn’t necessarily the gross-out antics of Green’s TV show that granted him a budget of not one, not two, but $15 million, for a film that would contain a scene of Green’s character receiving a check of $1 million for a cartoon pilot, only to waste it all on a surplus of jewels, a helicopter ride, and for a construction team to relocate a portion of his parents’ house to Pakistan (with his father still inside), but rather it was the mere notion that the name Tom Green was just that much of a commodity. In 2001, the most openly radical American film of its decade was released into theaters nationwide, immediately became the most hated of its time, and no other American work has even come close to conveying its  sheer contempt for the system responsible for producing it in the first place. It is a Trojan horse taking the form of a Farrelly-esque late-90’s sleaze comedy, but contained inside is the misanthropy you’d find in a Michael Haneke film. So perhaps if Mr. Godard ought to sit himself  down one day and bear witness to a screening of Freddy Got Fingered, what are the chances of  his reception to the visuals onscreen? Tom Green wearing the carcass of a deer and getting railroaded by a big rig. Rip Torn shaking and spanking his bare ass in a drunken stupor. Julie Haggerty in bed with Shaquille O’Neal. At what moment could it be that Godard realizes that at one point, American cinema saw a genuine risk-taker creating a work that couldn’t bask more in its hatred of both itself and those observing it? That at one point, the film of a truly free man was unleashed into the openness of the world, and that the only way to take it in would be to stare back at its hellish eyes; screaming banshee-like, perched in-between a shattered windowpane before jumping out into the other side, the world around you suddenly altered in a way that can never be undone. But yet, on the contrary, what are the chances of Godard pondering to himself,  in the words of a sign held by an extra in the film’s final minutes . . . 

When the fuck is this movie going to end?