Not everyone has the balls to send their $250,000 alien invasion gross-out comedy to the Cannes Film Festival. Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste didn’t win any special jury prizes, but it did win the number one item on any filmmaker’s Wish List: international distribution. With that, Jackson secured himself and his friends (now collectively known as Wingnut Films) careers in show business…such as it was in the late-80s.
Not that you’d know it from Wignut Films output, which reverted back to short subjects in the wake of their first feature’s minor (but slowly growing, eventually cult-ish) success. The Japanese, for example, loved Bad Taste, and their country’s lack of public morality crusaders hypocritically draped in crosses and flags meant they got to see the whole damn film years before some of us. After some phone tag, Jackson and Co. secured funding for a short, satirical parody of Jim Henson’s Muppet Show from a Japanese TV network eager to sell something “from the director of Bad Taste.” This became the seed that sprouted Meet the Feebles.
This film – hell, all Jackson’s early films – gets a lot of credit for existing in the first place. It had all the problems of a low-budget, indy puppet show and an international co-production. With no studio behind them, the filmmakers commandeered a warehouse down the by very docks that double as a key location. Everything had to be built from scratch, then torn down and recycled into the next set. The Japanese TV network pulled out at some point, forcing Jackson to once again go before the New Zealand Film Commission with his hand out. After sinking $230,000 of the tax-payer’s money into Bad Taste (and seeing what they got for that investment) the NZFC rejected Jackson’s application…at first.
Somehow, Jackson managed to wring at least $450,000 out of them, via the NZFC’s then-Executive Director, Jim Booth. With no available explanation for the NZFC’s sudden turn around (though their name’s nowhere to be found in the credits…which is saying a lot), I’m forced to conclude a wizard did it. Maybe it was Gandalf…or one of those two Blue bastards Tolkien hardly ever talked about, except to say they disappeared into the East, where the map ends and the “wildmen” supposedly rule.
Booth would soon quit his job and become a co-producer of Jackson’s next three films…and I wonder if his departure was entirely voluntary. Maybe his colleagues finally forced him (and his love for the tasteless films of that punk kid from Pukerua Bay) out the door ahead of election season. That’s how we’d do it in America…if my country had a national film commission. The National Endowmen for the Arts wouldn’t count even if it were well-funded and didn’t have to waste time responding to every fake “controversy” some asshole Culture Warrior trumped up. (Hi, Breitbart – you dead piece of shit – I hope Hell’s treating you to its usual level of courtesy.)
Meet the Feebles, it almost goes without saying, would not be made in my country. Certainly not in 1989. Too many bodily fluids. Too much out-and-out sex. The fact that all this comes through a cast of puppets would only make things “worse.” None of Hollywood’s self-proclaimed adults would dare to get this joke. And the industry’s self-proclaimed man-children would be too entranced by the puking to care.
Neither would recognize Meet the Feebles as a satire of what was itself a satire of the variety/revue shows that clogged TV during Jackson’s childhood (and Jim Henson’s young-adulthood). As such, it follows twelve hours in the life of a puppet/acting troupe as they furiously rehearse for their first appearance on live TV. But this is no mere satire, positing how a troupe of puppets might act if they were “real” people – this is a Wingnut Films Production, packed with plenty of gratuitous sex and violence…as I’m sure all of you have heard, provided you’ve heard anything about this film…save the fact that it’s (as the box covers loudly trumpet these days) “from the director of Lord of the Rings.”
That might be true, but Feebles is clearly a sophomore effort. Not a “slump,” per-se…but the manic energy of Bad Taste is noticeably absent from this World O’ Puppets, where everyone is a joke in and of themselves. Star of The Feebles Variety Hour Heidi the Hippo (Mark Hadlow and Danny Mulheron, doing voice and man-in-suit work) is a one-to-one Miss Piggy analogue – an emotional over-eater who knows she’s the top draw and pointedly walks over whoever happens to be in her path, just because. She’s dating producer/showrunner Bletch the Walrus (Peter Vere-Jones). Like any good producer, Bletch is a small-time drug runner on the side, and already grooming Samantha the Cat (Donna Akersten) to replace Heidi in the show and in his bed…though the two always seem to have sex in Bletch’s office, inevitably leading to hi-jinks whenever Heidi barges in and Bletch forces Samantha to hide. Can’t break the news to Heidi until after the show tonight…she’s still the Top Draw…
Subplots multiply as we move down the cast list. Secondary draw Harry the Rabbit (Ross Jolly?), after a lifetime of sexcapades designed to make El-ahrairah jealous, is diagnosed with “the Big One,” and gradually falls apart…first emotionally, and then physically in a most Cronenbergian manner. Sid the Elephant (Mark Wright), the show’s animal trainer, looses his lot of performing…um…tribbles…?…to a backstage accident and finds his dressing room invaded by ex-girlfriend Sandy (Stuart Devenie) and her child….who looks so much like Sid, Sandy’s filed a paternity suit. Wynaych the knife-throwing frog (Brian Sergent) is a junkie Vietnam Vet, haunted by flashbacks of The Deer Hunter (with puppets). The film introduces us to him as he accidentally kills his assistant due to the Shakes. His supplier is Bletch’s right-hand hatchet rat, Trevor (also Brian Sergent) who’s promised a re-up by six p.m…if Wynaych can come up with fifty more bucks.
Bletch, Trevor and Beltch’s muscle, Barry the Bulldog (Mark Hadlow), would all love to score some primo horse. Variety shows are expensive, after all. All the more so if tonight goes well and the Feebles win syndication from “The Network.” Out on the links, they arrange a drug deal with Cedric the Warthog (????) (who looks a bit like Bebop from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon)…but Cedric’s boss, Mr. Big, probably didn’t earn that name by playing fair with small-timers looking for a Big Score…
Under and around and inside it all, blatant Audience Identification Character and newcommer to the chorus, Robert the Hedgehog (Mark Hadlow again, this time with a lisp like Pavel Checkov’s, turning every “R” into a “W”) is falling for fellow-chorus member Lucille (????? – this is what happens when you lump everyone together under a “Vocal Performances” credit). With help from stage manager and co-owner of the show, Arthur (Peter Vere-Jones again), Robert wins Lucille’s heart…only to loose it over a misunderstanding that isn’t at all comical, since it involves Trevor, drugs, Lucille, attempted rape, and the literally underground porno movies Trevor’s making in the basement.
Doesn’t sound very funny when I lay it all out, does it? Isn’t this supposed to be a comedy? Well, yes…but it’s what my father would call “a one-joke movie” with the one joke being, “Hey – what if puppets were ‘real’ people (or real entertainment industry cliches disguised as people, which is the best we can hope for from most flicks)? What if they had to piss and shit and fuck like the rest of us disgusting humans? Isn’t that inherently funny?” Yes…to a point…but considering the attention lavished on backstories, neuroses and motivations, I have to keep reminding myself these beings are puppets. They aren’t aware of it but I’m supposed to be, and keep that awareness firmly in my mind. This supposedly makes the existential horror of their lives something to laugh about.
And this is why I hate reviewing comedies. I can’t tell you if you’ll find something funny. I can tell you what I found funny, but then I’d have to tell you why and run the risk of destroying this movie’s jokes by explaining them. As a great authority on comedy once said to his well-meaning-but-ignorant padawan, “If you have to explain a joke, then there is no joke!” For a critic, that maxum should probably read, “If you catch yourself trying to explain a joke, stop. Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.”
Most of the “wrong” things people discuss when they discuss this film are its gross-out gags. As anyone who saw Bad Taste would expect. (The original tagline read, “From the creator of Bad Taste comes a film with not taste at all!”) Sometimes their appearance is a casual gag, as when Sid’s animals are crushed to bloody hamburger and Trevor peels one off the ground to take a bite out of it, declaring “That’s not a bad meat patty.” Sometimes the gross-out gags power a character’s subplot (like Harry’s rapidly declining health). The things this film actually gets wrong rarely come up because everyone’s too busy going, “Ewww,” like a pack of snickering kindergarteners.
For one thing, there are too many characters in this movie, leaving most of them ill-drawn…or less well-drawn than they would be if they weren’t puppets/guys in suits. Like the variety shows it parodies, Meet the Feebles sets a lot of plates spinning, and having to service them all means a lot of tonal clashing. The overall pace is pretty slapdash, befitting a short film hastily expanded to feature length by multiple parties (including one who’d go on to be Jackson’s wife and collaborator on all his future scripts, Fran Walsh). Even if I didn’t know for a fact that’s how this movie happened, its lopsided structure would easily clue me in.
Take “Wobert.” His romantic subplot with Lucile begins the moment he sees her, barely seven minutes in. We see neither hide nor hair of it for the next ten minutes, until Robert (with a little help from Arthur’s fatherly advice) woos Lucile with the power of a flamenco serenade
(Here’s a perfect example of comedic subjectivity: The way the non-diagetic music swells along with “Wobbert’s” golden, lisp-free singing voice, entirely out of proportion with his body – to me, that’s comedy. And this simple scene of a hedgehog crooning to a his beloved poodle wrung more laughter out of me than two decade’s worth of pus-, blood-, semen- and stomach acid-laiden “comedies.”)
After this, the romantic subplot takes a thirty minute break, only resurfacing once the film’s set everyone else’s plates spinning. We need to know, for example, that Trevor and Bletch are making porn in the basement, and that they’re looking for a newer, “younger” “more petite” star (big “utters” just aren’t as popular as they were in the early-80s, before people learned how to tell fake “utters” from the real ones). Only then can Tervor’s attempted rape of Lucile have any meaning. Otherwise, there’d be no conflict in Wobbert and Lucile’s relationship. By the time we meet them again, fifty minutes into a ninety minute film and right before Trevor slips Lucile a glass full of Mickies, they’re already engaged. The film has to break them up so they can reunite at the climax, theoretically making it that much more dramatic.
Instead, our Wobbert’s arc comes off cliched and mechanical. It’s plotting on autopilot, since the plot is just a wire on which the film strings gags. The best ones come from comic overreactions on the part of the Feeble’s (in-universe) director and my favorite character, Sebastian the Fox (Stuart Devenie again). Training and personal inclination both lead me to seek out artists in their work, and I can’t help wondering how much of Jackson went into Sebastian. Cynical, pragmatic and perpetually fed-up, Sebastian spends the whole film being the stereotypical bastard director from Chorus Line. But everything he does – from publicly berating Heidi after he finds Black Forrest chocolate cake in her cleavage to performing “The Sodomy Song” over Bletch’s strenuous objections – is in service of the show. And it seems to work. As The Feebles Variety Hour goes out to a live audience, Sebastian barges into Bletch skybox, declaring “I’ve just heard from the network! They’ve confirmed a sindicated series! And the critics! The critics love it!” It’s 1976 all over again, and this could easily be Premiere Night at Jim Henson Studios. Except this puppet revue show’s not going to series…
I’m a little saddened by that, since this unwieldy menagerie practically cries out “Explore me in a serialized narrative, you dumbass!” But on the other hand, at least Feebles is a complete film, with a beginning, middle and a definite end which is both sad…and strangely uplifting. (Like the song, “Garden of Love,” which takes on new meaning by the end, once the titular garden’s born its own special variety of red, juicy fruit). In an era of entertainment defined by the Franchise-or-Fail mentality, it’s refreshing to see anything definitively end. Especially when the ending makes everything that came before it both worthwhile and worth watching again.
Once you watch this movie twice, with the initial surprise of each gag somewhat neutered, its strengths and weaknesses stand out like a chorus line of show dogs. It’s a brilliant technical achievement – and you can tell just how brilliant by all the bitching I’ve done about a lack of character development, instead of bitching about the puppets themselves. For me, they cease to be puppets and become people…a trick few manage with the ease and grace Henson managed back in the day.
Jam-packed with more stuff than most filmmaker’s entire oeuvres, Meet the Feebles is an ambitious project that deserves its cult classic status and international reputation. It also deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, regardless of your feelings about puppets, gross-out comedy, or parodies of The Deer Hunter. Go in prepared, ignoring all the corporate trumpeting of Jackson as “the director of The Lord of the Rings,” and you’ll have a time…though whether it’ll be a “fun” time or not is obviously up to you. If all else fails, you can ponder how the man who made this $750,000 puppet show wound up in charge of two hundred and fifty million dollar, major studio movies.
Just goes to prove you never know where the road will take you, once you step outside your door. Dangerous business, I hear. Makes you frightfully late for dinner.