Monday, August 15, 2016

Sausage Party (2016): Serious, Open-Minded, Open-Ended, "Dialogic," Raunchy (Strongly Theological) Satire

Sausage Party (2016): Serious, Open-Minded, Open-Ended, "Dialogic," Raunchy (Strongly Theological) Satire

Sausage Party. Dir. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon. Story by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill. Script by Rogen Goldberg,
        Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir. USA: Annapurna Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Nitrogen Studies Canada, Point Grey Pictures
        (production) / Columbia Pictures (US distribution), 2016.

            Sausage Party is far from a subtle film, but it is complex — satires tend to be overstuffed — and nuanced: "dialogic" in a rich sense suggested by Dustin Griffin of debating with itself issues in contention in our culture.
            For example of an issue: religion. There is indeed a religion in Sausage Party, with ethnic variations.
            As Jordan Hoffman summarizes the premise in a brief review in The Guardian (10 August 2016), the main action of this very adult cartoon is set in a supermarket (one in a chain in a chain called Shopwell's): a supermarket world that competes for our attention, in traditional satiric fashion, with the plot and characters.

The supermarket is what Erving Goffman might call a total institution. Its occupants (food from around the world) are kept compliant by an unprovable belief system. If they are good and obey the gods, they will one day be chosen and taken to the “Great Beyond” (outside the gleaming automated doors) in a cart. But they will only get picked if they remain pure of spirit; the “unfresh” get tossed into a dusty bin by a sadist tormentor (actually just a teen bored with his job). This fear prevents sausages and buns from getting intimate, despite their urges to conjoin.

Of course — spoilers here, if you're really fastidious about such things — of course, the "Great beyond" is a human world where the denizens of the supermarket are almost all food, or items to be consumed in other ways, e.g., as a vaginal douche or a condom.
            Unless seriously messed up from injected bath salts, the "gods" of the world of Sausage Party are humans blissfully unaware of their (our!) monstrous cruelty to foodstuffs — we have the horrific early shot of a woman munching on carrots, baby carrots! [i] — and the myth of the Great Beyond is not imposed by the store's human management but is introduced as an act of kindness by a small group of stoner "imperishables,": a Native American Firewater, African-American Grits, an apparently Euro-American Twinkie (called "Twink"), and a drummer. In the world of this Shopwell's, these immortals share the same … let's say ontological status as the fresh and canned foodstuffs, except they are relatively eternal, enlightened, and serve like demigods intermediary between the food characters and the unthinkingly cruel human "gods.
            The "real" situation of the food (and I'll justify those "scare quotes" later) — the real situation of the denizens of the supermarket is horrible. The first victims we see in the very non-Great Beyond are those baby carrots being chomped on raw and a nice Irish potato being flayed ("peeled" in the human euphemism), partially blinded (as some eyes are plucked out), and boiled.
            These food folk need what one of Henrik Ibsen characters in The Wild Duck (1884) calls, in English translation, a "vital lie" or "life-lie": the "Basic Lie that makes life possible." The lie of the Great Beyond shields the food characters from the horror of their existence and, embodied in their morning song ("The Great Beyond") gives hope, joy, and a touch of musical beauty to their lives.
            On the other hand, in addition to being a lie, the myth of the Great Beyond as it has evolved on the various food aisles also underlines a food-stuff morality that has become puritanical and stands in the way of  many of the characters' shucking their wrappers and engaging in sex. Not all the characters, but very definitely the leads have their sexuality blocked by what they believe is the demands of the gods for their purity. Of course we real-world supermarket-shopping humans do want our food pure, but not in that way, and the foods' focusing in on purity as a sexual matter is an astute comment on the bad happy of religious folk to take the word "morality" to mean "sexual morality" and bodily purity to refer mostly to sex.
            If you know Plato's Allegory of the Cave, or grew up on stories and narrative films, you know that someone will come back to the supermarket with the Truth of the foodstuff condition and that there will be a more or less Heroic quest to confirm the Truth. And both occur. A jar of honey mustard is returned by a careless shopper-god who wanted regular, and Honey Mustard (the character) warns the other food of their fate in a very non-Great beyond when the shoppers get them home. The lead frankfurter, Frank, quests for the Truth and gets it from Firewater and the other imperishables and a large recipe book — there may be a classic Twilight Zone episode lurking in the background here — and mal-formed frankfurter Barry returns from the Great Beyond to tell his experiences with the baby-carrot-eating shopper and later with a doper who's used bath salts like heroin and broken through to communication with his food. Barry brings back confirmation of what Frank has learned, plus the head of the doper. (It's a long, funny sequence, and a detailed synopsis can be found on line.) But what do you do with a Truth that's way more than inconvenient? One that's downright awful?
            That is a serious question in the film, and its relevance for the audience is signaled by having a definitely un-mad scientist in a chewed or otherwise mutilated piece of gum in a powered wheelchair talking a whole lot like Stephen Hawking and elegantly serving as a character-correlative for a scientific worldview and cosmology.
            "The Great Beyond" is the supermarket version of "You'll get pie in the sky when you die," and "that's a lie" (although some of the fruit going to the Great Beyond may end up as pie) — and a lie that blocks pleasure in the here and now, before the food gets bought and prepared — chopped up, skinned, cooked to death, to be more graphic. And, verily, even so for real-world religions that block pleasure and resistance to injustice now and promise eternal happiness "Beyond": beyond our lives and our world, in this case for a soul separable from one's doomed body.
            On the other other hand, a purely materialist, up-to-date scientific cosmology renders the human species radically insignificant and trivial, and most of us studiously ignore the probable impending extinction of our species — most species do go extinct — and, in realistic, "Big Picture" terms, the utter meaninglessness and triviality of any human individual.
            How should we handle bringing that sort of news to anthropomorphic cartoon foodstuffs or to most real-world people?
            Sausage Party wisely answers the question by suggesting we should bring such a discouraging, hope-killing word gently and in a way that respects people's desire to avoid the inevitable pain of mortality and the quite possible possibility of that mortality coming in really awful ways.
            Frank delivers the Truth initially via the store's extensive TV screens and speaker system, with little effect: the food won't believe his blasphemy nor his page from that gruesomely illustrated (from a food point of view) recipe book. But small, mal-formed, underappreciated Barry — this folk motif was a moldie-oldie when it appeared in Beowulf — frankfurter Barry has returned with news of liquefied and injected bath salts opening the doors of perception between food and the evil gods, and proof that the shopper-gods can be killed.
            The Shopwell's inhabitants prepare the bath salts, use the liquid to poison the points of those long party toothpicks you use to skewer appetizers, and rebel. The result is a Twilight of the Evil Gods as a kind of Ragnarok at Ralph's — okay, its "Shopwell's," but "Ralph's alliterates — followed by a food orgy of roly-poly-polymorphous sexual perversities of impressive ingenuity and energy — which is presented as a happy dramatic climax and a Good Thing.
            And yet … Well, Gum/Stephen Hawking, that voice of Reason, has told the lead foods and us of other supermarkets, and the more cynical among audience members might rejoice in the joyful killings of customers and crew in this Shopwell's but wonder about the others or even what the upshot will be at this store. The action of the film is set in the US on the 3rd and 4th of July, and older Americans anyway might start thinking about what will happen on The Day After this Revolution.
            Or not.
            There is a nasty habit in big-money apocalyptic films that you can kill off huge numbers of people and have an upbeat ending so long as the main characters come through all right and there's some restoration, usually of a family, such as at the end of the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds (2005). If you want to take a jaundiced view of Sausage Party, you can accuse its makers of simply not inviting the audience to think about — or care about — what will happen to most of the foodstuffs "the day after the revolution" (and orgy) when/if the outside world impinges on the world of this Shopwell's, or, if audience members do think about it at all, to just rejoice in the survival of the lead foods. A more generous reading could place Sausage Party in  the tradition in serious satire of a final turn that denies any kind of simple, didactic, moralistic closure — happy or sad. At the very end of Sausage Party, in the After the Revolution/After the Orgy Coda, the main characters are told by the reliable Gum that the real reality is that they are cartoon characters and can reach the real "Great Beyond" through a kind of stargate into the world of their makers, the world of the producers, directors, actors, and crew who made the film Sausage Party.
            In the final action of the film, Frank and the major characters join hands and go through the stargate-ish portal to get at Seth Rogen and Edward Norton (imaged as cheap versions of the giant head of the Wizard of Oz) to, in the on-line words of a guy or gal called Jeremy, "cut the strings loose from these puppet masters." Or whatever; the truth we see is the main characters' walking together into an unknown future in a totally different reality, leaving the aftermath of one hell of an orgy for sure but also a victory that we may believe will endure, or not.
            That is what we see at the end of the film, what we see while still caught up in "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith" (my emphasis). Members of the audience know we are watching a cartoon, and we're reminded of that fact and that it was made by Rogen and Norton and a large group of other real-world human beings. And we know, if we think about it a moment that the real real real reality is that we are sitting in a movie theater watching flickering lights on a screen and listening to recorded sound telling a wildly improbable tale of fucking sentient, anthropomorphic talking foodstuffs!
            In Sausage Party, Seth Rogen, Edward Norton, Kristen Wiig, and their merry band/Usual-Gang-of-Idiots list of very talented collaborators give contemporary audiences a fine example of what effective satire can deliver: a serious, seriously raunchy obscene kick in the assumptions that can get us laughing and should get us thinking. The film reduces to the absurd and the grotesque any happy faith in comforting lies, and also targets arrogant attempts to force upon fictional foods and real-world humans Truth and "truths" that may be at best only part of larger realities.
            Bad and even most mediocre satire give us "monologic," one-voiced propaganda or pedantry insisting on a simple truth seen from one point of view. Great satire gives us a combination of voices, several views, and open endings.
            And I haven't even mentioned the politics in Sausage Party.


         [i] Note Roald Dahl's "The Sound Machine," The New Yorker, 17 September 1949: 29 f., where a man invents a machine that may, or may not, allow humans to hear "sounds beyond the normal human range, including screams from plants when they are cut or trimmed." I had not read the Dahl story but had read a comic book variation on it, allowing me to tease a vegetarian friend about his fiendishly eating vegetables, explicitly mentioning his munching on baby carrots. The comic may have used a Harvey Kurtzman script, "The Sounds from Another World," Weird Science #14 (September-October 1950), a piece cited by Bill Schelly in Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America, whom I quote above in this note (p. 154).

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