Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein.
One hundred twenty years ago, a young playwright named Alfred Jarry set the Parisian establishment’s culottes on fire with Ubu Roi, a play so grotesque, outrageous, and offensive that its opening night on December 10 at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre was also its closing night. As for the only two performances, a dress rehearsal and an evening show, they were beset by continuous jeers and counter-jeers. In the words of Welsh critic Arthur Symons, the audience was "howling but dominated, a house buffeted into sheer bewilderment."
‘Sausage Party’ is a legitimate existential horror film, or I guess, an existential angst film.
From the very first word uttered, "Merdre," a nonsensical permutation Jarry invented out of the French word for "shit," Ubu Roi set out to shock. Symons wrote that the play had the "crudity of the schoolboy or a savage" and that what was "most remarkable about it is the insolence with which a young writer mocks at civilization itself, sweeping all art, along with all humanity, into the same inglorious slop-pail." W.B. Yeats, who was also in attendance, wrote (not disapprovingly) in his autobiography that Jarry was a "Savage God."
There can be no conflating 19th-century Parisian theatergoers with the pimply faced teenage boys a checked-out ticket taker at my local cinema somehow let into see Sausage Party, the new film by Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Evan Goldberg. Nor can there be any confusing this R-rated animated feature about a sausage named Frank with Jarry’s proto-symbolist play. But there are perhaps many more similarities than one might assume.
Like Ubu Roi, Sausage Party is, from start to finish, obscene. It is an 89-minute barrage of "fuck" and "shit"; a cavalcade of countless and graphic sex jokes involving sausages and buns, douches and vaginas (and also ani); an ACLU outer-office worth of ethnic jokes, not to mention bath salts, gruesome violence, and a premise so dark it chills the air around it. Is it funny and, as A.O. Scott called in the New York Times, "fun pretty much all the way through?" No. I don’t think so. It has enough superficial cleverness and gutter humor to perhaps ensure its commercial success, but Sausage Party is a legitimate existential horror film, or I guess, an existential angst film. The fun stuff is sweet nectar the venus fly trap uses as bait.
Consider my synopsis of Sausage Party which — aside from eliding the anthropomorphization of food stuff — is faithful: A man lives in a world he and his fellow inhabitants believe is simply preparation for a glorious paradisiacal afterlife called "the Great Beyond." Our hero, however, discovers that instead of peace, what awaits him is gruesome slaughter. This myth, he is informed by a trio of deathless immortals, was created by Gods as an opiate for the masses, masses who would, otherwise, live their lives in terror of their own impending suffering. The man attempts to awaken the others to the unsettling truth, but they are resistant. Eventually, however, our hero succeeds in rousing his fellow men to confront the Gods and to slaughter them. They are successful in this endeavor. Our hero has finally achieved liberation — or has he? In the final scene, he is informed that he is simply a projection. Reality, he’s told, lies just beyond him, in another version of "the Great Beyond." We last see him crossing a threshold into this new "Great Beyond" — into what we can imagine is another realm of suffering.
Overall, the imagery and language is so ugly and over-the-top it is rattling.
Fuuuuck. Sausage Party makes L’Étranger look like Danielle Steele. It’s just really heavy shit. Perhaps that’s one reason why Rogen et al worked so diligently to upholster the hard truths of Sausage Party with sight gags, sex jokes, and profanity. Perhaps this is why our hero, Frank, is a sausage and not a man, and his universe is a grocery store and not a city. That life is suffering, that death is suffering, that life is fleeting, and that death is coming are perhaps four noble truths best delivered embedded in an computer generated film about groceries.
But the tone of the gags, the ferocity of the profanity, and the visual and conceptual ugliness of the Sausage Party world makes me think this isn’t simply lube to make the message penetrate deeper. The incantatory repetition of the word "fuck" ceases to be funny just because an animated sausage is saying it. It becomes viscerally and bludgeoningly vulgar. Overall, the imagery and language is so ugly and over-the-top it is rattling. Here, for instance, is a jar of Honey Mustard, who was returned from the Great Beyond for not being Dijon, explaining his experience to the other food:
"Great Beyond?! Great my asshole! Craziest most fucked up shit I ever saw. I’ve seen evil like you can’t even imagine. Twisted darkness. Bitter hate life, haha-ha-ha, foamin’ at the mouth. Everything we’ve ever known is a dirt-covered pile of shit, jackin’ off in our fucking faces! Throwing globs of goo in our fucking eyes so we’re just taking it, ‘cause we can’t see anything! We don’t know! We don’t know they are jerking off into our faces."
The violence goes beyond verbal imagery into the very graphic. The suffering of a jar of peanut butter mourning his wife, grape jelly, whose jar has just shattered, or in the hollowed-out face of a banana whose skin has been peeled off, is lingered upon so long that the patina of humor quickly wears off. The long-awaited sex scene between Frank, a sausage, and Brenda, his bun, is so graphic it proves that we can make pornography out of anything. I was actually abashed watching. The extended — very extended — and graphic (very graphic) pansexual orgy at the end of the film isn’t titillating or funny. But it is shocking and — strange to say because we are talking about animated food — it is upsetting, too.
A long-awaited sex scene between a sausage and a bun is so graphic it proves we can make pornography out of anything.
And this rattling the cage of sensibility is Sausage Party’s greatest triumph. For if we can’t get over our own squeamishness about violence, language, or sex, how will we ever get over our squeamishness at our own mortality? Like Ubu Roi, Sausage Party is an assault on "civilization itself, sweeping all art, along with all humanity, into the same inglorious slop-pail." Sausage Party is a comedy only inasmuch as our lives are themselves jokes. It’s a comedy in the same way Dante’s La Divina Commedia was comedic and about food as much as Animal Farm was about animals. No, Sausage Party is about the futile search for meaning and the ineluctable seduction of myth.
As the house lights went up in the darkened theater, the teenage boys beside me were also beside themselves. After a few initial giggles at the profanity in the beginning of the movie, they had fallen into shocked silence. I had expected, feared really, hoots and hollers and bravura guffaws. Instead, there was silence, and I was nervous. Teenagers, I think, thrive on being bad but are mostly feigning. For these 13- and 14-year-olds, still children really, the language of Sausage Party was too blunt, the violence too graphic, and the premise just too dark for them to handle. As I got up to leave, they were still just sitting in their seats, quietly. Finally one kid shook his head kinda sadly and asked to no one in particular, "What the fuck was that?"
Rating: 4 (out of 5) stars
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