Many time festival programmer and juror Otto Adler provides his viewpoint on the ins and outs of selecting and programming films.
The new animated feature, Beavis and Butt-head Do America is the perfect waste of time. The kind of spent time that won't keep you up in the middle of the night berating yourself for going--let alone spending the money. And I encourage you to bring a date, or even better all your friends.
The film provokes and challenges the viewer in many ways. One of which is the uneasy realization that Beavis and Butt-head are like family. The kind of family that you're embarrassed to say you're related to. And they make you laugh. Suspiciously, I do not think we're laughing at them. Beavis and Butt-head Do America has a keen and sharp eye for capturing the subtitles of behavior. Watching the film is like watching a freak show caricature of everyday people. If the film were shot in live action, this kind of documentation would go unnoticed. I'm rather curious about the kind of ability that could take a couple of hand drawn designs of deep simplicity and drape it over public consciousness like grandma's wool blanket. There is something deeper at work and history holds many examples of the war against traditional values and thought.
Much credit should go to Abby Terkhule, the film's producer, and champion of the talents of Mike Judge during the early days before the series. Judge's work appeared on Liquid Television after catching the eye of Colossal Pictures' Prudence Fenton. A very interesting period of time for TV animation, Nickelodeon launched Ren & Stimpy and MTV introduced the world to Beavis & Butt-head. The screenplay was written by Mike Judge and Joe Stillman, both experiencing their work being produced for the first time on the big screen.
Starting and Ending With Television
The plot of Beavis and Butt-head Do America starts and ends with television. The boy's TV set is stolen while they daydream and is not recovered until the end of the picture, beat up and cast aside in an alley, like the best and the worst of medium. B&B devise ways to replace their television, which leads them to cross paths with an aggressive drunk in a hotel room. The man offers the boys a lot of money to "do my wife." B&B hop on a plane and head to Las Vegas where she is holed up from the law and in possession of a deadly biological device called the "X-5 Unit." The unit is sewn into Beavis' shorts ( don't ask why he removed them ) and the boys return East across America with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms people in hot pursuit. The action concludes at the White House, in our nation's capitol, where President Clinton hands out memberships to the ATF. ( Is this the first time our President has been portrayed in an animated film?) The story is not worth the big screen. B&B role play through the picture. It is unfortunate that they could not break away or even attempt to explore a different aspect of their personalities. Emotionally, they are wind up dolls with a predesigned set of instructions. This is the only obstacle that keeps B&B flat TV personalities in a medium that pleads for light and dimensionality.
There was an opportunity during the middle of the picture to deliver more characterization but it wasn't played out. B&B are stranded out in the desert and they run into their dads, two former roadies who slept with sluts. The reunited dysfunctional family sit around a camp fire and share a few laughs and flatulence. The next morning the fathers disappear and the boys are on their own again.
The film's director and creator, Mike Judge, does an adequate job with his first animated feature. The picture's production value is consistent with the television series, and in fact felt like the TV show projected on a big screen. Contemporary animated feature filmgoers conditioned to pristine and polished production values will notice the broken xeroxed pencil lines shimmer on extreme close-ups and dirt on panning cels. The animation drawings wiggle and then hold, then wiggle again in what could be called Trace-backvision.
There are many funny moments in Beavis and Butt-head Do America, including the flight to Las Vegas where Beavis pulls his shirt up over his head and breaks into the cockpit acting like a demented terrorist. I also enjoyed the bit of limited intimacy between Beavis and an old woman voiced by Cloris Leachman. Another worthy moment is the highway chase. B&B are locked in the truck of a speeding car. The boys manage to break open the trunk but are left with the dilemma of escaping by having to jump off the speeding car in the face of oncoming highway traffic, much the way Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid jumped off a cliff when surrounded by the law.
A Healthy Mockery
One sequence actually transcends the picture. B&B have a near death hallucination in the middle of the desert of dancing demons straight out of the world of Hieronymus Bosch. The sequence was based on the artwork of Rob Zombie. This sequence departs from the picture in style and medium, utilizing a digital ink and paint process, provided by Tape House Computer Ink & Paint, and serves as a contrast to the reality B&B inhabit on cel. There is also use of computer assisted design. In one sequence, B&B dance a la Saturday Night Fever on a disco floor as the camera pans down from above reminiscent of Belle dancing with the Beast. Another sequence portrays B&B as fire breathing giants destroying a city like a Little Nemo nightmare.
Where the picture really excels is when B&B appear as Starsky and Hutch, complete with Afros and bell-bottoms. There is a wonderful reworking of the Isaac Hayes song, "Shaft," titled "Two Cool Guys" that Mr. Hayes and Mr. Judge collaborated on. This is the freshest and most creative sequence in the picture. In the past, B&B have appeared as various representations on their TV series but the timing, music and total unexpectancy of the opening created a true film experience that is very funny. As turn of the century social critic Benjamin Casseres has suggested, "there is a healthy mockery, a healthy anarchic spirit." And this is why B&B is brilliant.
Beavis and Butt-head Do America should be celebrated. The picture is an immediate departure from the dominating Disney interpretation of animated feature filmmaking. And it is the first contemporary, hand drawn animated feature not trying to use the Disney cinematic form. Whether the creators are aware of the implications of producing an animated feature whose primitiveness is a bonfire for artistic freedom is questionable. The film does provoke and challenge. Necessary requisites for change.
What are the standards for judging art? Beavis and Butt-head Do America forces the viewer to judge it--and its "aesthetic indifference" as Marcel Duchamp put it. Throughout history, artistic thought has struggled against the dominating opinion of the time. An important factor in the experimentation of the arts is a quest for liberation. B&B react against the rigidity of the society, they are the banner holders for counter conformity and against the order that wants to repress them. It is not altogether coincidental that during the turn of the century in Europe, Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky, among other collaborators, turned the cultural and artistic world upside down with their "barbarism." Other art movements provoke the same resentment. The Dada movement is another example of the need to challenge and redefine the "bourgeois" beliefs of significance and tradition.
B&B say and do things good little boys and girls were taught, or conditioned, not to do. In an attempt to replace their stolen TV, they defiantly walk away with the school's audiovisual equipment. When reproached by the principal, the two dismiss him as a representation of central authority. Now that B&B can express themselves more openly on film than on television, they explore more fully the frustrations they experience during rigid times. Frustrations of sexuality--B&B are obsessed with "scoring" and during a AFT cavity search performed on Butt-head, he believes he has. Interesting how the authority has provided a form of fantasy service through Butt-head's interpretation. The impulse to masturbate, or self-pleasure (or self expression), is also very high regardless if the boys know how to do it. Frustrations of the unconscious and the primitive-the hallucination sequence in the desert and the opening daydreaming images of strength and vitality--of control. Beavis' lack of reading skills provides the primitiveness among others. The frustrations over homosexuality--Van Driessen sings to his students "Lesbian Seagull." Frustrations over the socially deprived--both fathers of B&B roam the desert, isolated and forgotten.
Beavis and Butt-head Do America is a funny animated feature cast from a new mold and from a clean slate. It should provide the fuel of liberation to artists and filmmakers who have always believed in alternatives. In a sense, Marshall McLuhan's "The medium is the message" recycles itself. Television is what defines our cultural experience. B&B watch television and television watches B&B. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is film by the act of being so, but when the humor slows as it does, look for the message.
Beavis and Butt-head Do America. MTV for Geffen Pictures in association with Paramount Pictures. Director: Mike Judge. Animation Director: Yvette Kaplan. Written by Mike Judge and Joe Stillman, based on MTV's Beavis and Butt-head, created by Judge. Producer: Abby Terkuhle. Co-Producer: John Andrews. Music Score: John Frizzell.
John R. Dilworth is a New York based independent filmmaker whose recent short animated film, The Chicken From Outer Space, was nominated for an Academy Award.