AUGUST 24, 2016
Photo courtesy of A24 Films
“STRANGELY CONFOUNDING,” said a guy on Twitter, after he emerged from the 2015 Sundance premiere of Swiss Army Man — a film whose ambuscade of on-screen farts prompted mass walk-outs and, in turn, any number of clickbaity hot takes. Harry Potter’s farts!, the industry papers reported, in a typically idiotic confusion of life and art, though those farts were 1) presumably produced by Swiss Army Man’s credited “fartist” Brent Kiser and 2) definitely did not belong to a character written by J. K. Rowling.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Manny, a semi-animate, gas-filled corpse with amnesia. Judging by his outfit — plaid slacks, blue sport coat, tie — before he died he was a young professional. And his adventures opposite Paul Dano — exquisite as the flannel-and-red hoodie-clad sad-sack castaway Hank — have apparently been difficult for mainstream critics to describe. “Like nothing you’ve ever seen,” said Rolling Stone, before awarding Swiss Army Man a dim 2.5 of four stars. Friendly coverage from The New York Times called the movie an “utterly singular package” but carped about its “frayed and porous plot” — as if that plot were, say, an antique tampon instead of the straightforward, internally consistent, almost magically summarizable system that it is.
Two unlikely friends, one mostly body (Radcliffe’s Manny) and the other mostly mind (Dano’s Hank), are stranded in the wild. They must overcome a series of increasingly difficult material and symbolic obstacles, each of which emerges logically from their predicament: get water, get food, learn to navigate. Manny’s preternaturally intuitive boner points the way home, in a good joke on how we center our lives around desire. In the course of the film, they cross a river, escape a bear attack, and stay friends. Indeed they learn to love each other so much that what we and they thought were their differences turn out to be manifestations of a higher, dialectically composed unity: mind depends on body depends on me depends on you.
“Everything everywhere matters to everything,” Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull croons on the score, as Manny and Hank make out in a river, since this movie has no problem telling us what it wants to tell us in midstream. But IndieWire, too, took issue with the plot and compared the movie’s story line to a Pollock canvas. The reviewer crowned his own mess of an encomium with an equivocal cliché: “The movies that divide us only make us stronger,” we are told.
Even less helpful — but perhaps more telling — than most of Swiss Army Man’s reviews has been The New York Times’s coverage of the film’s Los Angeles-based directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, better known as “DANIELS” and best known for their music video work. The Times treated them as shiny objects prefabricated for your modern lifestyle enjoyment: you could learn about their cozy homes in Los Angeles, their pets, and so forth, in case you, too, wanted to buy those things. Your average commuter buppie may be more interested in Kwan and Scheinert’s work-life balance than in thinking through Swiss Army Man’s generic free play, its kaleidoscopic tumble of buddy comedy, gross-out bromance, high romance, survival epic, and action-adventure spoof. There’s not much space in the arts section for a critic to wonder at how all that mixing and mingling is licensed by the film’s ardent sincerity, its cool irony, and its straiteningly optimistic celebration of love, culture, and the artmaking impulse.
In which case, let the buppie and the arts section go to hell: Swiss Army Man is a film by which critics ought to judge ourselves. We have seen this movie before, in our dreams, when we were children. Its extraordinary contact with our oldest forms of storytelling seems to have rendered it an unintelligible novelty, but if we can’t see how gracefully everything in it matters to everything else in it — plot to character development to dialogue to music to art direction to setting to acting to cinematography — then there’s something wrong with us.
Every comedy begins with the ending of a tragedy. Scrawny Hank is stranded on an island, balancing on his tiptoes on a bright red cooler. The construction of that shot immediately miniaturizes DANIELS’s intuitive genius: a starving, depressed, isolated man stages his suicide by literally standing on the symbolic absence of food, friends, and fun. He’s about to step forward when he spots something in the waves. Startled, he sort of step-falls forward anyway and — because comedy is the genre of happy accident, of the conversion of doom to blessing, gravity to levity — the rope snaps. This one pratfall serves as generic invocation enough: it tells us everything we need to know about what will happen over the next hour and 35 minutes, barring, of course, local manifestations of more genius.
Hank pulls Manny from the waves. Farts follow. “Oh, that’s funny,” says Hank, bitterly. Then he steals the corpse’s belt to repair his snapped noose. He’s back on the cooler. But then: More farts. Hank can’t muster the necessary self-seriousness to step forward and die — a life saved by flatulence. Fittingly, a second or so later, Hank realizes the corpse’s farts are a form of jet propulsion and he can ride it to safety.
That goes, you know, not great but okay. The two wash up on a mainland beach and take shelter in a cave full of trash. Hank starts talking to Manny, who’s still unconscious: “You can’t sleep, either,” he says, projecting, as we all project, his suffering onto the nearest human-like thing. He sings Manny a sweet song his mother sang “so he wouldn’t overthink things” and could sleep. He takes Manny into his lap, sliding the corpse’s eyelids shut with his fingertips. His attempt has the opposite effect: Hank’s humanity wakes up Manny, whose eyelids slide back open while Hank isn’t looking.
Almost as a sort of reward for his compassion — which, interestingly, is the same as his selfishness — in the morning, Hank discovers that Manny can serve as a human water bottle and then that he can talk. “Hello, buddy,” says Manny to Hank. The latter is so frightened by the corpse’s sudden vocalization that he socks him in the head. Rhetorical questions are dumb, generally, but: Could there be a better invocation of slapsticky buddy comedy than a punch line in which someone punches their buddy in the head?
From here on out, Hank literally uses Manny for survival, while Manny learns from Hank why survival might be worth it. Love is Hank’s predictable but appealing answer. From buddy comedy, the film blossoms into a progressive exploration of three different varieties of love. First maternal, then erotic-cum-romantic, then full-on platonic. Maternal love turns on Manny’s consciousness; eros arrives when an old Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition left near Manny’s face turns his penis into a compass. Presumably, Manny and Hank are going to find their way home by finding Sarah, who appears on the lock screen of Hank’s dying cellphone: a beautiful brunette, in yellow, sits with an open notebook at the front of a bus: Manny thinks she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and presumes she’s his true love (thus, and again, logically, his penis points the way back to her).
But as the days pass, and Hank treks with Manny strapped to his back through the redwood forest, the two discover a love higher than the Netflix-’n’-chill, breederly bourgeois forms after which Hank says he yearns. And they both need it: we learn, gradually, through a series of flashbacks and half-shameful revelations to Manny, that Hank’s a suicidal loser. He’s never been in an important relationship except with his mother, who died while he was young. He doesn’t love his father, or thinks he doesn’t. And despite the hundreds of models Hank builds out of garbage and tree branches to try to jog Manny’s memory of his previous life — his teaching aides include a model city, a tiny shadow-puppet theater, and a car, a bus, dozens of other dummies, and a Sarah costume — he isn’t an artist. He is, above all else, alone.
As the film progresses, the things Manny and Hank make and the humiliations they share with each other become a medium of exchange, a blurring of the emotional and psychological boundaries between them. If, like ours, their improvised culture exists solely to power the joint fantasy that’s guiding them home, the dynamic — and dialectical — process of making that culture together is the only source of their freedom, their real salvation. It might be better to say, then, that they don’t so much discover love for one another as make it.
Each of Swiss Army Man’s scenes manifests naturally out of the narrative surround — why, it’s as if it were made by artists who knew what love was. The discovery of intimate friendship, for instance, underlines its opposite: as Hank crawls across a perilously brittle pipe suspended over a river, Manny starts to complain that he thinks Hank is keeping something from him. Even as Manny’s ill-timed worries about Hank’s emotional distance make us laugh, the scene stages literal distance and the precariousness of intimacy; if we were feeling ungenerous, we could even call it a little too on-the-nose. More impressionistic sequences speak in the dream logic of jealousy, fear, and panic: when Manny learns that Hank is hiding more than a few things from him, the bottom drops out and we cut through a heartbreaking, subjunctive sequence of disappearance, death, and betrayal. Hank kisses Hank; Manny floats backward, alone, into blackness, half-reclining, in the posture of an Etruscan tomb figure but a little saucier, a little more vain: behold the seductive self-containment of a person terrified he will be abandoned.
It wouldn’t be too much to say that Swiss Army Man gives us a preternaturally accurate flashback through the mythological origins of thinking, as if DANIELS had been assisted by a pack of Jungians. Manny and Hank go from the seashore to the primitive shelter of a grody cave, a home they’ve made themselves, and then on to the suburbs. Certain climactic scenes take place underwater, in a space of innocence regained, perfect for the kiss that at once gives Manny his first experience of romantic love and allows Hank to fill his friend full of air, pull out the cork in his butt, and rocket to the surface on a jet of flatulence.
Indeed the adeptness with which Swiss Army Man establishes its themes suggests not just DANIELS’s collaborative genius but the many hands of artisanal production. Unsurprising to learn, then, that the script went through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab: the story is immaculate in terms of pacing, perfectly feasible within the terms set by its premise, and relays narrative information with great ingenuity and generosity — screenwriting 101. We already know why there’s a cork in Manny’s butt, for instance, and when it got there; we know where they got that rope Hank uses to tie Manny to his back the one that eventually explodes into a spray of blue and white fibers in the film’s single most visually exciting shot: it’s Hank’s old noose. And no wonder that Swiss Army Man is itself a story of collaboration; like many perfect or almost perfect films, it allegorizes the relationship between its creators, the lanky Scheinert, built very like Dano, and the stocky Kwan, built very like Radcliffe. Movingly, you can watch DANIELS prove this true all over the internet. In production footage, Kwan always drops into character as Manny; Scheinert always takes on Hank.
DANIELS have repeated several times, in any number of high-spirited interviews, that the idea for Swiss Army Man began with a fart joke: a man trapped on a desert island feeds a corpse beans so that he can ride it back to civilization. But a fart joke — like every increment of comedy, however large or small — is a simple encapsulation of Swiss Army Man’s optimism and of the beneficence, the real miracle, which is art. The oldest jokes in the anthropological record are useless hunting instruments whose cutting edges have been repurposed to look like butts. Instruments of death built in service of the crude necessity of appetite are literally mocked, transformed into props for play. This is not lowbrow, or stupid, or puerile. It is one version of the emergence of civilization.
A new generation of funny people transfer this intensely beautiful activity to the realm of semiotics. These are internet-savvy meme-makers uniquely capable of cutting signifiers free of their mooring, of revivifying dead cliché, of taking the deadly serious and subjecting it to a frisson of pure life. DANIELS remakes shit into innocent delight: a Bible gets reillustrated with poop. The Jurassic Park theme song becomes a running joke and is then reinvigorated for what it’s always been: an expression of wonder. The insanely obnoxious meme-anthem “Cotton Eye Joe” becomes a love song. Fittingly, DANIELS excels at the high-speed flipbook of clichés that is the montage. But by making their montage super-montage-y — by flipping into recursive self-awareness — they capture both sincerity and irony. “All we ever needed was a montage!” sing Hull, Dano, and Radcliffe, on the soundtrack to the best montage ever: “Now we killed a raccoon; we are using your body like it’s a machine gun. Now we’re shooting some fish. Friendship is blossoming. Let’s eat the stuff we killed. Now we’re starting a fire. I have to admit I’m enjoying your company. Are we falling in luhhhhhvve?”
Swiss Army Man doesn’t tell a Hollywood story: the film both manages to make us care about Hank and fails, winningly, to be about one man’s struggle with depression, or with isolation. Manny’s origins, explained ever-so-glancingly, suggest that we are all islands. Artists, children, mad men, cartoons, walking corpses: All these sorts of creatures express an existence at once especially intense and imperiled, a kind of bare life. Moreover, Swiss Army Man seems to know that isolation is a problem because we’re all already maladapts: we can’t do it, cognitively, socially, psychologically, by ourselves. Representations of the comic self — the eccentric, the weirdo, the paranoiac, the compulsive maker of models out of trash, the dodo who, like Manny, talks ceaselessly and naïvely about masturbation — reflect a truth: the supposedly self-contained and complex ordinary self is a gory and glorious fiction. All our works and days reflect the mind’s attempt to reconstitute itself in every shiny surface. The cost of possessing a consciousness is that it doesn’t work so well, and we have to project, messily, touchingly, onto others. This process involves giving, and taking, and sometimes, if you’re Manny, taking a cast-off, repurposed crutch-cum-grappling hook down the throat and then expelling it like a javelin out of your mouth so that your best friend can scale a ravine with your mostly lifeless body strapped to his back.
Old-fashioned scholars tell us that in the deep history of comedy, moments like these — slapstick and carnival, the sources of our gross-out comedy — derive from some un-rememberable instant when sacrificial victims began to be replaced by representations: an effigy of the king replaced the king himself. The more you could beat the fake king without his feeling it, the funnier, the more absurd things got. My theory is that laughter, too, descends from the delight we feel when our representations escape or subvert some violence, or when a person agrees to play with us, or when any other perceived danger flips into an opportunity for delight. Again, constraint becomes potential: what can’t be suddenly is. Whatever wasn’t possible could just be possible. And anything might be possible. Comedy is structured play: it is the genre by which we explore possibility itself.
Critics used to describe the best possible actor as “a delightful Proteus, changing and transforming himself into what shapes he please. He puts off himself with his clothes, and never assumes himself agen” — and it’s worth reminding ourselves of this because it’s one way of saying that a comic actor is the best actor. How little mystery must have been in involved in securing actors as extraordinary as Radcliffe and Dano. A comic role pushes farthest into the protean; good actors will know, instinctively, that more will be possible for them in the realm of the comic. Tellingly, Swiss Army Man sometimes feels like a kind of actors’ game, a parade of impressions; emotions and expressions themselves become the stuff of play for Dano and Radcliffe. “What’s going on with your face?” asks Manny, when Hank suspects a bear is nearby. “Why are your eyes so big?” “This is what fear looks like,” whispers Hank. “This is what I look like when I’m happy!” croons Manny, later, his face pulled into an unbelievable rictus hilarious not least because it makes good use of Radcliffe’s English teeth.
Most physical expression involves either immanence or extension: in Swiss Army Man, Radcliffe brings empty-headed extension, the muscle, the gas-powered rocket. Of course he’s also the one with the boner; Dano is memory-burdened immanence, breath, talk, the one who dresses up like a girl.
Luckily for Swiss Army Man’s gender politics, Hank is also the one who makes the art — and the one who stages the film’s real femininity, who exposes with his/her artmaking and role-flipping — his dragging as Sarah — the constructedness of gender and the arbitrariness of its markers. (Manny’s fake penis goes some way toward this, too; it is so obviously unreal it renders his boner playful as opposed to aggressive.) When Dano dons his wig and plays girlish, love itself seems to appear. And you get to laugh at it, both succumbing to and refusing the illusion of his womanhood all at once: irony and sincerity, slapstick and tenderness blossom simultaneously. “It’s kind of beautiful,” said Scheinert in an interview. Then he laughed: “But not, like, literally.”
Except that Swiss Army Man is very beautiful, and, like, literally. Larkin Seiple’s cinematography swarms with hot light, with lens flares inside of lens flares, and the film’s art direction emphasizes both the normalcy and the primordial feel of the world’s oldest creatures: redwood trees, who aren’t separate organisms but expressions of a single root system. Some of the props, many of them built by sleeper genius Sophie Kosofsky, are better than Michel Gondry’s: a whole city made from garbage, a whole society, a shadow puppet theater. This is particularly astonishing considering what must have been severe budget constraints — but it fits perfectly with the film’s major themes: the recuperation of the marginal, the dead, the weird into a new, fully elaborated aesthetic life.
During the film’s single loveliest sequence, Hank and Manny construct an impromptu home, café, and bus from assorted flora and trash: a virtual world, a space of art, the inverted or green world common to all comedy ever made. In their café, they eat the stuff they’ve killed, and drink a found bottle of vodka. In their house, they throw a party and fill it with trash mannequins. In their bus, they restage a ride so that Manny can experience the full sensation of falling in love with Sarah. But the bus — which the DANIELS have called “the film in a nutshell” — isn’t for falling in love with Sarah, not really. It contains a window outside of which makeshift scenery passes. Taped-together magazine pages scroll past like stage machinery. The bus miniaturizes the human impulse to find and frame our experiences, to represent ourselves to ourselves and each other. We process what we experience into emotions and ideas; in turn those emotions and ideas structure our experiences.
The theaters of perception we build, even unintentionally — views out of windows, moving views out of windows, the views onto other worlds that we call movies — exist so that we can represent ourselves to ourselves and to each other. These spaces keep us from mutual destruction. They remind us of the force of our shared humanity. And the art which divides us on one level, only to unify us on an ever-higher one, that kind of art shows us the violence, the dumbly literal tragedies of our world and renews our resistance to them at the same time. Surrounded by people made of garbage, dead Manny looks out the window, his blue-ish countenance lit: “So this is the life I’ve forgotten.” “Manny, this is just the beginning,” says Hank, whispering into his friend’s pale ear.
Swiss Army Man celebrates, directly, the way art holds our brains together and opens our souls up to one another by invoking a space of mutual play. In a bad world like ours, DANIELS and their crew have managed such a complex vision of post-post-modern innocence regained, of that moment when we see our failures so clearly that we slip back through them and remember to work toward species-wide innocence and joy. Movies of this kind are highly wrought, spiritually advanced, super-durable versions of the space inhabited by children and old people, by beginners and artists and students, by those of us who are still learning and always will be: that is, by everyone, if they can let the farts in. “I an trying to merember: what is home,” says Manny, in one of Radcliffe’s first attempts at speech.
Nor are we ever trying to get to the “real” person underneath — or we never will, unless we accept that a real person is a ball of farts. Precisely this realization, at Swiss Army Man’s very end, frees Hank, and consecrates him as what he’s always been: a human and therefore always already an artist, tragic only insomuch as he hasn’t yet been able to take control of his own talent. He needed, as we all need, an epiphanic friendship, to short-circuit the mind/body distinction. He needed to make love to somebody, however temporarily. (And yes, while Swiss Army Man’s protagonists are straight white dudes, one of whom sports a humming boner, the movie and its ethos are both super gay. A movie that doesn’t finally care about heterosexual couplehood benefits everybody.)
“We have to show them,” Hank says to Manny, when the dynamic duo finally hauls itself out of the forest and into the suburbs and the real world closes in on them, cops and dads and all: their supposed rescuers just don’t believe that Manny could be anything other than a dead dude and that Hank could be anything but insane. It’s not worth spoiling the movie to say precisely how they show them, but they do. Literally and symbolically and repeatedly, which — though one hates to return to the critics, however briefly — made some people feel like the movie was too long. Comedy undoes all our arbitrary distinctions, say, between pleasure and thinking, between body and mind: it may be the only culturally nuanced but biologically grounded human system of which that can be said. But a claim to the universality of humor is less important than the assertion that the comic refuses limits and boundaries, including narrative endings, and that we can understand it better if we accept that it doesn’t want to end.
Thus all the following pertain to the comic sphere: digressive plot structures, shaggy dog tales, and fractal or multiple worlds. In the case of Swiss Army Man, friends make art about friendship that contains friends making art about friendship and that structure repeats itself through so many dimensions, in life and art, that the kinetic structure of the universe and our very cells seems to stand revealed as friends making art about friendship. And there’s no reason that shouldn’t go on forever. Comedy dictates that everything everywhere matters to everything. Body matters to soul, soul matters to body, matter matters to spirit. You and I matter to each other. That is the only thing good comedy ever says.
Hank eventually stops using his Swiss Army Man. Instead he sets him free. But that’s only after both he and Manny begin to see each other by the light of one another’s eyes — as we all do when we stop using each other, when we shift from the panicky, humiliating moral and mortal life of the literal to a shameless life of play and, like the aptly named Manny, regain our humanity. This is the great lesson of an exploding fart, the kind that, at one point, helps our buddies escape simultaneous death-by-bear and death-by-embarrassment. See this movie. Let yourself laugh at the fart jokes (“That’s not funny,” Hank mutters, when Manny first lets loose.) And decide if you agree with this statement: if there is no light at the end of the human tunnel, we have to make it ourselves, together. We must stay hopeful, think harder, nurture whatever joy. We must stay very close to everyone and everything that sets us aflame.