Kabloody: Not since 'Yellow Submarine' has a film so embraced subversive mores.
Fast Food Forward
'Aqua Teen . . . For Theaters,' Dada and the drug culture
By Micah Harding
After many months of Internet rumors, re-rescheduled release dates and an alternative advertising campaign that cost Boston's bomb squad $750,000 "deactivating" cryptic pictographs of cartoon characters, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, based on the cult Adult Swim program, was finally released to a barrage of dumbstruck critics.
From the beginning, the film assaults the audience with a mess of apocalyptic images, sensory overloads and surrealist mayhem. In light of this, critical response collectively shrugged its shoulders and scribbled a few comments about lo-fi animation, plotlessness and drug culture. And while these observations are not unfounded, it appears as though these very same "negative" aspects of Aqua Teen are also part of its appeal.
In the shadow of its duly noted inaccessibility, Aqua Teen's nightmarish satire, hallucinogenic allure and successful transfer from an 11-minute skit into an 80 minute feature were somehow overlooked.
Much of the film's madness centers around three characters: Frylock, a paternal super-genius pack of fries; Master Shake, an obnoxious underachiever acting as a catalyst to most of the trio's misadventures; and Meatwad, a naïve ball of hamburger who lives alongside his fast food friends in a skuzzy New Jersey rental. This unholy trinity is the Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Their trashy neighbor, Carl, also accompanies the Aqua Teens, albeit unwillingly, through many of their wanton journeys of absurdity.
Describing specific plot details in Aqua Teen runs contrary to its central theme of apostasy. The film is best experienced as a force, like a river whose white rapids submerge the viewer within a heavy current. Succumbing to this force, rather than fighting it, allows for a more enjoyable viewing experience and, to some extent, separates Aqua Teen fans from those left struggling to understand the film.
Examining Aqua Teen's recurrent themes provides a more telling analysis of the film. This approach allows its elements as a Dadaist satire to surface and helps make some sense of its seemingly pointless cacophony of animation. The theme of American excess plays out in the TV show as well as the film. Being symbols of western overabundance themselves (fast food) the Aqua Teens are always striving at great lengths to become more popular, more attractive and more powerful. Master Shake and Carl are the most notable perpetrators. As seen countless times in the Aqua Teen episodes, it is that desire for more and more that leads to an inevitable climax of mutilation, alienation and chaos like the bursting of an overheated thermometer.
In the film, the Aqua Teens discover that they possess the most powerful piece of home exercise equipment in the known universe: the Insane-o-flex. Carl, hoping to become super buff, becomes enslaved by the machine. While forcing Carl into a continuous workout, the machine simultaneously morphs into a giant dancing robot and rains havoc across the North Jersey shore. He eventually becomes so muscular that he is rendered immobile. Finally, his bulging muscles are cut off with a hunting knife to form a body suit for another power-crazed toon. Time and time again throughout the series and the film, Aqua Teen satirizes American tenants of beauty and capitalistic gain, producing a cause and effect relationship that equates these pursuits with eventual humiliation, disfigurement and death.
Alongside their pursuit of identity through excess, the Aqua Teens adopt another search for meaning: discovering the details of their mysterious origins. Strangely, this topic has never been addressed during the series' many seasons. But, as always, specifics fail to matter in the Aqua Teen universe and the audience is left uncertain of what to believe. If we trust the final hypothesis presented in the film, we'd believe that the Aqua Teens were the offspring of a sassy slice of watermelon and an enormous bean burrito with huge breasts. But their origin does not matter. Nothing matters. Every aspect of the film is merely another bend in that hypothetical raging river of Dadaist dredge. And when all of this insanity is assembled it paints a portrait of a selfish, unsatisfied America blundering toward a nihilistic end. These features link Aqua Teen...For Theaters more strongly with the early works of surrealist and experimental filmmakers like Luis Bunuel and Kenneth Anger rather than Adult Swim's related postmodern cartoons for the twisted and the stoned.
With that said, Aqua Teen...For Theaters's never ending stream of surrealist imagery presumably makes for an excellent drug film. Not since Yellow Submarine has an animated feature tapped into such a rare visual experience. The revamped Aqua Teen theme song sequence brings a tsunami of colors and motion potent enough to shock and titillate and overstimulate anyone willing to undergo the film while intoxicated; and these people, most ostensibly, compose Aqua Teen's snickering audience. But I reject the claim that the film requires an altered state of consciousness for full enjoyment. With its aforementioned merit in satirical prowess, the film possesses many layers to dissect and enjoy. Furthermore, who's to say that appeals to drug culture and cinematic worth are mutually exclusive?
Cinema's basic elements, sound and motion, are often overshadowed by American film's diehard obsession with plot. Although plot remains an important part of film, it has assumed such significance in the minds of viewers that any film abandoning a classic plot for another cinematic device is immediately disregarded or ignored. Many films fit this category: small on plot but big on art. Sadly, they often are below the public radar. So called "drug films" fit this category, disregarding plot while illuminating those sorely missed aspects of cinema and elevating them to the forefront.
Drug films also provide something that cinema has failed to explore to its fullest potential: a Dionysian portal for complete aural immersion. These films facilitate a window where the word's laws and principles are absent and replaced by an uninhibited, baptismal revelry. It's strange, but there's almost a cleansing aspect to such disregard for continuity. And as a Bacchic escape, Aqua Teen works wonderfully with its constant flow of sensory discharge.
So how long, it's been asked, can this bombardment of absurdity successfully occur? Well, I suppose it depends on your appreciation of the show. I imagine that if one finds this style of film offensive or challenging, Aqua Teen may feel longwinded. But this adherence to authenticity proves to be a double edged sword. While creators Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis managed to keep the show true to the fans, it also makes no apologies for its absurdist disposition and keen awareness of their audience. The decision not to pacify the film in hopes of gaining a broader crowd of moviegoers is all we'd expect from the proprietors of such a thing as Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
This is a rare treat for fans of a television show. It feels good to be respected as a viewer. Most are not so lucky, however. In the past decade, Americans have passively witnessed the distasteful repackaging of some of their favorite boob-tube classics such as the celluloid blunders of Fat Albert, TMNT, Scooby Doo and its sequel, Bewitched and The Dukes of Hazzard. With few exceptions, if any, these films display the transparent motives of major Hollywood studios capitalizing on the nostalgic iconography of three generations raised by television. They are also, without question, some of the worst films ever made.
These films often fail because Hollywood is, first and foremost, a business whose agenda above all else is to make money. Placing profits before substance often produces shallow, predictable entertainment reluctant to challenge the audience. As Hollywood advocates, the best way to make the most money with a film is to thinly spread its appeal across as many demographics as possible without alienating the core audience. This method, as seen from big-budget flop after flop, often leaves the viewer dissatisfied.
The Hollywood outlook also fails to recognize that America is now a society ruled by advertisements and entertainment that fragment the masses into sharply defined groups of consumers rather than unite them. Films that remain unashamed of scaring away the largest possible audience, although fiscally imprudent, tend to resonate deeply within their intended, narrow spheres.
These films, like Aqua Teen and the like, generate more loyalty among fans. They also elevate the status of television-to-movie films from their cash-cow-opiate status to something more inventive, bold and potentially groundbreaking. And although Aqua Teen does not disserve the title of "groundbreaking," it does hold a place somewhere between tragic social commentary and grotesquely brilliant in its unflinching vision of madness and disarray.
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