By Scotty Villhard
Before you read this article, please know that several sensitive and potentially triggering topics will be mentioned, including corpses, suicide, and references to anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, racism, and ableism. In addition, there will be spoilers for Swiss Army Man, True Stories, and The Midnight Gospel.
It’s weird. It’s all very, very weird. And I love how weird it all very much is. The strange, the obtuse, the surreal, and the lovely absurd. So often we are afraid of the things that don’t make sense, and filmmakers work so hard to make nonsense terrifying on the screen. Surreal horror is a whole genre unto itself, from Suspiria to Eraserhead. We expect the strange and absurd to scare us. But what we rarely expect, and what I seek out, is when the absurd becomes comforting. I have lived with weirdness all my life, and when I see that weirdness on the screen, I feel found. I’d like to share some of that weirdness with you today, if you don’t mind. So take a seat, please, and pour the tea out on the carpet, because the absurd has come home at last.
Swiss Army Man (2016) is a film about the farting corpse of Danielle Radcliffe. As Hank (Paul Dano), stranded on a desert island, begins to take his own life, he is stopped at the last minute when a corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the shore, propelling itself through the surf via superpowered flatulence. Hank proceeds to ride this farting, talking corpse back to the mainland, bonding with him as he tries to make his way back home. If you couldn’t tell already, Swiss Army Man is a class act in absurdity. Manny is the swiss army man, a human multitool that Hank uses to chop wood, generate clean water (don’t ask), and hunt animals for food (again, don’t ask). But Manny, although he can speak to Hank, doesn’t remember the world, and doesn’t know anything about life. So Hank shows him, via elaborate sets and puppetry using branches and vines, what it means to him to be human. I cry every time I see this film. Hank, who begins the film as far from the rest of humanity as you can be, spends the rest of the film trying to communicate to a dead body why, exactly, humans and life matter so much. As he was saved by absurd circumstances, he uses absurd circumstances to explain the vast strangeness of life, from Jurassic Park to seeing a cute girl on the bus. I think this film hits me so hard because, in Hank’s attempts to explain mankind, he accidentally reveals that a farting corpse is no stranger than a film about resurrected dinosaurs, or a meet-cute on a beautiful summer’s day. The world is a strange and lovely place, and he wants to get back to it. But as the film nears its end, Hank remembers that people innately shun strangeness, hiding the idiosyncrasies that, ironically, we all share. They reject the happiness that he has claimed by acknowledging that what unites us all is how bizarre we each are, how random the things we do can be. I won’t spoil the final moments of the film, but in the end, the proper way of things is displaced by the singular, inexplicable joy of the weird.
But the lives they lead are as real as any other, and the strangeness of those lives calls us to investigate the strangeness in our own. None of us lives a normal life.
David Byrne, frontman of The Talking Heads, is a strange man, and over the course of his life he made a singular strange film: True Stories (1986). The film takes place in the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as it prepares for the 150th anniversary of Texas’s independence, an event the townsfolk have dubbed the “Celebration of Specialness.” The emphasis is from the film; “specialness” is mispronounced throughout the movie, with emphasis placed on the “ness.” That’s not the only odd phrasing; as narrator and, well, tour guide, David Byrne directly addresses the audience throughout the movie in his own specific, peculiar little way. The film has no central character, no protagonist, no storyline. Instead it’s an ensemble piece, following a half-dozen people in Virgil as they prepare for the Celebration. Supposedly, Byrne based the characters off headlines from tabloids. Louis Fyne (John Goodman in his first screen role) is a lovelorn man, searching for a woman to marry him via advertisements on television and a large sign outside his home. Other characters include a couple who never speak to each other directly, a woman who hasn’t left her bed in decades, a woman who lies constantly, a voodoo practitioner, and a conspiratorial preacher. Each character is rendered in loving, strange detail by the actors and the script, which never hurries itself. Instead, True Stories invites the viewer to linger in Virgil, Texas, and to enjoy the Celebration of Specialness with everyone else. Unlike Swiss Army Man, True Stories never breaks the laws of physics. Not in any way that matters, at least. Instead, its absurdity is that of small-town America, that of the people who live their lives in places most people wouldn’t notice on a map. But the lives they lead are as real as any other, and the strangeness of those lives calls us to investigate the strangeness in our own. None of us lives a normal life. True Stories would argue that there is no such thing as a normal life, and it makes that argument by presenting lives that stew in their oddity. No one wants to leave Virgil, desperate to escape the clutches of this small town. They love their weird little lives, and so do I.
Absurdity comforts me because it represents the world better than realism ever could.
Some works create a surreal alternate world to separate it from our own. Others create these worlds to help us realize that ours is just as strange. The Midnight Gospel is an animated series on Netflix, created by comedian Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time fame. The series uses audio from Trussell’s podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, contextualized as a pink-skinned humanoid named Clancy interviewing various creatures from dying simulated worlds. It’s as trippy and colorful as you’d imagine it to be, an absolute visual feast, but the real wonder is the juxtaposition of the audio and animation. Is the absurdity in the ongoing zombie apocalypse, or in the fact that Clancy and the president are talking about drug legalization as it happens? Or look at the third episode, where Clancy follows a fishman through a flooded world as they talk about real, Earth magic practices and meditation. The Midnight Gospel promises us that even when the world is ending, we will still find the time to have those late-night, so-sleepy-it’s-like-you’re-drunk conversations with each other, those esoteric back-and-forths that we ruminate on for years later. After these last few years when it’s felt like, one way or another, our world’s going to end, it’s comforting to see a show that reminds you both that the world is always ending and we still retain that thing that makes us most human; our desire to talk to one another, to communicate ideas and to receive ideas in return. The Midnight Gospel is dialectical, and through dialogues, reminds the viewer that their own life, as chaotic and cynical as it may be, still has so many thoughts to offer. Writing for Digital Spy, David Opie called The Midnight Gospel the “anti-Rick and Morty,” saying, “Trussell argues that the point of life is to search for meaning, no matter if we find it or not.” There’s something so comforting in that search as presented in The Midnight Gospel, which reminds us: whether we find our meanings or not, it was a hell of a ride. Absurdity comforts me because it represents the world better than realism ever could. I like realistic fiction, at times, but it never captures the weirdness of the world, the strange coincidences and beautiful eurekas that tie us together as people. The world is a little askew, always, and absurdism helps me see the loveliness in that when it might otherwise feel labyrinthine. I think absurdity might feel even more comfortable to those of us whose lives vibrate outside the frequencies of standard society. Many LGBTQ+ people do not like the word “queer,” and I will not hoist it upon them. But I love the word for myself, because I can embrace the strangeness that straight culture hoists upon me. It can feel absurd to be queer—the two words are even synonyms. Society pushes narratives that don’t fit me. But queerness, and absurdity, can be incredibly comforting. Maybe that’s why so I find refuge in absurdity, in the strange utopia of Swiss Army Man or the weird, loving Virgil of True Stories or the dialectic apocalypses of The Midnight Gospel or the thousands of other absurd worlds and characters and films and songs and shows and books and stories. In their strangeness I see myself, and I smile, for isn’t absurdity lovely?