[19 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Addiction is a terrible thing. Not only is it damaging physically and psychologically, but it destroys aspects of one’s life that they barely have direct control over. Families suffer, as do friends, careers, and acquaintances, and while the person under the spell of their own individual affliction has no real connection to said reality, the repercussions can be powerful and last forever. Of all the filmmakers poised to make a profound statement on such a compulsion, Giuseppe Andrews would be king of the shortbus list. By utilizing a cast of trailer park residents, some of whom have their own battles with the bottle to contend with, he has an authentic source of real human misery to work with. So what does he go and do with his examination of addiction, Monkey? He makes the most literally symbolic statement on the subject ever attempted.
Apartheid has been ordered to Green Hockers Rehab Center for excessive drinking. His habit is so bad that his life has become one continuous case of the DTs. As a matter of fact, a disembodied old man with the same initials seems to be controlling his attempt at sobriety. Forced to wear a monkey around his neck to highlight his problem, said simian comes with two bags of rocks around its legs. The longer Apartheid stays, the more rocks will be removed and the less weight he will have to be subjected. Of course, DT doesn’t help. He offers disquieting visions of smiley faced stones that punch people out, remote control apes that choke people to death, and others with equally oppressive addictions of their own. As he battles with the bottle, losing most of the time, all Apartheid wants to do is get away from this abusive clinic. Little does he know that, just like Hotel California, he can check out any time he likes, but he can never, ever, ever, leave.
It would figure that the man who is rewriting the rules of modern moviemaking would take a concept as clichéd as alcoholism and turn it into a rude, crude Dr. Seuss picture book with plenty of belligerence and balls. Monkey is The Day of Wine and Roses without the saccharine sentimentality. It’s Leaving Las Vegas without the fake star turns. It’s funnier that Arthur, more insightful than Lost Weekend, and as daring an expose on the horror of liquor as any gore-drenched DUI educational film. Andrews, using his standard company of creative oddities, has latched onto the notion of visualizing every step in Walt Dongo’s depressing recovery and he’s not afraid to explore the most intimate and horrific elements of said struggle. This is a weird, almost religious experience, the kind of film that follows an obviously drunken man through a world in which everything he feels, everything he experiences, everything he fears, and everything he hopes for, is plainly played out onscreen for everyone to see.
Not enough is said about Andrews’ trailer park thespians. Sure, most are hired because they are capable of reading his often ridiculous (and racy) dialogue with a completely straight face. Some are mere images, visually arresting facets of fringe humanity that crave the attention of the camera. But within his own lunatic company, he has some certified superstars. While conversations always center on Vietnam Ron, Tyree, the late great Bill Nowlin, Dongo doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves. He’s always a reliable comic relief, his gin-blossomed lumbering providing counterpoint to Andrews’ more meaningful rants. And he usually doesn’t get a chance to guide the narrative. He almost always in the background, a solid supporting player to a Miles Dougal or a Walter Patterson.
But in Monkey, Dongo soars. He elevates the material with his masterful performance. He never once treats the various outlandish elements as anything other than real, even as he’s beating himself up with a pebble. From the stuffed simian around his neck to the various fights he has with other characters (including a hilarious Vietnam Ron in a sexually excited wolf costume), he is always present and perfection. This is especially true later in the film, when a clearly intoxicated Apartheid stumbles around the local streets, his inebriation barely controllable. This makes the last act situation all the more sad, and oddly moving. While Andrews has excelled at making viewers laugh, Monkey may be the first film in his oeuvre that will make you cry. The ending is just that poignant.
Of course, those hoping that the doublewide devotee hasn’t lost his edge will be pleased to see Tyree pleasuring himself with a VCR, people defecating out of their mouth (the purpose is plainly obvious within the context of the film) and lots of bristly blue humor. There are many intriguing subtexts as well, from DT’s own personal demons (including the dog he accidentally flushes down the lavatory) to the plaintive hula performed by wannabe lover Parva (new to this critic, she is nothing short of a revelation). There are times when Andrews is clearly channeling David Lynch, a ‘grotesqueries as beauty’ ideal permeating everything. But then there are moments when the filmmaker breaks out of the mimicry mode and simply lets his own indelible muse to shine. The results continue his ascent into the realm of the artform’s greats.
Monkey may not seem like much at first. Andrews does hide a lot of his meaning inside juvenilia and the desire to shock. But if you’ve followed his career over the last decade or so, you will see that there’s plenty of truth inside the toilet humor. Addiction drives this film, from the moment we see Dongo trying to quit to the circumstance his inability to stop leads him to. The power of alcohol (or sex, or drugs, or any other compulsion) over a human being is so depressing, so undeniably tough to sit through that you have to have some scatology to cut through the cruelty. With a title like Monkey, you might expect something silly in a “who flung poo” kind of way. But the reality is much more raw. Sure, you will giggle at Giuseppe Andrews’ off color conceits. After you boil away the burlesque, however, the pain remains.