Malibu Barbie in Jonestown – Carey Burtt at Anthology Film Archives
Published on February 9th, 2012 | by L. Caldoran0
On Thursday, February 9, Anthology Film Archives celebrates the work of underground filmmaker Carey Burtt, whose dark, low-budget absurdist comedy can be seen as a precursor to the likes of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” Over a span of three decades, this sense of humor ranges from horror homage to palliative for unpleasant truths. (For those who miss the program at Anthology, the director has uploaded several of his own shorts to his YouTube channel.)
Burtt’s earlier films are more overtly horror-oriented. His silent student short “Hitch Hike” (1979) sees a scrawny young man catching a ride with a Mansonesque hippie who attempts to murder him during a quiet drive through the cemetery. “Hey Mister, You’re in the Girls’ Room” (1991) melds Cronenberg-style body horror with timid straight men’s stereotypical fear of girls to produce a surreal sort of gore-humor: a withdrawn nerd (played by Burtt himself) is aggressively pursued by a seductive blonde woman who follows him into a school urinal and manages to disembowel him through the crotch, in a certain strain of Freudian nightmare.
Blood and guts also figure heavily in “The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase” (1998), about a real-life serial killer whose case recalls the plot of George Romero’s “Martin.” The biographical short tempers its gruesome subject matter by telling Chase’s story with an array of Barbie dolls, cardboard cutouts, and plastic organs from a visible man. (Chase himself is depicted as a Ken doll with disheveled hair, bags under its eyes, and buck teeth magic-markered into Ken’s Colgate smile.) Think of Todd Haynes’s “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” remade by a young, true-crime-obsessed John Waters.
“Mind Control Made Easy, or How to Become a Cult Leader” (1999), on the other hand, is fashioned like a corporate training video for the aspiring Jim Jones. “Since the death of God, there’s been a vacancy open”—and it could very well be you! Words and brief phrases on solid-colored backgrounds highlight various points of narration as an array of smiling young cult members are shown attempting to brainwash a hapless, unenlightened schlub. The film’s breezy, propulsive humor both softens and underscores the fact that the recruitment and mind-control techniques on display have actually been used by any number of dangerous cults.
Burtt’s videos from 2010 onward veer away from his early camp, expressing a certain amount of hope for humanity that is often stifled by modern detachment, mistrust, and superstition. “How Not to be Stupid (A Guide to Critical Thinking)” (2010) borrows much of the instructional sound-bite aesthetic from “Mind Control,” swapping the earlier film’s “Cult Member” t-shirts with ones labeled “Wishful Thinking” to unmask the sort of biased logic used by conspiracy theorists, religious zealots, and political herd-followers.
“Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (2010) likewise borrows its use of a doll protagonist from “Psychotic Odyssey.” Based on a short story by Dostoevsky, the titular “Ridiculous Man” is actually a morose action figure. Wandering New York while mocked by regular-sized flesh-and-blood people, he narrates his gloomy past and desire for suicide in an upward-pitched doll voice. In his dream of traveling to a long-ago Earth devoid of corruption, the harmonious innocents are, of course, played by a chorus of nude, grinning Barbies and Kens, contrasting sharply with the brooding brow of our hero (who appears to be among the same brand of action figures used by Mark Hogancamp to expel his own demons in “Marwencol”). The history of humanity’s fall from grace is then shown through a series of primitive cartoons. Both despite and because of these crude, faux-amateur forms of representation, the film ends up achieving a weird sort of poignance.
Of Burtt’s most recent shorts, “Blood and Fire” (2011) is a wordless, rapid-cut showcase of various contemporary occult practitioners, while “Helping: With Travis” (2011) starts off in the manner of an evening-news human interest story, telling the tale of a guy from Jackson Heights whose attempts to be nice and helpful to strangers only end up alienating, harming, and, in one instance, even killing them. Travis ends up in a mental hospital, where he only manages to be truly helpful by not saying or doing anything at all. Mental illness (and various flawed attempts to cure it) recurs fairly often in Burtt’s work: perhaps, if the modern world is driving us crazy, all we can ultimately do is laugh.