The Happytime Murdered…well, Wounded

happytime-poster-610x250

A wonderful thing about the stage show Puppet Up! is that like all good improv shows, the lights go up, then good or bad, the sketch happens, and then the lights come down.

There is a window for the jokes to live or die, for the story to succeed or fail, for the characters to evolve or not.

And then the window closes, and we move on to the next sketch.

The Happytime Murders is what happens when that window refuses to close, or at least takes 91 minutes to close.

The plot is classic film noir. [NO SPOILERS]

The world is modern day Los Angeles, but it is now populated by humans and puppets, only the puppets are considered second-class citizen. The story centres on the exploits of Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), washed up cop and now puppet private eye, and a sudden killing spree that forces Phil to work with his old human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).

Old wounds run deep. Pain and distrust drips from the walls.

And then there’s this dame with a body that literally just won’t quit.

Now, atop that film noir scaffold, you can layer…no, trowel…no, backhoe 1000 sex jokes, puppets saying “fuck” every few seconds, and a rather unnerving cowsturbation moment and you have The Happytime Murders.

There is no doubt that Henson Alternative can do puppetry, and this film is ALL about the puppetry.

[Disclosure/Bragging: I personally know some of the puppeteers who worked on this film. (See Puppet Up! visits Toronto)]

The skill with which this movie was made is astounding, particularly if you watch the behind-the-scene videos on YouTube. These are seriously talented and amazingly funny people.

It was obvious in Puppet Up! It is obvious in The Happytime Murders.

As expected, the human actors simply cannot keep up with their frenzied felted friends. Even Melissa McCarthy at her Melissa McCarthy-est cannot compete on screen with these little monsters…seriously, she might as well have been Jenny McCarthy. (Note: Not intended as a slight on MM.)

The lone human performer who stood out and more than held her own was the delightful Maya Rudolph. I have always had my suspicions about that lady…that she is not fully human…this performance may have proven me right.

the-happytime-murders-lg

So, if the puppetry was so brilliant, why didn’t this work for me?

Aside from lights cutting scenes off, the one thing that Puppet Up! has that the movie doesn’t is an emcee (ringmaster? Nurse Ratchet?) of the stage show.

As funny as the emcee is as a performer, he grounds the show. He keeps the performance from getting crazy…well, crazier…well, stupid. And he serves as a connection to the audience, joining us in our confusion or surprise.

 

There was no such grounding force in the movie, literally or metaphorically. There was little to emotionally connect us to the characters, and what little that was there was quickly swallowed by the next fellatio joke.

Speaking of which, where was the cleverness and the wit, the cutting satire and insightful playfulness that we routinely see in Henson outings and even in the raunchiest of Puppet Up! sketches?

From a comedy perspective, they took the best of The Muppet Show and rewrote it with the worst of Beavis & Butthead and Dude, Where’s My Car?

I’m not trying to point a finger of blame as I’m not sure blame is necessary or relevant. It was an experiment, and not all experiments are successful.

To that end, I hope there are more outings with these characters—again, particularly when you see what is possible from these talented people—I just hope in future efforts, they simply let the characters be real and don’t feel that they need to center all of the humour on their puppetness.

Otherwise, it is a felted minstrel show, and there would be the greatest irony in the world given the central conceit of The Happytime Murders.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Living unlabeled

Bridge_Spirals

I am not a fan of labels.

Giving something a label, ultimately, is about trying to define a thing, an activity, an individual, whether you are outside looking in or inside looking out.

On one level, this makes sense as it gives us the tools and resources of common language.

Where this is a problem for me is that it tends to establish boundaries in our minds of what something is and what something isn’t.

My cousin and friend, Ian MacDonald, just published a blog post about the labels craftsman and artist, and the semantics game that swirls around those terms in his music and photography.

IMP site

In my own teaching experience, I have witnessed innumerable students striving and struggling to achieve Art; in some cases, frozen in sheer terror at what they believe is unachievable and ironically, unwilling to work on the craft of writing. Unwilling to create dreck on the way to Art, however they define either.

To minimize these boundaries and yet still be able to communicate with people, I strive to use the broadest terminology I can. This is why, when pressed, I refer to myself as a storyteller.

I tell stories with my writing. I tell stories with my photography. I tell stories in my social interactions. I tell stories when I am alone. I tell stories with my body language. I tell stories when I sleep.

Are my stories a craft? There is an element of that, particularly when I tell stories for money.

Are my stories an art? That is a personal choice of whomever experiences my story, including me.

Am I more than my stories? Most certainly. I am not my stories.

My stories are how I interact with my universe. They are a vehicle of communication.

Storyteller is just a label, a definition; but I do not let it limit me or my sense of self.

I lived a large portion of my life in search of the next label. I am now content to be.

 

My thanks to Ian for his blog post. Even if you’re not interested in photography, his web site is worth checking out. At the risk of labeling him, Ian is quite the philosopher.

CoSM_poster_finalist

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College, and you can find samples of his photography on Instagram @createdbyrcw.

(How’s that for labeling?)

Creativity unfettered

wood-lighting-creativity-paper

Thank you for showing me that there’s a place for all of my thoughts & feelings to go. I was overwhelmed by emotion for almost the entirety of our class.

— Student

The urge to create is a powerful one. It can be so all-consuming that it overwhelms our senses.

At the same time, so few of us are born equipped to know where to begin with these feelings, how to convert that urge into positive, constructive energy. And if left untapped, we are prone to quell the noise, contain the chaos, if only to move forward with our lives in ways that we do understand, in ways socially acceptable.

I truly believe that all of us are born with this urge to create, and that it is as much the environment into which we are born and grow as it is our innate interests that determines what happens next.

For the many, the need to conform, the need to be good citizens, the need to normalize—often initiated by outside forces—leads them to confine those urges in a tightly packed container, left on a dark shelf deep in the lost recesses of their psyches.

For the few, however, those whose urges refuse to be contained, where the pressure to normalize is not so severe, creation is given voice, whether from the earliest days or later in life. Timid hesitant steps of interest give way to running vaults of passion, and creation floods ourselves and our worlds.

I am one of those lucky few; someone whose passions have been supported and nurtured from my earliest days. The hesitations and uncertainties of my past were largely self-imposed and have long since been removed and forgotten.

The need to create and to seek creation consumes and replenishes me. My world is one of possibility and opportunity; and if it is limited, it is only by my time here.

If I have been given the opportunity to act as nurturer and supporter to others—through teaching, social contacts, simple engagement with my universe—then I accept and welcome that function both enthusiastically and humbly. In the exercise, I receive as much and likely more than I could ever hope to give.

The urge to create is a powerful one. But it is nothing compared to the act of creation.

pexels-photo-459740_bulbs

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

My thanks to Pexels for the free stock photos.

Adventure

Adventure2

Thanks to a dear friend, whom I originally met through WordPress, I just discovered that this is my 5th anniversary on this platform. That said, it would be completely understandable if my supporters wondered that I was still here, I have posted so rarely in the past year.

Although not an excuse, I have become a victim of the adventure I sought in life. In short, my life is full and it has kicked the crap out of my blogging.

Teaching gigs, story analysis gigs, magazine writing responsibilities and my continuing passions with screenwriting, novel writing and photography of all stripes has simply become too much of a moment-by-moment focus (oxymoron?), no matter how delightful.

This will change, sort of.

With the launch of my story analysis website SoWhatsYourStory.ca last year, and the upcoming launch of my photography website, I will focus this blog on one particular topic that complements the other two platforms. What that topic is remains to be determined.

I appreciate that some of you may not be interested in the isolated topic, but then, I am incredibly grateful that any of you have stayed with me through the creative chaos that is my brain and blog.

Here’s to the next adventure!

(In the meantime, some colour from the past year.)

Side long

SONY DSC

It’s subtle, almost imperceptible;

The sense you’re being measured.

 

It’s not malicious; it may not be conscious,

And it’s not the metric of any ruler or scale.

Rather it’s based on history.

 

Not world history; not even your history,

But a history of pain and joy;

A history of violence and caresses;

A history of anticipation, both eager and dread.

 

It’s a measurement made during a moment’s pause;

Through a renegade lock of hair;

In a side-long glance rather than challenging stare.

 

We measure the people we meet,

Seeking solace that this one’s different,

Checking for warning echoes of past sorrows.

Hoping for the best. Wary of the worst.

 

I am measured. You are measured. And yet,

The result speaks more of the measurer than the measured.

Remembering Johnnie

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was my nightly ritual, lying in bed in the dark listening to the radio.

Still in high school and living at home, I had finally exercised some autonomy by moving my bedroom to the basement of our townhouse, two full floors from the rest of the family. It was my sanctuary, surrounded by my books, my mattress resting on the floor, the sounds of Toronto’s 1050 CHUM filling the room, disturbing no one.

The music stopped, as it often would for commercial breaks, but this time for a news announcement. Odd for this time of night.

“Reports are coming in that John Lennon has been shot and killed outside of his Dakota apartment in New York City.”

The air then hung silent—for a moment, a minute, an hour, I can’t say for certain—and then the room filled with the simple piano chords that start the song Imagine.

I knew of John Lennon, at that point in my life. Knew his songs from years of listening to the radio.

And I was well aware of The Beatles; from their music, their movies and even the lesser remembered cartoon series of my childhood.

But where my awareness of John Lennon and The Beatles had been a passive thing up to that dark night of December 8, 1980, something changed in me upon learning that Lennon was dead. A fire to understand, to turn my awareness into knowledge, to experience more kindled inside me, overtaking me.

The world had lost a beautiful, elegant poet who I was later to learn could also be a fragile, ego-centric asshole.

The world had lost a magnificent artist who stood atop a mountain of pain, grief, anger, vindictiveness and sorrow.

And in a Lennon-esque stroke of irony, the world had lost a man who had finally come to grips with his frailties, who had finally learned to express love and not just demand it, who could offer his talents to the world as a gift and not a response.

Although at times I found myself worshipping John Lennon as a god, I now remember the artist as a man.

Later tonight, I will play Imagine and I will remember.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Passing

Droids

When you walked by me tonight,

Did you see the holes in my jeans

Or see the whole of my being?

 

When you crossed the sidewalk,

Did you see the dirt on my face

Or witness the pain in my eyes?

 

When you whistled to yourself,

Did you hear the hack of my cough

Or consider the song in my heart?

 

When you looked away,

Did you see the tracks on my arms

Or the bruises of past abuse?

 

When you accelerated your step,

Did you smell the stench of urine

Or breathe the scent of possibility?

 

When you turned your back,

Did you dread unrestrained need

Or wonder at untapped potential?

 

When you blocked out my cries,

Did you fear the monster before you

Or lose the veil of your delusions?

 

When you walked by me tonight,

Did you think you could escape?

My truth is your truth.

 

Walk all you want;

The longer you walk,

The longer I remain.

Stranger