Adam J. Minnick, Alan Longstreet, Animal Trilogy, anti-authority, anti-establishment, anti-hero, Ape, awkward films, Buzzard, cinema, con artists, Cool Hand Luke, Coyote, dark comedies, experimental film, film reviews, films, Freddy Krueger, Harmony Korine, indie films, Jason Roth, Joe Anderson, Joel Potrykus, Joshua Burge, Katie Call, long shots, Marty Jackitansky, Michael Cunningham, millenial angst, Movies, Nintendo Power Glove, odd movies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Quentin Dupieux, Richard Linklater, slackers, stylish films, surreal, Teri Ann Nelson, writer-director-actor-editor, youthful angst, youthful rebeliion
When Marlon Brando uttered the immortal rejoinder “Whadda ya got?” all the way back in 1953, it’s highly unlikely that he had Marty Jackitansky in mind. 60 years later, however, here he is, ready or not: the heir apparent to Johnny Strabler, Holden Caulfield and “Cool Hand” Luke Jackson, Marty is the anti-establishment anti-hero that our era needs (and deserves), the kind of cynical, self-serving smart-ass who flies the middle finger by default, in the same way that some folks slip on plastic smiles before punching the daily clock. He might never be anyone’s idea of a conventional hero but for any poor sucker caught in the clutches of the modern working malaise, he just might be the only hero we’re gonna get.
Marty and the rest of the colorful oddballs that orbit around him are all residents of multi-hyphenate madman Joel Potrykus’ ingeniously warped Buzzard (2014). Not only does Potrykus write, direct and edit the film (the third part in a trilogy that also includes Coyote (2010) and Ape (2012)), he also has a prominent role as Marty’s delightfully obnoxious, uber-nerdy co-worker. It’s a lot to bite off for any filmmaker but Potrykus, with only his second feature film, makes the whole thing look ridiculously easy. The result? One of the quirkiest, coolest, funniest and just plain out-there films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing all year. At this rate, Potrykus runs the risk of joining such vaunted company as Quentin Dupieux, Harmony Korine and György Pálfi as a first-rate purveyor of outsider cinema.
By day, our humble “hero,” Marty (brilliantly played by Potrykus mainstay Joshua Burge), toils away in the kind of anonymous, homogeneous cubicle graveyard that seems more minimum-security prison than place of work. Well…”toil” is really a relative term: you see, Marty is the kind of fella who internalized the “work smarter, not harder” maxim more than most, turning it into the kind of do-or-die statement of purpose that characterizes the most successful con artists. In fact, virtually every waking second of Marty’s existence is given over to scams of one sort or the other: he orders expensive office supplies from work, “returns” them at a nearby office supply store and pockets the cash…he eats nothing but frozen food, most of which he receives for free after constantly complaining about the “quality,” usually after he already finished licking the pizza sauce off his fingers…he rescues discarded food from a McDonald’s dumpster and returns it to the counter for a “fresh” replacement. Marty isn’t running a game: his entire existence IS a game, one that he seems to be handily winning.
When he’s not constantly scamming, Marty appears to only have three other interests: pounding metal music of any and every variety (Norwegian black metal seems to be a particular favorite), anything horror-related and video games. In other words, Marty is the very picture of arrested adolescence: with his Doritos-and-pizza-sandwiches, constant Nintendo playing and brain-rattling thrash, Marty is every loner who ever lived on their friend’s couch, every “twenty-something-teenager” who ever tried to shuffle their way through this mixed-up world of ours. Hell, Marty has such laser-focus that his prize personal project is a glove that combines the old Nintendo Power Glove with horror icon Freddy Krueger’s razor-bladed weapon-of-choice.
As he yawns his way through a workday that holds absolutely no interest for him whatsoever (Marty’s a temp at a bank, which easily stands as one of the most anonymous, thankless jobs out there), he gets a “golden parachute” dropped into his lap, so to speak: Carol (Teri Ann Nelson), his supervisor, hands Marty a small mountain of returned customer refunds to process. Marty’s job is fairly simple (he just has to call the customers and/or look up their current addresses) but he gives it the same expert touch he applies to any work project: he half-asses it before finally giving up. After a mix-up with the birthday check that his mother mails him, however, Marty is introduced to the joys of signing checks over to himself.
In no time, Marty is supplementing his other (ill-gotten) income by depositing the customer refunds into his own account. After his supremely geeky co-worker, Derek (Potrykus), uncovers the scheme, however, Marty’s paranoia begins to kick in. Once Carol casually drops the bomb that she, personally, monitors the account that the refunds are drawn from, however, Marty’s whole world begins to collapse. Despite the lack of any sort of organized investigation, Marty goes on the lam, convinced that his scams have finally caught up with him. Armed with only a pocketful of stolen checks, a combo Power Glove/blade weapon and a sneer that could wrap around the planet twice, Marty is bound and determined to make it out, on his own terms. He’s gonna have to stay sharp, though: in a world full of idiots, phonies, squares and drones, any nail that sticks out is guaranteed to hit hammered down.
As a bit of disclaimer, I’ll begin by saying that I have a particular fondness for anything where a clever, roguish anti-hero sticks it to our modern shit-storm of a society: blame it on too many viewings of Cool Hand Luke (1967), Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981) during my formative years but I always back the rebel, regardless of the situation. In this regard, Buzzard hits the bull’s-eye dead-center, presenting me with one of those unforgettable shit-disturbers that I prize so highly.
Marty Jackitansky, to cut to the chase, is a great character, one of those literary/cinematic creations that is so instrumental in helping us make sense of the world we live in. Like many presumed drones, Marty is as deeply mired in the system as his peers: the major difference, of course, is that they’re merely marking time, whereas he’s trying to carve out his own bit of reality. In many ways, Marty is the very best kind of role-model one could have: he, literally, spends every waking moment of his life indulging in all of the things that he loves, without giving much thought to the stuff that doesn’t matter.
Unlike Derek or the other temp, Stacy (Katie Call), Marty has no interest in “doing a good job” at work: this kind of work doesn’t matter, ultimately…it has no inherent value, beyond the meager paycheck, and brings no great worth to his life. Rather than pretend that worthless things like his office temp job actually matter, Marty treats them like the ridiculous jokes that they really are: it’s not so much that Marty is an eternal optimist as that he, literally, doesn’t sweat the small stuff (including all of the societal niceties like “hanging out” and making small talk).
The kicker, of course, is that Potrykus is much too clever a filmmaker to simply present us with a “lovable ruffian” (although, to be fair, nothing about Marty really says “lovable”) and take easy pot-shots at society. Rather, we get a no-holds-barred view of Marty’s process, which means that we get a front-row-seat to his inevitable paranoid breakdown. Potrykus (and Marty) know that you can only flip off life for so long before you get as good as you get: his downfall doesn’t have as much to do with his slippery moral slope as it does with the fact that, in the end, none of us can escape the machine. The film’s brilliant final image isn’t so much a marvelous bit of magical-realism as it is the realization that nothing is ever quite what it seems: you can break out of one “prison” only to find yourself right back in another.
While the filmmaking here is absolutely top-notch, there’s no denying that Burge shoulders an enormous amount of the burden. His portrayal of Marty is so perfect, so wonderfully insular, that he immediately vaults into the upper-echelon of cinematic outsiders like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s (1975) Randle McMurphy or the aforementioned Holden Caulfield. There’s not much margin for error, here, since Potrykus’ style leans heavily on extreme close-ups and awkwardly long takes: if Burge wasn’t always completely invested, if we couldn’t see the spark of Marty’s rebellion in every single smirk, squint and chortle, this would all get old ridiculously quick. Instead, we get brilliant scenes like the one where Marty shovels spaghetti into his face while wearing a pristine, white hotel bathrobe. In and of itself, the scene means nothing: when you factor in Burge’s complete mastery of his character, the scene becomes something much more…it becomes triumphant, the perfect synthesis of mania and joy, a “final meal” consumed at a crossroads that leads either to victory or oblivion.
Burge isn’t the only one to watch here, however, even if he’s undeniably the film’s focus. Just as great, for different reasons, is Potrykus’ performance as the unforgettable Derek. Quite frankly, Derek is an awesome character, sort of the unofficial patron saint of basement dwellers everywhere. Between his “party zone” (the sad-looking basement in his dad’s house plus one of those cheap colored-light things from Spencers), his self-important proclamations on everything under the sun and his Bugles/Hot Pockets/Mountain Dew diet, Derek is a gaming-culture Everyman. He’s the kind of person who tries to turn co-workers on to terrible pop music, takes every opportunity to show he’s not “gay” and forces his house-guests to watch him play video games. Derek is the kind of character who could have been unbelievably insufferable and hateful yet, thanks to Potrykus’ all-in performance, he becomes an integral part of the film. It also helps that the side-splitting scene where he munches Bugles in faster and faster succession is, without a doubt, the single funniest gag like this since Lucy tried to eat all those chocolates.
There are so many layers to Buzzard that it’s difficult to get everything on the first go through, despite the apparent simplicity of the film. While it’s tempting to view the movie as a series of Marty’s adventures, the contrast with the “real world” is just too cutting to ignore. This becomes especially true once Marty goes on the run and his actions become increasingly violent and more unpredictable. Similar to the moment when we first realize just how disturbed Travis Bickle really is, it takes a while before we “wake up” to the reality of what Marty’s done. It’s quite telling that the film’s finale can be read as either abject success or failure, depending on the individual sensibilities.
As should be quite apparent, I absolutely loved Buzzard. The film has a great look (even the extreme close-ups eventually won me over), is genuinely funny (Marty’s “White Russian” response to “Is your name Polish?” might be my favorite quip of the month) and carves out its own path with ruthless focus. In many ways, the film reminded me of Quentin Dupieux-lite (despite seeming like a negative, that’s actually quite the positive) or a slightly warmer, friendlier co-mingling of Richard Linklater and Harmony Korine. While there are some genuinely strange elements to the film, it never quite hits the surreal heights of something like Wrong Cops (2013) or Gummo (1997), although there are certainly elements of both to be found here.
What the film absolutely does not remind me of, however, is Rick Alverson’s odious The Comedy (2012), another recent odd to aimlessness in the modern youth. The reason for this, I think, is pretty basic: while The Comedy sought to portray a group of privileged, self-obsessed hipster assholes waging war on “polite society” through a series of pranks and un-PC jokes, Buzzard gives us a genuine, counter-culture irritant who seeks to realign the modern world to his favor. Marty Jackitansky may be rebelling against everything but he’s got a reason: when the whole world is full of shit, sometimes you just gotta make your own reality. While I can’t say I always (or almost ever) agreed with Marty’s methods, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t respect his goal. The most I could say for the assorted schlubs in The Comedy, however, is that I probably wouldn’t think about mowing them down with a steamroller.
Many of us were raised on the old maxim “an honest pay for an honest day’s work.” When the return isn’t “honest,” however, what does that say about the work? Marty Jackitansky knows that you can never get ahead playing someone else’s game, so he brings his own to the party. If that ain’t something worth celebrating, well, I don’t know what is.