Shrek and our culture of trash


DISCUSSED HEREIN: Shrek: The Musical | Farting | Planned obsolescence | New hat economics | Guernica as wallpaper | Orbiting space garbage | Knockoff knapsacks | Three little breakdancing pigs | A working definition of evil | Reddit | Putrefaction | @Seinfeld2000 | A culture that is legally dead | The potential of human endeavour

“He looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behaviour, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us.” – Don DeLillo, Underworld

“We used to ask what might come after the orgy – mourning or melancholia? Doubtless neither, but an interminable clean-up of all the vicissitudes of modern history and its processes of liberation (of peoples, sex, dreams, art and the unconscious – in short, of all that makes up the orgy of our times), in an atmosphere dominated by the apocalyptic presentiment that all this is coming to an end.” – Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion Of The End

“Better out than in, I always say.” – Shrek, Shrek: The Musical

There is a scene in Shrek: The Musical where, no joke, the grumpy ogre Shrek (played in the Lower Ossington Theatre’s current production by Andrew Di Rosa) and the plucky Princess Fiona (Michelle Nash) delight each other with a song that culminates in a crescendo of burps and farts. In its squeaky, Terrance and Phillipian ludicrousness, it is far, far and away the most memorable sequence, maybe the only memorable sequence, in the musical. It is also the most edifying.

Shrek, the 2001 Dreamworks animated fantasy-comedy film upon which this musical is based, is basically a fart. It gorges on fairy tales, fables and the constituent parts of classic animated films of the Disney style, breaks them down in the stomach acid of its own tart irony, and releases it as something pungent and noxious, as waste.

Everything in Shrek: The Musical is mediated and re-mediated. The big musical finale, in which the cast encourages the audience to actually stand up and dance in the aisles, is the ensemble’s cover of Smash Mouth’s cover of The Monkees’ I’m A Believer: a song by a fake band sung by an even faker band sung by a man in a wolf in a dress costume. It’s postmodern in an empty, wholly dispiriting way that can only be called “Shrekian.” It sucks up not just the stuff of children’s stories but references to other musicals (The Lion King, Rent, Les Miz) and, of course, Shrek itself. It is a next-level salvaging and reprocessing of that waste expelled by Shrek, the fart you’d fart if all you ate were farts. It’s a byproduct of a byproduct, repackaged and commoditized as a whole new product, at $59 a seat.

In 1932, Bernard London published a pamphlet titled Ending The Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. London lamented that consumers “are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected on the basis of earlier experience.” Consumers were not consuming enough. London’s solution was “planned obsolescence,” a program that would see the government assigning “a lease of life” to consumer goods, to ensure a constant trickle of such goods into the marketplace.

Planned obsolescence is a key determinant in the function (and dysfunction) of the market. Producers determine, via “value engineering,” how long a product should last before it requires replacement, in part or in whole. A competing producer may distinguish their product by its durability, their projection of its expected lifetime. False standards are created, then reinforced by advertisers who exert great intellectual effort insincerely distinguishing cognate commodities. It’s like The Simpsons episode where Lisa’s plans of undermining the sexist Malibu Stacy doll are foiled by a revamped Malibu Stacy differentiated by nothing but a new hat. It’s new hat economics.

Planned obsolescence is not just a strategy, but the strategy by which markets operated. And it’s not just about moving parts like brake pads or can openers. You know that joke about how any computer you buy is out-of-date the second you get it out of the box? That’s planned obsolescence. You know how as soon as you got an LCD TV you had to have an LED TV? And then an OLED TV? Ditto.

An obvious consequence of planned obsolescence is waste. According to London’s plan, after a certain amount of time had expired, products “would be legally ‘dead’ and would be controlled by the duly appointed government agency and destroyed.” There is no Orwellian Obsolescent Disposal Division or anything, busting down your door to seize busted appliances the second they grind to a halt. But whole industries and government agencies have sprung up around managing and discarding waste, whole broad swaths of land excavated to handle the steady influx of our trash. Our world is essentially a world of waste, dependent on planned obsolescence to stimulate economic growth, the result of that growth (i.e. all that trash) incinerated or otherwise hidden away, obliterated or repressed.

Planned obsolesce dictates our culture too. And Shrek is the perfect example. The success of a film like Shrek essentially inaugurates a whole chain of franchise tie-in properties (sequels, spin-offs, TV specials, action figures and dolls) all engineered to satisfy a false craving for Shrek until such a time as returns diminish and that craving drifts into unprofitability. Shrek: The Musical is a warding against the franchise’s planned obsolescence, replenishing the Shrek franchise with two acts worth of original songs and its own genealogy of tie-in products: soundtrack albums, ogre ear headbands for sale at the concession for $5, and so on. Any trace of meaning that may have existed in Shrek (say, it’s “love is not just for fairy tales” fairy tale) becomes lost in an endless string of products.

To wit: During the production of Shrek: The Musical I squirmed through Saturday night, a young girl leaned over the balcony at the Randolph Theatre and her $5 ogre ears slipped off her head. She spent the rest of the time until intermission visibly upset that she had lost this material thing that connected her to Shrek, pouting and ignoring all the Shrek that was Shreking right before her very eyes. The play’s no longer the thing. The thing’s the thing.

There is a scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 science-fiction film Children Of Men – about a near-future in which infertility leaves humanity on the brink of extinction, and the United Kingdom as the world’s only passably functioning government (albeit a totalitarian, wildly xenophobic one) – in which Clive Owen’s reluctant hero, a political radical-cum-bureaucrat-cum-political radical again, visits his government minister cousin (Danny Huston) to obtain transit papers. Huston’s Nigel lives in a garrisoned Battersea Station furnished with the world’s great works of art: Michelangelo’s David (busted, leg mended with a metal cross beam), a Banksy stencil, and maybe most notably, Picasso’s Guernica.

“Throughout class history,” Frederic Jameson writes, “the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.” Hard to think of a piece of art, i.e. culture, that expresses this more robustly than Guernica: a monochrome cubist mural depicting the blood, torture, death, and terror of the Spanish Civil War, high culture belying horror. Yet in Children Of Men, Guernica’s propped up nonchalantly as dining room wallpaper, the suffering it depicts flattened into insignificance. It has made the transformation from art to commodity, from Guernica to a postcard-print of Guernica, from culture to trash, a timeless piece of artwork rendered obsolescent.

(This, tangentially, is what I find most compelling about Cuarón’s recent follow-up to Children Of Men, the SFX showstopper Gravity. Excluding something so lame as “the human will to live,” the film’s antagonist is a circling eddy of space-trash threatening to obliterate Sandra Bullock’s stranded astronaut at every orbital pass. It’s as if all of humanity’s scientific, and not just cultural, endeavors have been literally reduced to spiteful garbage avenging itself on our own hubris.)

Cuarón seems to be suggesting that at the end of history – an end that we seem to be nearing, if not by Francis Fukuyama’s proliferation of liberal democracy or Children Of Men’s scenario of infertility, but by global temperature increases, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and other indicators of an apocalypse that seems, with each passing day, like less of a sci-fi scenario – culture has no context. And without context, culture is just stuff. It becomes trash. It’s like those knockoff knapsacks you might find imported from Asia, which depict a mash-up of Western cultural signifiers, say, Sonic the Hedgehog standing astride two roses, flanked by the words “Harry Potter” and “OBAMA.” Culture devoid of context is meaningless, baffling and often incidentally hilarious.

In Children Of Men, when Owen’s character asks his cousin how he is able to allay this looming specter of meaninglessness, how he can hide away all this valuable art, with the knowledge that soon “there won’t be one sad fuck” to look at any of it, Huston simply responds, “I just don’t think about it.”

The stewarding of cultural garbage is principally an act of forgetting. And so it is with Shrek.

David Denby, in The New Yorker, reviewing Shrek The Third:

The “Shrek” phenomenon is one of those seeming oddities in our culture-children being entertained with derision before they’ve been ravished by awe. Maybe seven isn’t too early for irony after all. “Shrek” is postmodernism for towheads, pastiche for the potty-trained.

It is tricky to name a film critic fuddy-duddier than Denby (that same review also uses the word “hobbledehoydom” and upbraids “the kind of mass-marketed individualism that induces teen-agers to buy cutoff jeans”), but he is essentially right. Shrek represents a cart-before-horse culture of ass-backwardness.

Watching Shrek: The Musical, I couldn’t help but wonder if the children in the audience were even old enough to possess a familiarity with all the stories being broadly lampooned. It hardly seems to matter. They submit to the prompts the play offers – often flagged by literal signage reading LAUGHTER, AWKWARD, etc. (another deconstruction, this time of live TV taping traditions) – in stride, eagerly buying what Shrek is selling.

In their earliest iterations, ogres were cannibals, child-eaters. The ogre Shrek is an eater not of children, but of childhood. Shrek represents this sort of grossly ubiquitous commercial appropriation of day-to-day life. It is not just copyrighted images, but whole traditions of Western folklore that are steamrolled under the bulbous corporate entity that is Shrek. Shrek is a demolisher of innocence, which might be as good a working definition of evil as any.

It’s not only that Pinocchio is a cawing wiseass or that the Three Little Pigs breakdance. It’s that you don’t have to know that there is any other way for them to be for the jokes, such as they are, to work. Shrek takes touchstones embedded in various traditions Western civilization – fairy tales, morality fables, all that “Once upon a time…” stuff – and guts them, peddling hip disaffection to children before they even have the chance to be affected, eyes already half-rolled before the image can even snap into focus. Shrek, as Denby notes, is principally a pastiche. But its various appropriations are beyond vacuous, sold back to the audience as the valueless, zero-calorie commodity that is Shrek.

See, too: Disney’s own mutation of the Shrek model, the lousy Wreck-It Ralph. That film goes beyond Shrek, repackaging and reselling not just creative commons characters like the Gingerbread Man but licensed video game icons whose images belong to various copyright holders. While some may argue that the residency of “real” characters like this in a fictional world, like the placement of a Sears in Smallville in the new Superman picture, constitute attempts at verisimilitude, the reality they suggest is a depressing, if admittedly all-too real one, one where nothing outside the corporatized cultural mentality of everyday life can even be imagined, let alone depicted.

There is a bit in Noah Baumbach’s recent film Frances Ha in which Greta Gerwig’s disaffected twenty-aught takes off on a whim to Paris and ends up killing time in a movie theatre watching the 2011 Shrek spin-off Puss In Boots. It’s as if the movie is a comforting port in the storm, a tether to the vacuity of American cultural capitalism in a place where the abundance of, let’s call it, “real culture” (like paintings and sculptures and Eiffel Towers and stuff) is as overwhelming as the corporate upholstery of Times Square must seem to a visiting Parisian. She is so inculcated in the Shrekian logic of late capitalism that she cannot bring herself to psychically escape, even when she finds herself physically extracted from it. Gerwig’s Frances bolts from American culture only to return to it. This zero-calorie irony, this kiddie-friendly pastiche? She couldn’t leave it if she tried.

For all its pastiche and irony, Shrek is the furthest thing from subversive. It upends established tenets of fairy tales (beginning by casting the ogre as the antihero instead of the villain) only to end up strengthening them. It’s like the lyrics of I’m A Believer, a song about a disaffected romantic – “Disappointment haunted all my dreams” – who winds up falling hopelessly in love. Shrek disrupts the Prince Charming story only to recertify it, to prolong a narrative it pretends to rebuff.

Likewise, Shrek: The Musical asks its presumed hip child viewer to question certain assumptions made by broad traditions of literature and story-telling – is love real? Are there happy endings? – only to make us forget these questions, hastily answering them with a string of resounding yesses. It’s like the onion, the central metaphor in the Shrek mythos. Layers on layers on layers with nothing but a putrid root at its centre.

In the burrows and bogs of swamps of the Internet there is a whole sub-sub-culture dedicated to corroding Shrek, to the process of peeling away. There are several sub-Reddits (r/Shrek, r/ShrekIsLove, r/Brogres) and bizarre Twitter parodies (@kissingshrek, @itsmeshrek, @shrekjokez), as well as a seemingly bottomless time-sink of YouTubes of stuff like a collage of Shrek cakes set to an all farts-and-meows digital rendition of Smash Mouth’s All Star, a cover of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky called “Get Donkey,” a decapitated Shrek screaming “Fuck dog turds up my cunt,” and a frankly unbelievable amount of other, variously disturbing, permutations of Shrek, all spanned out of the primordial soup of Shrekchan. My favourite of these, a YouTube video titled “shrek is piss,” has an MS Paint Shrek ripping the green flesh off his face, revealing the bloody musculature beneath.

Alone, one or two of these embryonic Shrek memes would be easy enough to ignore like so much detritus clogged at the bottom of the Internet. Taken together, their common interest in the usage of Shrek as an object of humour, disgust and abject horror reveals something like a sensibility. Just as Shrek rots out the core of whole oral and literary traditions of Western civilization, these MS Paint graphics, tweets, and unshakably shitty Daft Punk covers reveal Shrek, and culture, in their putrefaction.

This sort of active adulteration of popular culture has been rather widespread in recent years, as the modes and mores of that same popular continue to petrify. On Twitter, the @Seinfeld2000 account has attracted over 21,000 followers with its grammatically perplexing imaginings of what Seinfeld might look like if it was still on television.

A parody of the totally unfunny @SeinfeldToday, which basically poses scenarios like “What if George used an iPhone?”, Seinfeld2000 projects plots and characterizations that render the sitcom’s cast as barely functional psychopaths. For example: Kramer (AKA “Krame” AKA “Krankles” AKA any one of half a dozen other misspellings) is frequently depicted as an unrepentant racist constantly using “n word,” a reference to actor Michael Richards’ infamous racist tirade from 2006. Like the work of Chris (Simpsons artist), who hosts a Facebook page originally given over to deliberately child-like an ugly drawings of Simpsons characters, Seinfeld2000 feels like a rejoinder to a culture that seems equally resistant to and embracing of obsolescence. Where @SeinfeldToday offers meaningless projections like “Jerry has to use an old Zune,” @Seinfeld2000 imagines (or “imagens”) a future Seinfeld more defined by the realities of our present moment, one where Kramer’s character is dogged by the real life racism of that actor that portrayed him.

The wave of Shrek memes produced by self-identifying “Brogres” feels like part of a similar project. If we cannot imagine a culture outside of the culture of Seinfeld and The Simpsons and Shrek, let’s imagine one in which these characters are putrid, unpleasant and pitiable. Instead of accepting a culture that guises its evil and unpleasantness, it’s material and psychic trash, with calcifying layers of prettiness, irony and other honeyed half-truths, let’s view the world as it actually is, as Shrekian in its vacuity and ugliness. Shrek is the swollen, shambling corpse of a culture that is legally dead.

If there is one leavening thing about Shrek: The Musical, apart from the toots ‘n’ belches gas-off number, it’s that it does something the computer-animated films (and video games) fundamentally refuse to do. The theatrical mounting of Shrek makes apparent, every single second, that it is a human endeavor, the product of people collaborating to render its existent at any given moment. Actors have daubed their faces with makeup, wiggled into prosthetic ears, memorized songs lyrics and dance moves and the whole deal.

This is not to say that Shrek: The Musical is productively alienating or estranging in any Brechtian way, at least not intentionally. (Though the curtain call attempt of the players to roust the audience to dance in their seats may be regarded, probably incorrectly, as some fourth wall-breaking gesture.) Rather, its grand show of industry and people-at-work offers a quiet reminder that, when so marshaled, human beings are capable of great works. Works not just of art or culture or commerce, but of compassion, works of humanity.

If a culture together can produce something as head-shakingly mindboggling as a fart-based musical number, it can surely produce its opposite: something engineered not to reproduce but remodel, something designed to destroy, something emphatic and un-ironic.

Imagine Imagen an un-Shrekian world.



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