Wanted : For Being a Dick
Even if he had never made a film, Mike Judge's contribution to pop culture would be worthy of serious respect. This is the man who created Beavis & Butthead, after all. Beavis & Butthead are funny, and I loved them back when I basically still was one of them, when I was close enough to the world of pimpled adolescents watching rock videos on MTV with their friends and giggling together that the truth of it only made it even funnier. If that wasn't enough, Judge then went on to co-create King of the Hill, perhaps the most underrated of animated shows in the aftermath of the Simpsons. King of the Hill isn't as flashy or even as funny as many of its peers. Instead its an almost old-fashioned sitcom, its strengths rooted in a depth of characterisation and a coherent, consistent worldview which allows its gentle humour to unfold. There is always an unfashionable Texan conservatism in Judge's work, a respect for blue collar America and loathing of new, Corporate America, and King of the Hill is perhaps the purest example of this. It has managed to last 11 full seasons without ever attracting the hype or cult of a South Park or a Family Guy.
Then there is Judge's work in cinema. Office Space, the film he wrote, produced and directed in 1999, was a spinoff from a series of shorts he had made about the character of Milton, frustrated and driven almost insane by the grind of office-work. The film was a large expansion on this idea. Judge made it more universal by making his hero a sort of everyman, his boredom and frustration at the Dilbert-like cubicle-culture of his workplace understandable to anyone who has ever punched a clock in one. As hero Peter Gibbons, played by Ron Livingstone, says : "Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements." Office Space captures the inertia of working in an office alongside the petty irritations - difficulties with photocopiers, static shocks off door handles, squabbles over staplers, having to work overtime, memos, patronising bosses. It also deftly captures several distinct comic characters, from Milton himself, more or less a gibbering anti-social wreck, to Peter's frustrated, frightened friends Samir and Michael Bolton. Office Space, however, was mispromoted by Fox, its American studio, and was a box-office disappointment. It only really found its audience on dvd, and is one of Foxs biggest selling dvds ever, having developed a sizeable cult audience, drawn by the films eminently quotable screenplay and its gently satirical take on life in a business park in modern America.
Judge's latest film, Idiocracy, was also produced by Fox. This time, instead of mispromoting the film, they buried it. Again, there were problems with promotion, the studio arguing with Judge over the trailers and the entire advertising concept. Then, after preview screenings had resulted in some low ratings from focus groups and Judge had reshot some scenes to appease Fox, they sat on the film for two years. Nobody saw it and its release was endlessly postponed. Finally, they released it in just over a hundred American cinemas in Setember last year. Now its been released on dvd in the States - a UK cinema release looks unlikely at this point - and hopefully it will begin to find an audience as Office Space did, because Idiocracy deserves it just as much.
It tells the story of Joe Bowers(Luke Wilson), a private in the US Army, selected by his superiors for his utter ordinariness to be placed in suspended animation for a year. Only of course the experiment goes wrong, Joe is forgotten and he awakens 500 years later in America in 2505. A voiceover (recalling the omniscient pomposity of voiceovers in 1950s sci-fi and also War of the Worlds) has sketched out the essence of the conceit for us in a prologue : smart people aren't procreating enough, whereas dumb people can't stop. Hence by 2505, the stupid have inherited the earth. America is a mess, with literal mountains of trash everywhere, machines that don't work and moronic citizens who speak a bizarre mix of hillbilly, Valley Girl and inner-city slang in place of English. A soft-drink company sponsors the presidency and people are obsessed by sex and violence. Starbucks offers handjobs with lattes, there is a tv channel called the Masturbation Network and a hit show called "Ow, My Balls!" which depicts its hero getting kicked, punched and landing repeatedly on his crotch. The President himself is an ex-wrestler and porn star who cannot understand why his country's crops have stopped growing - they are being sprayed with a soft-drink rather than water - and who keeps order in his "House of Reprasentin" with a sub-machine gun. Advertisements spout slogans like "If you don't smoke Tarrlytons - fuck you!" and "Fuck off, I'm eating." In this world, Joe is the smartest man alive, and he sets off on an odyssey to find a time machine in order to get home.
Idiocracy is in no way a subtle film. Judge takes aim at his targets - corporate greed and stupidity, modern cultural fads and fashions, Americas increasing obsessions with sex and violence and consumerism - with a bazooka. Nor is the film as funny as you feel it could be. As in Office Space, many of the ideas are better than the execution, but also like Office Space, the best and funniest moments are almost all incidental, hovering in the background in a series of brilliant sight-gags or flying by in tossed off pieces of dialogue. Judge has always done stupidity well - see Beavis & Butthead for proof - but here it is centre stage and he gets great mileage from such concepts as a 2505 tour of the past where Charlie Chaplin was fascist dictator of the Nazis and dinosaurs fought in WWII wrapped in sweaters bearing swastikas and U.N. (or Un, as the film has it) insignias. Joe is a figure of fun to these morons of the future, who mock his "faggy" voice and at first believe him retarded. He goes to a film called "Ass" which is an hour and a half of footage of an ass, which farts occasionally. The voiceover informs us that Ass won 8 Oscars that year, including best screenplay.
The question remains : exactly why would Fox treat the film so badly? The internet was abuzz with conspiracy theories when it was finally released in those few American cinemas. And Fox itself does not escape Judge's satirical eye. There is a Fox News segment in the film, presented by a hulking, topless man and a conspicuously huge-breasted woman and delivered in the aggressive tabloid language of the Wrestling ring. But the films attack is generally non-specific, Judge seeming to abhor all corporations rather than any one in particular. Last year was the year in which Borat was such a success in American cinemas, and that would suggest that there may have been an audience for Idiocracy, too, though the films are utterly different in everything but the savagery of their mockery. Hopefully this second disappointment in his dealings with the studio system will not discourage Judge too much. Cinema needs his talent and unique sensibility just as much as tv and animation does.