Bright Lights Film Journal

Taking the Word of a Talking Alligator: The Garbage Pail Kids Movie Reconsidered

Deleuze, Marcuse, Bahktin, Dodger, Juice, Valerie Vomit . . .

Only a few years ago, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was accepted as the most influential work in 20th-century art, by a group of elite English experts. And yet it seems a hundred plus years of film have yet to produce a cinematic equivalent of Fountain, as critics continually crown Citizen Kane as the best the medium has yet to offer. Perhaps they are too fond of their conventions, too quick to pass on the “bad” film for the sake of the “good,” not realizing that the clothespin on their nose — perpetually stuck in the air as it is — has irreparably damaged their own olfactory senses — their ability to distinguish the “bad” and the “good” in the first place. They would not know a Fountain if they saw it.

If cinema and its criticism are to remain new and exciting, the contemporary film critics’ task is to scorn their own sterile standards, and to go digging in the garbage — the garbage pail, that is. Seemingly scraped away by the iron broom of the critics’ criteria (and their Criterion Collections) into the dustbin of history, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie nevertheless lingers on in the memory of the few who saw it upon its release in 1987. Marketed as a children’s film, the only thing infantile about the picture is the response given it by most viewers and critics, who, imagining themselves a clever lot, shoot off puerile redoubts like “I’ve spent happier afternoons trying to pick pubic hairs out of diner salads”1 But the joke is on them. To trash The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is not too easy; it is to miss the point entirely. Not only is it a tired exercise; to pan The Pail is to be fooled by the film’s greatest irony: a movie self-consciously made of garbage. The pain the repulsed viewer feels is in being on the receiving end of Garbage Pail‘s punch line. It is in this way that The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is as close a filmic adaptation of Duchamp’s Fountain as there has yet to be.

It would have remained but in memory, too, had it not managed to catch a drift on our society’s sad wave of 1980s nostalgia. After over fifteen years of painful VHS copies of copies of copies, a remarkable new DVD widescreen transfer is now available. This release is a testament, no doubt, to the film’s ability to capture its political-cultural period in everything from its casting (Mackenzie Astin, right, was a Facts of Life regular) to its soundtrack (the ubiquitous synthesizer) and costume design (Tangerine’s indomitable lust for denim and sequins). But there is more to the film than its surface-level accoutrements, much more.

Indeed, almost from the start the film seems to understand itself better than any critic who has yet to write on it. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie was the first ever to be inspired by a trading card/sticker series and the film understands its debt. It opens with three-dimensional facsimiles of the trading cards flying through space, introducing us to the players. The Garbage Pail Kids were a product of the Topps company, known mainly for their sports cards, and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, to my knowledge, is the only Topps Chewing Gum film production ever made. The movie takes many liberties, however, paring down the rotten kin of the Cabbage Patch into a bizarre band of seven absurdist moppets, in the process isolating their confrontational humor, their controversy, and their strange relationship to childhood.

Following the outer space introduction, our first image is that of a child on the run: our protagonist Dodger (a youthful Mackenzie Astin), in flight from the tyranny of local tough Juice, shortcuts through a neighborhood playground. Despite this maneuver, he fails to escape, his pocket money is picked, and he is thrown into and kicked in the mud. The setting has all the connotations of innocence, a reminder that The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is ostensibly a children’s movie. But the beating suggests themes much more mature; and maturity — beyond innocence — is what indeed unfolds.

Looking on is Tangerine, Juice’s girl and — were this a conventional picture — the catalyst for Dodger’s coming-of-age. But this is no conventional picture — Tangerine, we see, will be Dodger’s foil, not his flame. After antique store clerk Dodger shares a sweet moment with Tangerine over some merchandise, Juice strolls in, his crew in tow. Another skirmish ensues, which ends in Juice’s favor — an unconscious Dodger is thrown down a sewer manhole and bathed in shit. Amidst the melee, however, a certain pail is overturned — “Pandora’s Pail,” in the parlance of Dodger’s kindly employer and gentleman of the Old World, Cap’n Manzini (Anthony Newley, right), who had adamantly warned against the pail’s dangers.

What emerges from the pail is indeed danger of a sort, but even more so, redemption. Early in the picture, Dodger spends an inordinate amount of time in the mud and in raw sewage, until saved from this filthy fate by our title characters, the Garbage Pail Kids — or in Manzini’s terms, “The Children.” Certainly Manzini is right, they are a Pandora’s Box of contradictions. It seems a paradox that the Children, at home in garbage, would seek to rescue Dodger from a sewer. It is here, in The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, that we see that liberation lies within the contradiction. Perhaps the finest embodiment of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque yet committed to film, the Children no doubt “uncover, undermine — even destroy, the hegemony of any ideology that seeks to have the final word about the world, and also to renew, to shed light upon life, the meanings it harbors, to elucidate potentials; projecting, as it does an alternate conceptualization of reality.”2

Building on the images of the trading cards, the movie invests each Kid with a unique personality and power. In the flatulence of Windy Winston, or the halitosis of Foul Phil; in the juxtaposition of Ali Gator and Greaser Greg’s very destructive, yet very different lusts for flesh; in the seeming urinary incontinence of Nat Nerd; in the magic mucus of Messy Tessy; and in the green stream that gives Valerie Vomit her namesake — in each of these, there is a sort of ontological anarchy, chaos as being, which does not draw the viewer in so much as send the viewer out, not by repulsion, but rather by an ardent desire to tear, high and low, the fabric of the curtain standing between us and reality as such. “Experience takes place before a curtain which conceals,” Herbert Marcuse has written, “and, if the world is the appearance of something behind the curtain of immediate experience, then, in Hegel’s terms, it is we ourselves who are behind the curtain.”3

Despite befriending the Children, Dodger remains tethered to a desire to dethrone Juice, to be the boy on the block and the apple of Tangerine’s eye. When Juice administers a beating to Dodger, Tangerine halfheartedly pleas with Juice to stop. “Sorry, baby,” Juice explains, “but it’s a matter of principle” — the power principle, that is. Whereas the Children embody a rhizomatic distribution of power, horizontalidad — for instance, Greaser Greg holds the pedals as Valerie Vomit steers a stolen Pepsi truck — Juice’s power is one of tyranny. Dodger, more passive observer than peeping tom, witnesses a most intimate moment between Tangerine and Juice through an apartment window, in which Juice instructs with a pointed finger “Don’t talk back.” And Tangerine won’t talk back, only because Juice has the muscle she needs to make it in the world. As they make out in one scene, the soundtrack sings “You know you’ve got the power.” She knows it all right, and uses her position with Juice to work Dodger and his lapdog puppy love to her advantage. Tangerine, we learn, is a budding fashion designer, hocking her “creations” to unwitting nightclub denizens off the hood of her car, Dodger in tow. So adamant is she to, in her own words, “sell my way out of this town,” that she will even sell the very shirt off her back. Dodger, of course, stares on in titillation, Cap’n and the Children but a far-off memory.

That is, except when the Children prove their own infinitely creative worth. In a gesture of solidarity with Dodger’s efforts to woo Tangerine, the Children stitch a creation of their own, a dashing black blazer with golden sequins. So taken is Tangerine by the piece that she demands more and more, in the process demonstrating, in terms of contemporary fashion, the ever-present pull between State and War Machine documented by Deleuze and Guattari in Nomadology. To Deuleuze and Guattari, the State is something of a plagiarist — for many of its functions, such as war, it must appropriate a War Machine, as in the following analogy to waterworks: “The state needs to subordinate hydraulic force to conduits, pipes, embankments which prevent turbulence, which constrain movement to go from one point to another, and space itself to be striated and measured, which makes the fluid depend on the solid, and flows proceed by parallel, laminar layers.”4 To make her creations, Tangerine must, like the State, not only exploit the labor of the Children — who sew their fashions themselves — but channel their hydraulic force, turbulence, wild and fluid movements, and in the process, appropriate their very aesthetic. As is announced at her fashion show, late in the film, her fashions are “a little flashy, a little trashy, but fun.” As are the Children.

But the Children do not exist to be exploited. Whilst raiding a business with a prominently displayed sign reading “Nonunion Sweatshop,” the Children sing a spirited number whose chorus rings with echoes of the International: “We can do anything,” they harmonize, “by working with each other.” But make no mistake — class reductionists the Children are not. This is made clear by the second theme song of the film, “You Can Be a Garbage Pail Kid” performed in protopunk fashion by Jimmy Scarlett & The Dimensions. The track, which plays over the end credits, is an essential qualifier to the previous anthem “Working with Each Other.” Very much in league with Italian autonomists like Toni Negri, the lyrics of the song expand the boundaries of the standard Marxist rendering of the “working class” to include all those denied self-determination within the modern social factory: “International, radical, anything unusual; you can be a Garbage Pail Kid.” Still, this song just confirms what had already been established earlier in the film. On an evening jaunt, Ali Gator wanders into the “Toughest Bar in the World,” and following only a brief tussle, fits well within the milieu of lumpen bikers and miscellaneous social misfits. One gruff fellow offers a toast: “Here’s to all the little suckers of the world!”

Here! Here! For if the State can’t channel the War Machine well enough, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, it puts itself at risk of falling into incoherence. And so it is with Tangerine. Dodger, “bewitched bebothered and bedenemied” by Tangerine’s charms, inadvertently allows her to pass off the Children to Juice, who sells them for a hearty bounty to “The State home for the Ugly.” But she cannot — in the final analysis — contain them. At what she assumes to be her triumph, a fashion show at “McBundy’s Department Store,” the Children arrive fresh from a biker-gang-assisted jailbreak poised for chaos. When it all ensues, we can’t help but think back over cinema’s short history; the too obvious irony of Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter finale is, in contrast to this sequence in The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, as naked as its single-file line of models. In a playful fashion that summons up memories of no less than Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite, it is the anarchic antics of the Children who offer the most spirited, biting commentary on the old crap of the catwalk. I know of none better in the history of cinema.

Amidst it all, Dodger gains an upper hand on Juice, sitting astride the flaccid body of his nemesis, punching left and right. Yet, it is in this very moment of triumph, the moment that holds the potential to make a man of Dodger, that Dodger breaks down in tears, choosing to walk away under the worldly wing of Cap’n Manzini’s magic rather than assume the mantle of power itself. We should not be surprised; the very naming of “Dodger” is a throwback to Dickens and “The Artful Dodger” of Oliver Twist, a pejorative still often employed to describe one who avoids responsibility and the consequences of their actions. Compare this with other, more popular ruminations on masculinity from the 1980s: unlike the tripe of Vision Quest, Dodger’s coming-of-age is not to get laid; nor is it, ala Roadhouse, to tear the throat out of his enemy. Rather, it is to understand his solidarity with the Children; to take responsibility and to know that his fate is their fate, and vice versa. As he tells a heartbroken Tangerine, “I don’t think you’re pretty anymore.” The power principle is never pretty.

Early in the film, Cap’n Manzini explains to Dodger the deeper meaning behind otherwise mundane objects — a teddy bear, a diary, a fan … perhaps a film too? But the film and its meaning(s) do not have power over us; they enjoy power with us. We laugh at the film, as it laughs at itself. If one doubts the film’s self-consciousness, one need only consider its more Brechtian moments. More than once, the shadow of the camera is cast across a scene, reminding us that this is in fact a film. Even more self-reflexively, the Children at one point invade an evening screening of a Three Stooges feature. As the Stooges’ antics are intercut with the mayhem of the Children, not only does the The Garbage Pail Kids Movie acknowledge its cinematic debt, it affects a most contrapuntal moment. Foul Phil sneezes into a tub of popcorn, sending it asunder, blanketing the audience — laughing violently both in the face of the audience, and cinema itself, as it were, defying the very cinematic conventions paid homage to in the self-same scene.

Indeed, the film asks that we interrogate ourselves — it asks so forcefully that audiences fear it. Paradoxically, it would seem, the Children hate the prospect of ever returning to what we assume to be their home, the Pail. But our assumptions are fascistic ones, for the Pail is where society — even Manzini, staunchly conservative in his old age compared to Dodger’s youthful radicalism — seeks to banish them. This is, at last, the final lesson of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, which is a challenge, not unlike Duchamp’s Fountain, that asks us to refuse the standards of the cinematic artform. “Cap, you’re an educated man, huh?” Ali Gator mocks Manzini. “And you take the word of a talking alligator?” If we really are an educated society, should we take the word of talking heads, film critics included?

Note: This essay appeared in slightly different form on the fine Lucid Screening blog. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.

  1. “X-Entertainment: Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie Review.” Accessed July 15, 2006 []
  2. See Bakhtin’s Wikipedia entry. Accessed July 15, 2006. []
  3. Eberhard Wenzel’s Website. Accessed July 15, 2006. []
  4. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Nomadology: The War Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Semiotext(e), 1986, 21. []