The Triumphal Dreamscape of Swiss Army Man

Jul 4, 2016 by Marketing on The Nickelodeon Blog

In order to enjoy Swiss Army Man, one has to be willing to celebrate. Not just the happy moments, the easy to digest, the things we clearly identify as worthy of jubilation, but the meanest of things. If you have seen, heard, or read anything about this film you know what I’m about to say: You have to celebrate the farts. You must be willing to celebrate the flatulence, the erections, the gross vulnerability of the human experience.

You have to champion a man who has been marooned in the wilderness because of his tectonic loneliness. When we meet Hank at the top of the movie, he’s about to hang himself because he’s lost all hope of getting home, only to be stopped by the corpse of Manny washing ashore. As the movie progresses however and he and Manny begin to talk and he share experiences and understandings of the world, we see that his loneliness extends far beyond his shipwreck episode. In his day-to-day life he has little to no friends. He doesn’t go to parties or develop relationships—the closest thing he has to a connection is admiring Sarah, a girl who rides the same bus as him every day, and an automated Birthday e-card from his father. Hank desperately wants love, but he’s too embarrassed to admit it—and who wouldn’t be? Love is a liability, a crack in the veneer of a detached and cool person. It requires taking risks, being willing to look stupid and to open up to someone else and the possibility of pain, rejection, and change.

But Manny is not embarrassed by anything.

He remembers nothing of his life before beaching on Hank’s island shore, and doesn’t know what anything is or how anything works. He is tabula rasa personified. Here, the movie reveals its predictable, almost pedestrian premise of someone trying to teach another about the rules of society and cultural expectations, only to have true wisdom spring from the innocent naïve. What makes this iteration so valuable however, rests in the way directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert present this lesson. A pivotal moment in the movie comes when Hank explains masturbation to Manny and they discuss Hank’s difficulties with it. Manny, having only recently discovered what masturbation is, questions why Hank wont do it. If it makes him happy, if it makes him feel something, why does he feel shame and guilt? Later in the movie Manny is hurt that Hank refuses fart in front of him, saying that if he’s hiding that, what else is hiding? If everyone does it, as Hank explained to Manny, why is it humiliating and isolating?

At the core of what Manny is saying is embrace your weird, and that’s exactly what Swiss Army Man does. It goes there. The score is thunderous, the cinematography lush, the set and prop pieces dyed in the wool of a handmade, kitschy aesthetic. If Hank is going to recreate the real world for Manny, he’s going to go all the way; he’s going to build a life-sized bus out of twigs and trash complete with passengers, himself dressed in drag, and taped together postcards revolving by. If Manny’s strength is going to be celebrating and accepting his basic human urges, then yes, he will have an erection compass, his gas will be so mighty it functions as a jet pack. If Hank and Manny are going to have a “true friendship montage”, then they’ll do it with triumphal dreamscape music half from their lines, half from the film score narrating exactly what’s happening.

Manny may be a corpse with supernatural powers, and Hank may be a profoundly depressed man who found happiness with that corpse, but they are just like us. They do things we all do: they fart, they feel aroused, they sing to themselves, peer into the lives of others through the internet, fall in love with someone unexpected. In fact, they might be living a better version of many of our lives, because they found how to celebrate every repulsive bit of themselves and each other, and in that, create the kind of joyful memories you hope will flash before your eyes when your life is about to end.

– Pauline Arroyo