“I don’t know if I really like this movie, it’s just kind of weird. It’s worth checking out; it’s weird. Something to talk about. So, if you like really, really weird stuff, check out Final Flesh, it’s really weird.”–YouTube reviewer
DIRECTED BY: Written by Vernon Chatman, directed by “Ike Sanders” and three other uncredited directors
FEATURING: Twelve amateur porn stars
PLOT: After a prologue explains that the atom bomb is about to drop, we’re shown a family of three (mother, father and adult daughter) sitting around a kitchen table, deciding that they will stay and “die with dignity.” The mother and daughter give birth to various food items and the father tires to climb back into the womb, and then daughter relates a dream. We see a mushroom cloud, then another trio of actors in a different apartment who believe they are in the afterlife: they recite more humorous nonsense about God, death and the apocalypse and enact more bizarre skits before the action shifts to another trio in a different room, then another…
- Vernon Chatman made Final Flesh by submitting scripts to four different amateur porn production companies that specialize in acting out their client’s fantasies. The scripts were submitted between 2002 and 2009, so the film was actually 7 years in the making.
- Chatman is a stand-up comic and Emmy-winning television writer. He wrote for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and “The Chris Rock Show” before co-creating the short-lived, weird cult TV series “Wonder Showzen” and “Xavier: Renegade Angel.” He’s most famous for his work with “South Park,” where he provides the voice of “Towelie,” the pot-smoking towel.
- Chatman is a member of the Brooklyn-based art collective PFFR, who produce music, art, and short films. The first segment of Final Flesh was made as a short film for a PFFR art show, and although the final project was Chatman’s work alone, it was still released under the PFFR umbrella.
- Final Flesh is distributed by Drag City, an independent music label that has only recently branched out into underground film (and may have given up that side-business already). Drag City’s other 2009 movie release, Trash Humpers, hogged the company’s headlines when it became a minor cause célèbre after Netflix refused to stock it. Final Flesh received relatively little promotion, despite the fact that Netflix declined to carry it, as well.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: For Final Flesh, we’re going to break with tradition and provide four different “indelible images,” one from each segment of the film. A girl breastfeeds a porterhouse steak; a woman in a jeans, a tank-top and a skull mask threatens a man on his deathbed; a couple make out by mashing the skulls drawn on their backs together; a young lady in black lingerie performs a wedding ceremony on two corpses lying side by side.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The conceptual art premise of sending a non-erotic script to be acted out by pornstars-for-hire might be weird enough, but when that apocalyptic screenplay requires the bemused amateur actors to bathe in the tears of neglected children and recite lines like “I just creamed my demon” after being slapped, we’ve traveled beyond the snarkily experimental into the realm of the existentially deranged. All the world’s a stage and these men and women play many parts; if some of those roles require them to pour ketchup in a conch shell and poke at it with a turkey baster while moaning orgasmically, then maybe that’s just how this universe rolls.
Short clip from Final Flesh
COMMENTS: In porn, when a woman wiggles and says “oh my God, there’s something going on in my panties!” the viewer expects a certain result to follow. To say that Final Flesh “subverts” those expectations would be to just barely scratch the surface of what’s going on here. The script shatters the viewer’s erotic assumptions, then holds the broken shards to his jugular and demands that he laugh at them. Using the slipshod craftsmanship of shoot-to-order pornography as a metaphor for a shoddily constructed universe, Final Flesh is actually a comedy of despairs where the Bomb is perpetually falling, God imprisons families in apartments and slips notes under the door, actors stumble over unfamiliar words, and the director can sometimes be heard calling out “action!”
What actually happens after the starlet complains of agitation in her undies is that she reaches under her skirt and pulls out an egg. “I’ve laid an egg! This is so hot!,” she exclaims joyfully, and begins to kiss and lick it. “Umm, let me get in on some of that!” says her mom, coming over to where daughter is seated and extending her tongue. Is anyone getting turned on by this? Final Flesh continues in this vein, mixing absurdism with sexuality, and exploring Vernon Chatman’s laundry list of activities that superficially look like fetishes but turn out to have no erotic content: women and men sitting on toilets, armpit sniffing, giving birth to food items, a man dressed in a diaper convinced he’s a baby. And of course, there’s that running father-daughter (and mother-daughter) incest subtext…
The four trashy troupes that act out Vernon Chatman’s existentially perverted “fantasies” here might be forgiven for thinking that they’d stumbled across a heretofore unknown species of pervert. In fact, one threesome seems to have taken it upon themselves to add a little spice to his smut-free scenarios, as they provide what I assume (since nothing of the sort happens with the other three ensembles) is some off-script explicit male and female masturbation. They probably thought that they were just giving the customer a little of what he really wanted but was too shy to ask for. The odd thing is that their onanistic antics turn Flesh from something that might have been able to squeeze by with an “R” rating (though it has a fair amount of female full frontal nudity) to an unrate-able pseudo-porn feature; yet, the few seconds of “good stuff” they add won’t make the film yankable to even the horniest surrealist (especially since the script requires the man to stop mid-self abuse to read the obituaries, while the woman’s entire motive for using a pencil as a non-approved marital aid is to “erase the Bible baby inside of me”).
Of course, the different approaches and, um, erotic qualities that the assorted carnal companies brought to the table was a big part of Chatman’s experiment. He couldn’t guarantee that the actors wouldn’t flub their lines —and he couldn’t rule out the possibility they would improve them by flubbing them. He trusted that the lack of cinematic sophistication occasioned by the shoot-to-order companies’ down-and-dirty approach to their art would add an air of amateurism that would make the proceedings seem even more absurd. Switching the players up four times gives you four different approaches to the material, and despite the fact that the performers vary widely in their thespian talents and attractiveness, all of the iterations work, in their own way (thanks to the strength of the crazy script). The first group is all African-American, and they deliver their lines matter-of-factly; there’s something charming about their unquestioning earnestness. The second threesome makes little impression, but the physical mismatches and extreme lack of acting ability of the third menage-a-trois (the same ones that volunteered their masturbatory skills) make them a memorable ensemble. Made up of an older gentleman with glasses and a flat delivery, a Latina mother with orange-blond tresses and a tramp-stamp, and a skinny blond daughter with pigtails and a disturbing faux-Lolita persona, this is the seediest, porn-iest lineup, and they make Chatman’s anerotic, existential dialogue sound positively filthy.
The fourth outfit is both the best looking and the most talented bunch, and whoever directed them attacked the material with an enthusiasm that suggests he had unfulfilled film-school dreams. In contrast to previous segments, in this one the camera moves, the director offers various angles and closeups when a single two-shot could have sufficed, there are in-scene dissolves and sound effects, and spotlights are used to create deliberate shadows; there’s even an arty shot of dust motes in a sunbeam. Even the costumes, which tended towards Walmart issue tank-tops and jean miniskirts in earlier outings, are more elegant here: the ladies wear sexy black cocktail dresses and Victoria’s Secret lingerie. One of the actresses hams it up, possibly relishing the chance to vary her diet by chewing on scenery for a change. The threesome even show some comic timing, as when they look out the window at an approaching nuclear bomb and say “It’s coming! Oh, it’s coming, ooh, coming…” They play the joke out a little too long, and one girl can’t help but crack a smile, but it at least shows that they “get” Chatman’s sense of humor and realize they’re producing a comedy. Although there’s a tendency to assume that Chatman was pranking the porn stars with this project, implicitly making fun of them by putting them through unfamiliar paces and tricking them into creating art, there’s no reason to assume that the performers were totally clueless that they were being played with, or that the author assumed they would be. Their attitudes might have ranged anywhere from cluelessness to indifference (“we still get paid, right?”) to sincere appreciation for the project. Part of the fun of the movie is imagining what goes through a young lady’s mind as she delivers a line like “hey God, I’ll let you see me naked if you show me what you look like” before stripping to the buff.
To provide maximum juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime, Chatman has the four half-naked trios spend most of the running time discussing weighty issues such as the coming apocalypse, death, resurrection (three of them die and come back to life), cosmic coincidences, fascism, and religion (in the video’s most blasphemous scene, a woman reads a mangled version of the Koran on the toilet; there’s also a man who accidentally calls out the Bible word for word during sex). Themes of pregnancy, conception and the womb—the biggest no-no topics in the sex-is-for-fun-only fantasy world of porn—recur in every segment.
Chatman’s method here is both Surrealist and absurdist. Surrealist because of the dreamlike flow, and because, in the spirit of Surrealist experiments with randomness, Chatman deliberately outsourced his arty script to commercial entities with no competence or interest in these types of ventures so that they would introduce errors and mutations into the piece. It’s absurdist because it’s carefully scripted to make us chuckle at its nonsense, while chuckling into the Void. The residents of Final Flesh are trapped with each other in a claustrophobic space; they never leave a single apartment. Outside their bubble of reality, the world is presumably a radioactive wasteland (alternatively, as the group in segment two thinks, they may be imprisoned inside God’s womb), but it might as well not exist. Their universe make no sense, and they die in it. It’s hard not to see the bleak metaphor there. But, like a true absurdist, Chatman finds their (and our) situation hilarious, implicitly arguing that laughing at our predicament is the only way we can stick it to a world that’s indifferent to our wants.
Make no mistake, Final Flesh is a very funny movie, almost as funny as it is weird. Even if you’re not amused by a fellatio scene that consists of a woman grating a block of cheese sticking out through a man’s zipper, you have to admire the inventiveness of Chatman’s crazy, incongruous dialogue. A couple of mother-daughter exchanges illustrate how the offbeat humor here can be as clever as it is strange. “Mommy, why did you want to kill the president?” wonders one daughter. “I wanted to use his blood to oil the machinery of capitalism” is the reply. Another daughter recalls, “Do you remember the first night I walked in on you two boning each other?” “That was the night you were conceived,” is mom’s quick, nonsensical response.
Don’t worry that I’m giving away all the best bits here; at seventy minutes, with an average of two insane occurrences a minute, there are still plenty of surprises to unfold in Final Flesh. There’s certainly nothing else like it in the weird movie universe; and it’s one of those rare original ideas that, once it’s been done, no one else can copy without looking like a complete ass. If you’re still unsure what to make of the project, you could always go with Chatman’s description in the prologue: Final Flesh is “an 8 part preapocalyptic triptych in D minor” intended to “test the inadvertent sensual limits of the Flesh Psyche.” If you don’t find that description at least a little intriguing, then maybe you’re reading the wrong website?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Chatman is a skilled surrealist, juxtaposing images and thoughts to create a comedy nightmare that manages to feel familiar, even through all of its absurdity… It’s a one-of-a-kind film that probably deserves to stay that way, because, for what it is, it’s perfect.”–John Gholson, Moviephone
OFFICIAL SITE: Final Flesh | Drag City – There’s almost nothing on distributor Drag City’s official website except for the film’s trailer and a link to buy the DVD
IMDB LINK: Final Flesh (Video 2009)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
FINAL FLESH – The (poorly maintained) Facebook page for Final Flesh
A Chat With the Guy Behind Final Flesh – Half-serious Vernon Chatman Final Flesh interview with Vice Magazine
Back by Popular Demand! FINAL FLESH this Wednesday at the Ritz! – The Alamo Drafthouse announcement of the encore screening of Final Flesh
HOME VIDEO INFORMATION: The Drag City DVD (buy) includes an incomplete set of credits, and a hidden-in-plain-sight extra feature (a selection of outtakes from the second group of performers, who keep cracking up and complain about having spaghetti sauce poured into their underwear, but who otherwise seem unfazed by Chatman’s bizarre requests). More substantially, it comes with a packet of antibacterial hand gel tucked into the case, and a two-sided fold out poster of concept art.
It’s worth noting that, unlike most movies, Final Flesh is specifically constructed with a DVD presentation in mind; you’ll understand why that’s so after your first full viewing.
UPDATE 8/12/2019: A helpful anonymous commenter (see below) points out that at the time of this writing, Final Flesh is not available through our Amazon links. You can still order it from distributor Drag City’s site.
UPDATE 7/29/2022: Final Flesh is now back in print on Blu-ray (buy) thanks to the efforts of Vinegar Syndrome. The disc includes a new introduction by anticomic Gregg (Entertainment) Turkington, a new music video directed by Vernon Chatman and John Lee, an alternate score by Ben Chasny, outtakes (presumably the same ones as on the original release), and trailers.