There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The first Babe established a story and setting with a singular set of pleasures that endless filmed variations could easily exploit: the storybook farm and its storybook version of rustic hard work, the Greek chorus of chirping mice, the kiddie-thriller arc of disastersunderstandably, kids respond viscerally to unfairnessand heart-clenching triumph. And that piglordy, he’s a cute little scamp.
Australian director George Miller, who co-produced the original sleeper, steps in to direct the follow-up à la Miller. Pig in the City drops the rural setting, excises our favorite animal characterswith the exception of the pink hero and a cameo by Ferdinand the duckand films the whole thing like Lady and the Tramp: Terror in Dark City. Whatever made him think that what Babe needed to further its legacy of kiddie enchantment was a darker tone, a heavy dose of artiness, and horrific violence is a mystery.
Pig in the City picks up where Babe left off: Babe (voice of E.G. Daily) has just become a celebrated sheep-pig. No sooner does he accept Farmer Hoggett’s laconic gratitude than he begins his campaign of terror, landing the farmer (James Cromwell) in traction after a well accident. Government men threaten to repossess the farm, so Esme Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) determines to take the pig to a fair and win enough money to save the farm.
At this point, the magic dissipates: Babe and Mrs. Hoggett get stuck in an airport, thanks to the overzealous attentions of a drug-sniffing dog, and end up in a strange, animal-friendly hotel in Metropolis City. Miller’s vision is a twisted Disneyland, futuristic and fantastical, totally inappropriate to the story. Babe meets a cavalcade of city beasts: a group of performing monkeys, tough dogsincluding one confined to a doggie wheelchairand various homeless, hungry, and otherwise disenfranchised animals. (The scenario has no patience for cats, who are stuck in one hotel room animatronically practicing choral numbers.)
The lows in Pig in the City are very low; the highs, perfunctory. Bad things begin to happen to a good pig in astonishing succession: a horrible fire in a children’s hospital ward (Babe-induced); a nasty, confusing sequence during which a pit bull hangs by the neck for far too long to live, only to drop a few inches and hang off a bridge with his unmoving head submerged in water before Babe saves him by banging a barge against the dog’s head hard enough to smack him into the boat. The whole thing climaxes with an animal-welfare rout that’s like something out of The Diary of Anne Frank, dragged out and exploited for maximum pathos and violence. Not only is a goldfish cruelly dewatered, but the sequence ends with the handicapped pup flung from a moving vehicle, his bent wheel spinning in the rain. (We’re told that no animals were hurt in the filming of this movie, but no one claims they weren’t scared scatless.)
The script doesn’t hang together or add up, the humans disappear for the long middle stretch, and even the slapstick scenes are unpleasant. There is something surreal about the bizarre, trashy city with its fairy-tale inhabitants, the permanent night sky, and an elegant gala with its tableful of precarious Carême desserts. Miller directs everything he touches as if it were a horror movie; the set design does not suit Babe’s purposes. Did I mention that the pig is distracted by his duties as reluctant dictator of the animal communitya dictatorship enforced by the grateful pit bull thug? Pig in the City is some kind of achievement, for sure, but kids who want to see their pink fluffy friend save the day may reel out of the theater wondering what the hell they’ve just witnessed.
The existence of Ringmaster can only be explained by the assumption that the success of Howard Stern’s Private Parts was not lost on Jerry Springer. In this fictionalized justification for his controversial career, the TV-talk-show host takes a different stance from Stern’s: Whereas Stern burnished his humanity into near-saintliness and claimed credit for re-inventing radio in his image, Springer plays the numb nonparticipant, standing by, clamlike, while Americacollective and individualparades its worst instincts before him. Trampy women scheduled to appear on the show vie to seduce him, strangers flash their tits or confess revolting secrets, and the untrained actor Springer blinks behind his glasses when various shills lob him softballs”Does it ever bother you, the hostile things people say about you and the people on the show?” asks some broad, apropos of post-sex chitchat.
The Jerry Springer Show’s success and the discomfort it engenders are inextricably linked. For the most part, the show’s participants are Them: poor and undereducated, their lives rife with lurid troubles they are unequipped to articulate. The hand-wringing press objects to the guests’ exploitation, which it paints as Springer’s crime, but in fact, it’s the viewers who are titillated (and appalled) by the open display of violence and ignorance, no matter how manufactured. The Jerry Springer Show confirms white-collar liberals’ notions of black folk and poor whites, and secures the distance between them. Given no other access to mainstream representation, the American underclass accepts this exploitative venue. As discomfiting as Springer’s version may be to the decorous elite, it beats total powerlessnessthat is, absence from the cultural scene.
When the elites fret over the ugly daily carnival, it’s paternalism at its most insidiousthey want to save the underclass from itself but can’t help feeling relieved that, in the meantime, it appears to be harmlessly lunkheaded and inarticulate. Ringmaster works hard to enforce this distance. It tracks two sets of guests on their journey to the show, one an incestuous family of white trailer trash and the other a trio of lippy black girls and a hunky horndog, Demond (Spawn’s Michael Jai White).
The movie pretends to address the question “Why would people air their dirty laundry on national television?” and answers it with “Because they’re stupid and pathetic and have no dreams beyond a free ticket to L.A.” Angel (Jaime Pressly) is a mouth-breathing teenage Daisy Mae who blows anyone who asks in the motel where she works as a maid; she’s also doing her stepfathera betrayal her mother Connie (Molly Hagan) responds to by having sex with Angel’s fiancé. On the other side of the tracks, fast-talking Starletta (Wendy Raquel Robinson) has had enough of Demond’s infidelity, so she inveigles two friends into talking trash about him on Jerry “Farrelly”‘s The Jerry Show. Ringmaster presents such decisions as something women undertake; men are just put-upon morons from Mars at the mercy of the endless need for discussion that is the hallmark of every Venusian.
Ringmaster is low-budget as well as lowbrow, its grainy shoddiness adding a certain queasy vérité to its depiction of ignorant peckerwood whores and sassy, booty-shaking black girls who vow that they’re not going to “be ghetto” on national TV. Even the film’s example of Jerry’s show is a docu-fraud, showing an episode destined for the Too Hot for TV mail-order videos, not syndication. It’s not an exposé, but a confirmation: The stupid, the perverted, the obese, the violent, and the poor exist, but they’re safely concentrated in Jerry’s world.CP