Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

I’ve walked your dreams: Two decades on, Salad Fingers can still shock us

For almost two decades, David Firth has been delighting and disgusting viewers in equal measure. His artistic style has evolved to create strange and intricate dreamscapes, operating according to their own set of rules, but it is his most minimalistic creation, Salad Fingers, who still seems to capture the audience’s imagination best.

I’ve written about the animation boom of the early 2000s before. The advent of online video presented developing animators with opportunities to build an audience with quick (and often dirty) short films, feature style and substance that would never make it out of a major studio. Sites like Newgrounds and YouTube catapulted creators like OneyNG, Harry Partridge and Doncaster’s finest, David Firth, into public notoriety, accruing millions of views on acerbic, gruesome content.

With the privatisation of the digital commons, though, animated films which once were able – for better or worse – to instantly accrue large viewership have increasingly been pushed away from its top-table. The potent blend of other-worldly characters, visceral special effects, and abrasive or vulgar humour which made many names in the boom of early YouTube swiftly fell out of favour with the site’s advertisers – and censorship and demonetisation has increasingly starved many animators off the platform.

As boom turned to bust, some creators moved into traditional media production. Examples include Zach Hadel and Michael Cusack who created the marvellously crass corporate wellness spoof Smiling Friends for Adult Swim, while Becky Sloan and Joe Pelling re-developed Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’s horrific brand of visual bubble-gum for a Channel 4 run. But while David Firth has produced some material in this regard – including some shorts for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe which apparently startled the BBC slightly, appearing as Shrimp in Smiling Friends, and contributing an animated segment to Justin Roiland’s The Paloni Show! Halloween Special on Hulu (pre-allegations) – he is still primarily putting out fresh content digitally.

It’s difficult to understand exactly why that is. Firth’s body of work produced on a shoestring budget, and with the support of crowdfunding, is utterly stunning. You would think that producers would be beating down the door to have him work on film or television properties. But perhaps the problem lies in just how much say he is willing to compromise on his work for the sake of taste.

Thematically, Firth’s films do not shy away from horrendously dark topics. Not in a way which feels like the typical internet edgelord (there are plenty of those elsewhere on Newgrounds, and who are satirised by Firth’s Jerry Jackson series), determined to shock and offend people aimlessly for the sake of cheap clicks. Rather, in a Chris Morris kind of a way, drawing out absurd strands of real public discourse surrounding everything from moral panics around sex-offenders (multiple episodes of Burnt Face Man), to commercial pharmaceuticals (Cream) and the surveillance state (Spoilsbury Toast Boy).

Visually, meanwhile, Firth is unapologetically ghoulish. Over the years, a purposefully immature style of 2D animation has given way to upsettingly fleshy, breathing dystopias. Often this sees him use photograph augmentation and collage techniques to produce a deliberate uncanny valley, where we know what we are seeing is not real, but looks much to realistic for us to be comfortable. Wet, flapping faces peel away from skulls; an eyeless cow begins to munch on steaming offal during a long car journey; a ‘dog’ stapled together from assorted carcasses hobbles past to sing over the closing credits.

It’s a daring aesthetic which I think there are a lot of merits in – showing the terror of life is as worthy and important an artistic endeavour as displaying its beauty. There’s something of Pickman’s Model to Firth’s work; no matter how hideous and monstrous the paintings become, they are impossible to prize your eyes or mind away from.

If that all sounds nightmarish, well, it is. Firth says that he takes “inspiration from the unpredictability of dreams“, something which makes producing his films even more difficult because of the painstaking lack of spontaneity in making animation. Fortunately, he has clearly found a slow, steady mode of working which can still surprise viewers, at the very least.

And while his creations have sprawled in so many different directions, that is still most evident in Salad Fingers – Firth’s most faithful character. As the nights draw in, Firth has released Mr Fingers’ 13th outing, Harvest, having debuted him in the distant summer of 2004. You might think that we have seen everything in the desolate landscape in which the series takes place – but the ever-evolving styles and skills of his creator mean that poor Salad Fingers is still being exposed to fresh horrors, even now.

The crudely drawn figure of Salad Fingers and the finger-puppets which often serve as his only companions may be visually unnerving in their own right. But Firth’s voice-work for the character – a withered, high-pitched croak – running through an endearingly antiquated dialect are disarmingly charming. Add to this Salad Fingers’ creaking, slow gait and hunched back and he comes across as a wittering old woman, who got lost on the way to the shops. In this status, you genuinely end up fearing for a character who is still overtly disturbing – worrying what Firth is about to put him through next.

This makes some of the extensions of his world all the more disquieting in Harvest, as it is asserted his shack is based atop some kind of mass grave, placed there at the whim of a mad god who forbids Mr Fingers’ exit. Even death seems not to be a release for our long-suffering protagonist(?), who it now appears reproduces asexually, dooming him to live out the same hideous fate seasonally.

But what might just play on my mind for even longer than all of that, is the way the film’s dialogue flirts with breaking the fourth wall. When the next generation of Salad Fingers explains how he will know what to do when the elder is gone, it feels like Firth is speaking to us, to the people whose own appetite for the dark and depraved worlds he has made a living out of catering to.  

“Use the Moon’s reason as your wisdom. I’ve walked your dreams for decades. I’ve observed you.”

This could be seen as Firth informing us that we are part of this process. That he knows what to do now – to put his characters through repeated hell – because he has developed an understanding of our own psyches, our desires for carnage, and our behaviour around his most upsetting works. For all the intricate misery and comedic gore of Firth’s filmography, then, the eternally cartoonish world of Salad Fingers still manages to be his most uniquely discomforting.

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