I Was a Serial Puppet Killer or Dennis Cooper's "Jerk" Splinters onto the Big Screen


Jerk clearly is in the running for the most disturbing feature presented at the recent Los Angeles-based Film Maudit 2.0, one of the more important alternative arts festivals in the country. (It ended February 12th.)

For the context of this verdict, imagine you saw some of the fest's other offerings such as the visually brilliant, ten-years-in-the-making Agatha, which warns you not to fatally run down a witch's daughter, or Jack James' Wild Bones, an ode to adult madness caused either by an incestuous dancing mom or a cigarette-smoking dad. Then you'd immediately know how discombobulating Jerk is.

I won't even mention Maudit 2.0's programming of shorts where an alien Santa pees on stoned-out gents; a closeted homosexual of Asian descent serial-kills other gays of Asian descent and keeps their bodies for company; or the one where a telepathic metal warehouse makes fun of a young man who once smelled bad in school and was known as "Big Dump."

You may correctly gather from this review's title that Jerk costars puppets as you have seldom seen them manhandled before. Fans of Pinocchio beware!

Giséle Vienne's uninhibited French adaptation of Dennis Cooper's own short story and play is based on the "actual abduction, rape, torture, and murder of at least 28 boys and young men in between 1970 and 1973 in Houston, Texas." Yes, the real-life killers, Dean Corll and his two teenage aides, have very detailed entries on Wikipedia.

One of the two accomplices was David Brooks (1955–2020), who here is performed by the blue-eyed and unshaven Jonathan Capdevielle. In an amazingly controlled yet borderline unhinged take, his Brooks, while in prison, walks onto a dark stage, sits on a wooden chair, and starts reenacting the murders with the aforementioned puppets.

His zippered hoodie, by the way, is imprinted with J-E-R-K. His audience: an unseen but occasionally heard group of visiting students from the University of Texas. Why are they there? For their undergraduate course, "Freudian Psychology Refracted through Post-Modern Examples."

Decidedly, Jerk's both a satire of sorts on academia and a tongue-in-cheek-and-elsewhere look at the full-scale acceptance today of sexual violence that’s now slithered into our living rooms and onto our campuses (e.g. Netflix's Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story).

The characters of Cooper's oeuvre, inspired by his exposure to Rimbaud and the Marquis de Sade from age 15 on, are often in need of knife sharpeners. If you are a teen boy in his stories, you are lucky to die with your body still intact.

Or in his Safe (1984), there is a tale of a quietly buried queer founder of a town whose dug-up corpse years later is discovered to be nourishing the roots of an apple tree. The "fruit was renowned for its sweet flavor . . . . Townsfolk were eating the flesh of their forefather each time they bit in those crisp red apples." Whole Foods doesn't carry this variety. I know. I asked.


Macintoshes aside, Mr. Cooper, a delight in person, also has very fine table manners and is conversationally gifted. We once lunched decades ago. I was interviewing him for a Rosa-von- Praunheim documentary that never saw the light of day. I also, in the late 1970s, carried a gigantic cardboard photo of Mr. Cooper, supplied by his publisher, as part of the gay writers' contingent of the Gay Pride March.

Maybe this is why I usually find humor in his embracing of the Grand Guignol of life even as I more than once have to take a break from his visions to recoup my soul. His creations, often numb, are unable to connect with others whom they see as also emotionally anesthetized. "If I can't feel your love, let me feel your guts," they seem to say.

Take this exchange from "Jerk," which was reprinted in the 2009 collection of Cooper stories, Ugly Man. Here a teen recruits himself for his own slaughter.

"Are you gay?" asks Wayne, vaguely attracted to the guy.

"It doesn’t matter," Brad folds his arms defensively. "Sex is stupid."

"Why do you want to die?" asks David.

"Well, why not, right?" Brad laughs. "That's one thing. Life is too confusing. And death just sounds like a great place. The worst that could happen is nothing . . . like, just becoming nothing, which sounds okay to me. But if certain people are right, it could really be out there. Demons and shit! Retribution to the living! I'm ready."

Without any forethought, I plunged into Ugly Man this past summer just because it was on my shelf and had been for 13 years. I also liked the cover (a medium-sized pickle), and I wanted a quick read for the subway. I didn't know I would encounter the filmic transformation of "Jerk" within months. I was clearly taken aback last week when the story started unspooling before my eyes and I realized “I know this.”

A half-hour into Jerk, the movie, a blond killer-puppet version of David's lover, Elmer Wayne Henley, is crying over two bloody puppets, one of whom he had previously known from high school: "Jamie . . . Jamie . . . I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry I killed you. . . Jamie, I guess I just thought, you know, it would be sexy like always . . . seeing Dean kill you. And helping him. And Jamie, it was. It was sexy . . . But I'm sorry, you know? Jamie, I loved you, man . . . I could never tell you."

The camera slowly drifts away from the wooden threesome and moves up the arm animating the action. The puppeteer's face fills the screen. David is shaking his head. Is he still upset over this remembrance of the killings or is he more upset that his boyfriend just admitted he was in love with a young man who is now a corpse?

Does David feel betrayed? (It should be revealed that Mr. Brooks apparently was not physically involved in the killings. He just did some of the victim-luring, the filming of the slaughters, and the consigning to the grave of what remained of the youths.)

Without argument, one might honestly declare Jerk a rare, perfect fusion of text and its visualization . . . of brutality and its burlesque . . . of the absurd intertwined with an undeniable element of damnable verisimilitude. All of this reminds me of how Pauline Kael once noted of the film Broken Arrow (1950), a western starring James Stewart: "I've never heard of anybody--man or child--who didn't enjoy this movie. Not that it's film art." Vienne's offering will certainly not be greeted with such unanimous adoration, but then it is film art.

But I must admit I thought Jerk was a work of imagination when I first read the short story, and when I first watched the film. Then I researched the tale's underpinnings. This was all true as noted. Suddenly, I saw less of the humor, except maybe in that David Brooks died at age 65 from COVID-19. For him, that was probably a peacefully banal ending.

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