From Rusty Spoons to Glass Brothers: ‘Salad Fingers’

❉ Who is this peculiar animated creature with limp lettuce fingers, obsessed with rusty spoons?

“While Firth has definitely said that a lot of his work is inspired by dreams and may not have a core meaning as such, the structure of “Salad Fingers” is in no way absolutely random.”

In the opening of the latest episode of Salad Fingers, the main character – a decrepit, skinny, noseless, green humanoid figure with long, limp fingers, probably male though apparently of fluid gender – lies on a charred, deserted plain chattering to his own reflection in a hand mirror like a delighted parrot. After flirting with himself suavely, he holds up a collection of finger puppets for his mirror image (or “glass brother”) to meet, only to find their appearance and conduct mostly wanting. From these unusual foundations, the flight of fantasy only gets stranger.

Not that this is anything new. For years now, a number of fans of David Firth’s Salad Fingers series have been debating what it all “means”. Sucked in initially by its pitch black humour, the creepy and disquieting use of childlike imagery and whimsy, and the glorious love of archaic language, many viewers end up looking for a locked-down “meaning” amidst the apparent chaos. The arrival of the eleventh episode seems to provide few new clues.

When the first episode emerged in 2004 as an amateur animation on the video-sharing website Newgrounds, it was greeted with a combination of disgust and bafflement by the few hundred people who initially watched it. Quickly written and created, it was inspired by Firth’s friend Christian Webb commenting that he had “salad fingers” while playing the guitar. Firth was sufficiently inspired by this image to create a peculiar animated humanoid creature with limp lettuce fingers who was obsessed with rusty spoons. (The latter detail seemed to pop into his head as a random thought and bore little relation to Webb’s observation).

By the standards of the rest of the series – and arguably by the standards of animation in general – the first episode isn’t terribly good. It’s clearly rushed, and relies solely on the shock of its absurdity to have any kind of impact. At the time it went quietly public, though, such oddness wasn’t entirely without precedent. Flash animators were becoming big news online, and the leaders of the pack rapidly became those who engaged in quick-fire surrealism or random whimsy rather than relying on standard narratives and quickie punchlines.

One of the most-watched videos of this period is Jonti Picking’s “Badger Badger Badger” which consists of nothing more than a group of badgers jumping on the spot, interspersed with appearances from mushrooms and a snake, while Picking provides rhythmic backing music and (for even more unclear reasons) describes the visuals with a singing voice akin to David Byrne’s.

For a brief period in the mid-noughties, such snappy animated snatches of absurdity shorn of any explanation or context were, if not the topic on everyone’s lips, then certainly greatly appreciated among the Internet’s younger demographic. However, while episode one of “Salad Fingers” was just as off-the-wall as Picking’s badgers or “Magical Trevor” cartoons, it did one thing most flash animators shied away from – slowed the pace down to a deathly crawl.

Firth chose to soundtrack his work with Boards of Canada and voiced Salad Fingers in a feeble, ponderous style (he has since said this was partly based on his grandmother, who I’m sure must be flattered). If other animations of this period looked and sounded like the inside of an energetic toddler’s brain, Salad Fingers One feels like an outline sketch of a character from a Grimm fairy tale transplanted into a fever dream.

Surprisingly, Newgrounds ignored the initial criticism of the work, and chose to promote it on their homepage, much to Firth’s confusion. It quickly went viral and further episodes, “Friends”, “Nettles”, “Cage”, and “Picnic” rapidly followed, Firth clearly sensing that the character had legs – albeit skinny, unyielding ones with feet of lead seemingly attached. These episodes get gradually more sophisticated and openly comedic with endless quotable lines, and do a lot more to flesh out not just Salad Finger’s character, but the world in which he inhabits, which is shown to be a wintry, desolate, desperate place filled with derelict shacks and deformed humanoids who appear largely incapable of any normal communication.

The more detail that went into the landscape for the animation, the more complex and troubled its main character appeared, reacting against the unfortunate world Firth had thrown him in. This use of entrapment as a comedic device is on a far grander and ghastlier scale than either Steptoe and Son or Porridge (with whom, obviously, “Salad Fingers” otherwise has very little in common.)

The more the series progresses, the harder it becomes to tell what Firth is presenting to us as Salad Finger’s lived reality, and how much of it is entirely in the character’s disturbed or over-imaginative mind. His endless chattering to finger puppets, corpses and even insects suggests a desperate and isolated mind akin to a less attractive Tom Hanks in “Castaway”.

By episode four, “Cage”, we’re treated to the disconcerting sight of a squinting, pop-eyed boy with a mangled and stitched head stalking Salad Fingers with overtures of romance, all of which are declared in snarls, gurgles, squeaks, and eventually a snare trap. It’s the first cartoon which begins to seriously spotlight loneliness as one of Salad Finger’s dominant themes.

Episode eight, “Cupboard”, also seems to hint at this, and marks a serious jump in detail and quality the series has continued to maintain. We witness Salad Fingers’ apparent struggles with a radio (“Roger”) which cannot obtain a clear signal. In reality, the radio is shown to be battered with half of its casing smashed off, and almost certainly beyond use. The hisses and crackling appear to be merely the main character’s delusions, and the voices that finally do emerge from the radio – insisting that he needs to ‘clean up’ – certainly are. The use of dialogue in this episode is archaic, hilarious, understated and beautifully delivered (“Have I happened upon an unpleasant broadcast?”, “Roger, I shan’t have you bellowing such unpleasant frequencies at this hour”) and marks the series development from being a well-crafted internet curio into a brilliant piece of artistic work with a clear love of both detailed animation and language. From there through to episodes nine to eleven, the quality of the work and attention to detail leaps.

The prominent debate under the YouTube comments line of most Salad Fingers episodes is surprisingly detailed and sensibly focused on the series. There’s a refreshing absence of political chatter or trolling, but arguments do occur about what it is Firth is trying to communicate, and through these the knowing and gruff retort of “Haven’t you heard? He’s said it means nothing!” is seldom far away from any undesignated online debate bouncer.

While Firth has definitely said that a lot of his work is inspired by dreams and may not have a core meaning as such, the structure of “Salad Fingers” is in no way absolutely random. Firth’s experiments with ‘pure’ stream-of-consciousness surrealism such as Ptikobj show that when his thoughts are at their most uncontrolled, the work is amusing in places but often frustrates the viewer with its hesitant pace and aimlessness. On the other hand, the world of “Salad Fingers” has its own pace, symmetry and logic which the main character has no choice but to rationalise and react to; you could perhaps regard the first three episodes as in-progress “draft” work before the world and its character slowly became more concrete.

Among the many discussions, a dominant opinion has begun to develop that Salad Fingers is the victim of a large apocalyptic event, probably nuclear, leaving him stranded in a ruined landscape surrounded by mutated, ruined humans like himself. What we are watching is therefore in part his own delusional activity, and equally the depressing reality of the war’s aftermath.

For those who feel more at ease when their surrealism has some kind of solid premise underpinning it all, this is a fair (if disappointingly cliched) way of viewing the series without being bothered by too many practical questions. While Firth has said he accepts some aspects of these interpretations are possible, he has also stated that the central theme is just loneliness.

Perhaps this is the key to our fascination with it. Salad Fingers moves and talks like a geriatric human. Despite this, his thought-processes and flights of fantasy are endearingly elastic and child-like. The Alice In Wonderland styled rabbithole Salad Fingers is in, though, is wintery and moribund, an unforgiving twilight world. The chaos is often just as tricksy and playful as Alice, but distinctly non-jovial and occasionally outright disgusting. He chatters away in the manner of a character living between the two World Wars, not understood by the voiceless malforms around him, and being openly terrified of any genuine, unimagined attempts they make to communicate in return.

There are numerous reasons the character is repellant – his filthy living conditions, decaying teeth and bizarre sensual perversions not being the least of them – but a tiny bit of his initial creepiness seems to stem from his seclusion. Could it perhaps be that he reminds us too much of a socially isolated fate that’s possibly awaiting us in old age with declined physical or mental health, however intelligent, unique or entertaining we all individually are? (It’s probably coincidental, but there are some fascinating parallels between the nightmare of Firth’s world and that of David Bowie’s macabre concept album “1. Outside”, not least the “Algeria Touchshriek” character).

Or perhaps it really does mean nothing, in which case the only option left is to ask a final, perfectly sensible question: If this is just a bad dream, why are millions of people choosing to have it? Why, across different continents, are people viewing meaningless videos of a deluded, mutated green figure failing to interact with a ruined world? Is it really just because, as Firth has jokingly claimed, he was lucky enough to accidentally create a character that appealed to teenage goths, or has he  accidentally tapped into some of our deepest modern neuroses and uncertainties about our own futures, as well as having a brilliant gift for comic dialogue?

Whatever the reasons, Salad Fingers is, in one respect, a beacon of hope. From its scrappy beginnings on a public access internet forum, it grew – an idea initially so absurd and threadbare  that no television station would have touched it, allowed to find its feet thanks to a supportive online audience. It’s proof that outside of the bickering and unpleasant clutter of social media arguments, the Internet still offers enormous opportunities for creative innovation. I look forward to both the next episode and watching the heirs to Firth’s throne develop.

David Bryant is a writer and poet, and the blogger behind Left and to the Back which explores the dusty world of under-discussed flop vinyl records. Articles of his have occasionally appeared in the culture section of “The Morning Star”. He was born in Ilford and remains there to this day, though the branch of Woolworths with its remainder rack filled with copies of “Out On The Floor” has long since gone.

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