Tickled is a documentary about power when one is the ‘tickler.’ Tickled is a documentary about the sudden whiplash from silly to terror when one is the ‘ticklee.’ Tickled is David Farrier’s investigative reporting magnum opus, a deeply engaging ride-along that is darn near impossible to properly review without spoilers. In fact that last sentence, and the two preceding it are probably spoilers to those sensitive about such things.
We will proceed with caution, but if you wish to go into Tickled as clean as possible (at this point), read on at your own risk, I will attempt to tread lightly.
When I was 15 years old, I worked at the local movie theatre. One of my coworkers, who wasn’t Jewish, decided he wanted to tell me a joke about Jews. Against my better judgment, I told him to go ahead. “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?” he asked. I cringed, worried about the answer. “What?” I asked. “The pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven!” He laughed to himself for a solid minute, eventually stopping when I didn’t join in. He didn’t realize I was Jewish, for starters. Nor was he aware that my maternal grandfather had survived a Siberian work camp, having escaped the Nazis that killed his parents and sister: my great grandparents and great aunt. I snapped at him, declaring not only how unfunny the joke was, but also how stupid and insensitive it was to make a joke about the Holocaust. He felt immediate remorse, but still didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to make the joke.
In some ways, this dichotomy, the issue of censorship and a complicated right to jest, is at the heart of The Last Laugh, a documentary that explores humour and the Holocaust. Interviewing entertainers like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob and Carl Reiner, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and Harry Shearer, director Ferne Pearlstein explores the nature of humour and propriety.
The only thing that separates the The Producers (1967, 2005) from History of the World: Part I (1981), argues Brooks, is time. We have enough chronological distance from the Spanish Inquisition, Brooks suggests, that no one batted an eye at his outstanding musical number. However, when The Producers was released, both its original incarnation and its later Broadway rendition, some Jews were morbidly offended at his audacity. The suggestion is made throughout The Last Laugh, by Brooks and others of his generation, that to mock the Holocaust itself is verboten, but to mock the Nazis was empowering, and still is. Portrayals like that in “Springtime for Hitler”, or Charlie Chaplin’s depiction in The Great Dictator, aim to remove their authority, and therefore their power, through humour and mockery. For this generation, and those surviving the Holocaust, to laugh was to disarm.
In speaking to Holocaust survivors, including entertainer Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heros), we come to understand the integral nature of humour in the ghettos, and the death camps. Survivor Renee Firestone recalls laughing to herself when receiving a full physical exam from Dr. Mengele himself, knowing full well that most of the Jews being examined were about to be gassed. The redundancy of the exam gave her, and others, enough of a giggle to help survive.
Pearlstein brings to the forefront the question of why laugh? How could you find humour in such horror? The answer, resoundingly from survivors, is that without laughter, they would never have survived during or after the Holocaust. The Nazis couldn’t understand finding humour in anything that was happening, so their control was usurped through Jewish laughter.
But in answering the complicated questions of how one could laugh in the face of such turmoil, more questions are unearthed. Who has the right to laugh at such things, and who has the right to joke? Do you jest about the Holocaust, or is it only allowed to make fun of the Nazis? How far is too far? And are only Jews allowed to investigate the murky waters of humour and this particular strife? Are younger generations of comedians incapable of truly grasping the weight of the Holocaust now that older generations of survivors are dying? It evokes issues of censorship that are unavoidable.
In many ways, The Last Laugh raises more questions than it answers. However, it encourages its audience to be thoughtful in their laughter, to ruminate on why they laugh, and what is appropriate to laugh at. To laugh at screaming Jews in an oven, for instance, is grossly insensitive. However, there is humour to be found in Dr. Mengele telling you that, should you survive this, you should have your tonsils removed. They’re rather large.
The Last Laugh has its International Premiere on Sunday, May 1st at 1:15pm at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with two more screenings on Monday, May 2nd at 9:00pm, and Saturday, May 7th at 10:30am.
In Aslaug Holm’s gorgeously shot documentary on her own children – make no mistake, this is no home movie, but a rigorous 16mm film production by a veteran filmmaker – a recurring image is laundry hanging out on the line on the breezy Norwegian coast. In a sense Holm is airing her laundry figuratively as well, in Brothers, a decade long project capturing her two boys, Lukas and Markus, from ages 5 and 8 all the way into their teenage years.
The sparse images, photographs and film, Holm possesses of herself as a child, and even less media her own parents and extended family, led the urge preserve her offspring on film in a way that captures the hopes and dreams of children when their future remains completely ahead of them. The document she herself never had. She is not shy of bringing herself into the film, insofar as a reminder of the strings and mirrors of doing this sort of activity amongst the bustle of family life. As any good scientist knows, to observe an experiment is to affect the results in some capacity, and Holm and her camera factor into the frame honestly.
Markus loves soccer, and there are many shots of him practicing on a dirt pitch with his father and younger brother. Lukas has a more love-hate-love relationship with sports in general that is summed up with another recurring shot, that of the boys on the edge of a dock-house daring to jump into the water (as metaphors go, it’s powerfully obvious in that it is both obvious and powerful) at various ages.
“Feminism wasn’t about burning your bra and not shaving your legs. Feminism was shaving your legs and working in a bar as a sex object, but knowing that you were. […] And not selling your pussy and your soul for a wedding ring.”
Burlesque is a profession shrouded in public scrutiny. Callously written off as little more than strippers, selling their bodies, the women who’ve performed this art of seduction have often been shamed for their less-than-conventional career choice. Arguments are made that these women mark a regression for Feminism. That they behave unladylike, crass, twisted, and vile. In actual fact, these women embody one of the fundamental rules of Feminism; it’s all about choice. Alongside equality with men, a woman’s right to control her life, and her body, is solely her own.
Hot Docs is here once again for those of us living in Toronto! Making its world premiere at the documentary festival is Jay Cheel’s How To Build A Time Machine, the latest film from a good friend of Rowthree (and occasional guest on the Cinecast). To this end, the long-in-production film gets a shiny new poster for its debut. A sheet that makes excellent use of negative white-space to imply the classroom of physicist Ronald Mallett (who keeps a tiny photo of Einstein near his chalkboard) one of two principal subjects of the film. Looming above is the both the cosmos, and the original prop from George Pal’s The Time Machine, with the lever about to be pulled, I assume by Rob Noisi, the other main character who has been building a replica of the famous victorian contraption for many years. The tagline on the poster, located in the space in between, correctly asks, “Where you would go?” As in ‘what route?’ Would it be through unimaginably difficult science in tiny increments (note the box on the chalkboard), or would it be through imagination and craft and the memory of cinema?
If you are in Toronto next week, How To Build A Time Machine plays on these dates during the festival: Monday, May 2, Isabel Bader Theatre
Tuesday, May 3, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, May 7, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Welcome to Friday! Your last day at the office. What can you do to avoid as much work as possible and still make the time go faster? How about put this puzzle together. Each Friday RowThree will have a themed puzzle to coincide with the weekend’s cinematic release.
Use your mouse to move the pieces (scroll wheel or arrow keys to rotate) and create the image you see below. Then discuss. Please note that the bottom third of the play space should be blank for placing loose pieces.
GET HYPE! This week it’s just Bryan, Ryan, and Jon and perhaps the biggest event in Marvel History! They’re shaking up the podcast formula a bit to talk the original “Civil War” event, and then hype both the upcoming movie and the sequel comic series! And they ask perhaps the most important question in all of podcast history: whose side are you on?
It’s that time of year where Documania runs wild in Toronto for the city’s second highest profile festival, one I myself have come to prefer every year. The selections for Hot Docs 2016 are stacked and wonderfully curated. If you pick a bad one, it’s probably on you. While the selections below are reviewed based on screeners, I highly encourage who can to get out and see these in the cinema. It’s so rare to see a documentary with a packed crowd, and the Q&A’s that happen during Hot Docs are so much more special than the ones you see at TIFF by nature of centering around real stories and real characters rather than the cloud of celebrity. You never know what to expect.
MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE
(dir: John Dower, 100 minutes) Tickets
After a decade of videos from Wise Beard Men, numerous expose books, countless articles, and most recently, the dense info dump of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, you’d think we’d had enough Scientology documentaries. And maybe so. But along comes John Dowler and well known UK presenter Louis Theroux to pull an Act of Killing by hiring actors, who with the help of former Scientologist Marty Rathburn, recreate bizarre and violent events from David Miscavige and others that he had witnessed during his decades as a high ranking church official. MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE is far less concerned with the usual informative points of interest regarding Xenu and obsession with celebrities than it is fascinated with the justifications in behavior made by past and present members of their secretive organization. What results is a lot of cameras directed at other cameras, paranoia, intimidation, and cheeky provocation. This documentary is in no way a great starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but for those of us who thought we’d seen and heard everything, this fresh angle is for you.
TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU
(dir: Joe Berlinger, 115 minutes) Tickets
Speaking of cults, Tony Robbins and his self-help seminars have themselves often been thought of as such, and similarly have been behind closed doors as well as very expensive. From Joe Berlinger of PARADISE LOST / METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER fame comes this unprecedented look at Robbins’ Date With Destiny series, and if there’s a twist to be found, it’s that Tony Robbins comes out of this looking really really good, to the extent that some have accused I AM NOT YOUR GURU of being an informercial. While the film generally takes Robbins at his word and some subtle touches (fonts, establishing shots) might give off a brochure esthetic, these criticisms fall on deaf ears when Berlinger lets the confrontations take center stage, where attendees are pushed to their emotional breaking points by the charismatic, foul-mouthed, no-bullshit-taking Robbins. Robbins operates as a Gordon Ramsay for your life, and Berlinger’s concert film/cinema verite approach allows the viewer to walk away deciding for themselves if this is a good thing. Robbins is appearing at Hot Docs which makes this an especially hot ticket, but you can catch this when it comes to Netflix on July 15th.
LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD
(dir: Werner Herzog, 98 minutes) Tickets
I have to wonder if I could have accepted a film like this from anyone other than Werner Herzog. LO AND BEHOLD is a meandering series of anecdotes about the wired age that almost feels like a proof of concept for a Cosmos-type TV series. Which is to say, it’s entertaining and Herzog’s trademark calm, collected nature makes it feel like a stream of consciousness. From the unbreakable box that represents the invention of the Internet to the solar flares that will destroy us all to all of the harassment in between, Herzog’s fascinations and questions make this a very personal look at the increasingly impersonal. A favorite segment finds Werner visiting with those suffering from the very real EHS that fans of Better Call Saul will recognize, literally having gone off the grid, paying a personal price for our need to Google the name of that one guy who was in that thing. Admittedly, LO AND BEHOLD does feel like it could end at any moment, and there is an opportunity for a stronger final thought that isn’t there, but 98 minutes with Herzog is always worth your time.
CREDIT FOR MURDER
(dir: Vladi Antonevicz, 87 minutes) Tickets
If there is one documentary I have been pushing people to see, it is this film from Israeli director Vladi Antonevicz, a jaw-dropping, cinematic undercover procedural adventure which finds him posing as a white supremacist in Russia to solve the horrific murder of two immigrant men which had been posted to Youtube and ultimately became an infamous viral video. CREDIT FOR MURDER draws you in with the sordid allure of your first convincing conspiracy video and never lets up. The intricate detective work, superb presentation of event timelines, and mind-boggling admissions from far right nationalists are astounding. These Neo-Nazi antagonists fear nothing and if anything are trying to impress the viewer with how hateful they are. They are too trusting of the man with the camera, and too secure that there will be no reckoning for their actions, which makes for great viewing. This is provocative, detailed, vital documentary filmmaking and will almost certainly be in my year end top 10.
(dir: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, 92 minutes) Tickets
The less said about TICKLED is to your benefit, and the filmmakers would prefer it stay that way. All you need to know is that co-director and journalist David Farrier found a video online for something called “competitive endurance tickling”. Huh. Considering that we have pillow fight and ax throwing leagues, it was not absurd to want to make a short quirky news story about this oddball sport. But it became clear very quickly that the people behind this “sport” did not appreciate the publicity, opening the door to an investigation that keeps paying off sinister revelations and mysterious puppeteers. TICKLED easily surpasses Catfish in the WTF is With People department, and will keep you guessing.
(dir: Morgan White, 90 minutes) Tickets
Just a bit over a year ago I finally laid eyes on THE REP, Morgan White’s excellent documentary about the rise and fall of the beloved and sadly out-of-business Toronto Underground Cinema. I went into this follow-up unsure if a focus tracing the cultural impact of a single piece of film memorabilia could sustain a feature length, and was more than pleasantly surprised to see that not only will THE SLIPPERS satisfy film lovers let alone Ozheads, but that White has significantly leveled up in his craftmanship in a short period. This is a slick, professional piece of work that indicates a passion for the subject matter that rivals that of his wealthy subjects. The story of the titular ruby slippers keeps going into unexpected places – conspiracy theories, capers, failed dreams, and deep envy. The lively talking heads, including a healthy dose of Debbie Reynolds, collectively reveal the rise of memorabilia collecting and how these props take on iconic and symbolic significance that transcend their original context into objects of inspiration, achievement, and how sad it can be to watch what happens when they fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t appreciate them.
HOW TO BUILD A TIME MACHINE
(dir: Jay Cheel, 82 minutes) Tickets
Like THE SLIPPERS, Jay Cheel’s first documentary feature since 2011’s terrific, hilarious BEAUTY DAY dials back the lunacy into a more contemplative but equally compelling place through two obsessed men and an iconic piece of film memorabilia – the HG Wells time machine. Animator Rob Niosi has been replicating the prop for years in extreme nitpicking detail. Rob Mallett became a theoretical physicist for tragic reasons. Cheel’s Errol Morris influences shine through even more so than his previous effort as he ties both stories together via the power of cinema as it’s own time machine, and milking emotion out of hobbies and fields of studies often thought of as cold and impersonal practices. If any film has convincingly proven that the journey is as important as the destination, it’s this one.
SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR
(dir: Deborah S. Esquenazi, 89 minutes) Tickets
The wave of interest in true crime stories laced with a dose of injustice is still in full swing, and another to add to your list is this film, which like PARADISE LOST before it, comes out of the last gasp of the Satanic Panic, and led to four Texan women subject to a homophobia-driven, literal witch hunt. This film, faced with the problem of not much footage from the time of the trial, forgoes suspense for an emotionally charged story about the exoneration process 15 years later, the difficult reintegration process, solidarity in clearing their name as one, and the regret and trauma of someone who had been manipulated into a false confession as an act of revenge.
*ANOTHER* cult documentary? Actually, HOLY HELL might be *THE* cult documentary. Director Will Allen spent 20 years within the Buddhafield, a hippie-ish cult, where he served as the official documentarian and too-close friend of Michel, a guru clad mostly in speedos, obsessed with his own appearance to levels that would make Liberace blush, and of course – dangerously drunk on power, spiritually and emotionally abusive. Michel is as creeptastic as they come, always staring through you, looking like a melted Martin Short even as he holds himself up as a paragon of beauty through the bizarre films and awful 80s-tastic music videos Will Allen created to glorify his master. This is an escape film, a revenge film, an ode to lost friends, and it has the most satisfying ending sequence(s) of anything I’ve seen from this year’s festival. And it may be coming to a theater near you sooner than later.
MAGICIANS: LIFE IN THE IMPOSSIBLE
(dir: Marcie Hume, Christoph Baaden, 85 minutes) Tickets
Of all things, MAGICIANS reminds of the Jerry Seinfeld COMEDIAN documentary, as well as the pro wrestling documentary BEYOND THE MAT. In all cases these are entertainers who face a stigma around their chosen profession, a struggle to attain a certain level of skill, and an even greater struggle to stand out among the field. And then there’s the unique hits to relationships, jealousy and finances that almost all performers face. Hume and Baaden’s film follows four extremely talented magicians in different stages of their careers, from a Tonight Show regular to a master of cards to the flashy Vegas showman who has to worry about bigger names stealing his act right when he’s finally on the edge of his big break. There’s something wonderful about watching people who are so very good at one specific thing weave their (wait for it) magic. Not being told how they do it just adds that extra level of intrigue, and finding out why these wonderful weirdos do it more than makes up for it.