When I worked for a newspaper, a fluffy, smiley-faced, disposable kind of story designed to fill space was referred to as “a bright.” That’s what New Zealand TV journalist David Farrier was looking for when he ran across something called Competitive Endurance Tickling: a slew of online videos of young guys being shackled to beds and tickled by other guys. All of them were dressed. No sex was involved. But the whole thing felt, yeah, just a little porn-y.
When Farrier tried to get a handle on this otherwise unheard-of fetish/phenomenon, he never expected to tumble down the particular rabbit hole he did. That’s the premise of Tickled, which, like Catfish before it, reminds us that the online world is a very strange one indeed. And that you shouldn’t believe what people tell you in the anonymous thickets of the internet, starting with who and what they claim to be.
In pursuit of a quick, funny TV spot, Farrier reached out for more information on Competitive Endurance Tickling to Jane O’Brien Media, the designated U.S.-based sponsor of the phenomenon.
The reaction he got was the surprising, rude pushback that inadvertently launched this movie. “Association with a homosexual journalist is not something we would embrace,” the so-called Jane shot back in an email, showing that she’d done a little homework (Farrier is openly gay). “Jane” insisted that CET is an exclusively heterosexual institution.
“It was a strange response,” Farrier rightly says, since this alleged, man-on-man sport seems, well, more than a little gay . . .
Further emails arrive from O’Brien Media. A typical one calls Farrier “faggot.” These are followed by cease-and-desist orders. Then a trio of O’Brien reps fly from the States to New Zealand to threaten the journalist with lawsuits and more intimidation. When Farrier greets them with a colorful “Welcome” sign at Auckland International Airport, it’s a lovely, awkward sequence; these bullies aren’t thrilled at being ambushed on-camera.
To say much more about Tickled would be to rob it of its surprises, peculiarity and, ultimately, its sadness. Let’s just say that Farrier’s investigation leads from someone called Jane O’Brien to another person whose online name is Terri Tickle, aka Terri DiSisto, who trails a legal history of intimidation, identity theft and fraud. “Terri Tickle/DiSisto” is not where the story ends, though, not by a long shot.
Engrossing and weird, Tickled is an object lesson for people who want to stymie and threaten journalists from the obscurity of the internet. You really don’t want to make the mistake of trying to piss off a good reporter. He or she can call your bluff.
Also opening this week is writer-director Todd Solondz’s latest nihilistic black comedy, Wiener-Dog.
I know how arrogant this may sound, but as a former fan of Solondz’s (especially his misanthropic epic, Happiness), I feel like I’ve grown up and he hasn’t. At the very least, we’ve grown apart. As they say in relationships, “It’s not him, it’s me.”
No, I take that back. It’s definitely him.
Wiener-Dog is a string of sloppy scenes connected (barely) by the presence of the dachshund of the title as it drifts from one indifferent owner to the next. (Shades of Robert Bresson’s great Au Hasard Balthazar are intentional and unfortunate.)
First, the dog lands with helicopter parents Julie Delpy and playwright Tracy Letts, who bring her home for their ailing son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke). In implausible car conversations with Remi, Delpy initially avoids explaining what it means to spay a dog, but then starts talking about rape and venereal disease, and eventually euthanasia and cremation.
Things only get less believable when the dog’s ownership switches to actress Greta Gerwig, playing a vet’s assistant named Dawn Wiener. That’s a shout-out to the geeky character of the same name played by Heather Matarazzo as a kid in the movie that made us think Solondz had a bright future, 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. That was a long time ago.
Dawn travels with her childhood crush Brandon (now a heroin user played by Kieran Culkin) and deposits the dog with Brandon’s Down syndrome brother and his girlfriend, and . . . well, it just keeps going. Next comes Danny DeVito as a failed screenwriter and professor on the West Coast. The sequence allows for some now-familiar jokes about millennial entitlement in academia but not much else. Then comes Ellen Burstyn as a cranky old woman who names the dog Cancer and cares for it as little as she cares for any other mammal in her life.
It’s a little tiring just writing about this movie. Writer-director Solondz seems to think that a tracking shot of dog diarrhea or a view of fresh roadkill repeatedly run over is poetically upsetting. Maybe he hasn’t noticed how much more shocking the world around us has become since 1995.
Tickled. A documentary directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. Rated R for language. 92 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Wiener-Dog. With Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn. Written and directed by Todd Solondz. Rated R for language and some disturbing content. 90 minutes. At the Plaza Theatre.