Tickled – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by David Farrier, Dylan Reeve
Tickled is a compellingly outlandish documentary delving into the niche fetish of “competitive endurance tickling”, as investigated by New Zealand-based journalist and co-director David Farrier. Although the film is being sold as a “stranger than fiction” conversation piece, it ultimately reveals something quite different – the prosaic ugliness and cruelty that lies behind the apparently bizarre. The result is a film that is undeniably fascinating, and often amusing – but ultimately something of a downer, perhaps necessarily so.
The opening of the film restages the moment at which ‘fun news’ expert Farrier first discovered online tickling videos credited to “Jane O’Brien Media”. His initial inquiries are met with a torrent of homophobic email abuse from “Jane”, and are followed up by escalating legal threats – culminating in the arrival of three hilariously grotesque ‘legal’ emissaries who warn him, and collaborator Dylan Reeve, off further investigation. Naturally, they investigate further, eventually discovering the truth behind Jane O’Brien Media, and the network of exploitation and intimidation its originator has wrought out of an apparently innocuous desire to watch “exclusively heterosexual” young men tickle each other on camera.
Tickled is difficult to review without revealing its multiple twists – but one of the frustrations of the film is the way in which its effectiveness as a mystery depends upon one accepting a level of credulity on Farrier’s part that seems, in retrospect, something of a put-on. Farrier dominates the early and latter first-person set-pieces of the film, and he is clearly conversant in the Louis Theroux school of holy innocence. Unlike Theroux, however, Farrier does not always appear to be disingenuous for a higher purpose. The mid-section of the film – in which a number of interview subjects reveal painful information – doesn’t gain much from Farrier’s ‘golly-you-don’t-say’ technique. In fact, Farrier is closer to Nev Schulman of Catfish (2010), in that his ‘investigation’ is predicated on a degree of naivety that is simply hard to swallow given his background as a media professional. Unlike the highly spurious Catfish, however, Ticked at least has some of the receipts to back up its story – even if it repeatedly turns up deus ex machina moments that would never be accepted in a fiction film.
Tickled is ultimately most interesting on terms that are touched upon only obliquely by the filmmakers themselves – namely, as an exploration of gender and economic power. The “exclusively heterosexual” subjects of Jane O’Brien media’s films, as well as the company’s various strongmen – and, more incredibly, Farrier himself – are all remarkably willing to take the “Jane O’Brien” persona at face value, at least in gender terms. The exact way in which their suppositions are overturned will not be revealed here – but that very credulity speaks volumes about the illogical belief that gender barriers remain inviolable in an online environment that is, by definition, disembodied. Ultimately, the true “villain” of Ticked is revealed as a much less exotic bird than “Jane O’Brien”, with the effect that the escalating strangeness of the central mystery leads us to a cold realisation that every instinct a healthily sceptical person might have about “competitive endurance tickling” is, in fact, pretty accurate.
Over and above any individual actions, Tickled eventually becomes a story of how the haves misuse the have-nots, and how money can insulate the fortunate from the consequences of their exploitation of the economically marginalised. That’s probably not what anybody wants to confront when they click onto a funny video – or line up for an offbeat documentary – but it’s a truth that bears repeating. Tickled’s success, then, is indivisible from its deflation. It trades in novelty – but it’s telling the oldest story of all.
Categories: Header, Movie Review, Movies
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