This year’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon seemed to have a modestly lackluster line-up*, but something really interesting happened during one of the premieres: the audience obviously and strongly turned against the movie.
The film in question is The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a mockumentary about a serial killer that has been making the rounds of film festivals for the last year. The concept is that the film is constructed of the hundreds of hours of tape that this killer shot of himself. I haven’t seen the film – I skipped it at this year’s Tribeca film festival – but I’m wary of the whole mockumentary thing. 2007 has been a year of people proving that it just doesn’t work, from George Romero to Brian DePalma.
Again, not having seen The Poughkeepsie Tapes, I can’t pass judgment on why the crowd – a crowd with whom I sat through the painfully bad Phantom of the Opera without a peep a couple of years ago when I attended a BNAT – turned on the movie so badly. Also, I was not there, so I’m relying on second hand reports, such as the one regular BNATer Alan Cerny posted on our message board, as well as word from people I’ve talked to over the last few days. My understanding, though, is that Drew McWeeny introduced the movie to the crowd as if it were a real documentary, and I think that could have been a decision that started the audience off on the wrong foot.
The whole ‘is this real or not?’ thing will rarely work. It worked – to an extent – with Blair Witch, but in general audiences are way too smart for that stunt. Your average moviegoer can tell five minutes in if something is really a documentary or not. It’s very hard for actors to capture that exact feeling of not acting, and with a low budget film like The Poughkeepsie Tapes, I’d say it would take a miracle to find an actor who could pull that off. And if your average moviegoer can see through the artifice, your BNAT crowd – what the marketing people call ‘alpha moviegoers,’ people who are completely in the know about films – will see through it and feel that their intelligence is being slighted.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes follows an even more specific version of the mockumentary template: the ‘last known video’ subgenre, pioneered by Cannibal Holocaust. Part of the whole point of the ‘last known video’ subgenre is reality, but the irony is that the almost unavoidable fakeness of these films remove the audience an extra step from reality. It’s easier to fall into the reality of a narrative fiction film than, by all accounts, DePalma’s Redacted, where the actors are apparently atrocious. Jeremy Smith might argue that this is the point, but I’m not sure I’m buying.
The screening at BNAT was not just bad, it was disastrous. Here’s the first person report from Alan Cerny: "The audience reaction was so bad that the Q & A was canceled. They said that they had to leave for a flight, and the word around the campfire is that MGM didn’t want them to do a Q & A because they want to keep the illusion that it’s a real documentary. It’s not, folks. I don’t feel too badly for the filmmakers because I had to sit through this horrible thing and I actively started rooting against their careers when they brought in the Girl Scouts. When the film ended, Tim League came out, waited a beat, and said, "Well, let’s move on!" Everyone laughed at that."
The filmmakers and actors have done Q&As in the past, so creating the illusion of reality certainly wasn’t why this session was canceled. It was canceled because the audience palpably hated the movie. Screening at BNAT is always a risk for the studios, since there’s no way to control the audience. These are people who frequent Aint It Cool News, a site built on anonymous test screening reviews, and the studios are showing movies that are embargoed (or just plain unavailable) for legitimate critics. So while a real writer can’t compose an opinion, a guy whose internet handle is based on The Last Starfighter is the person creating the buzz for your movie. The buzz on The Poughkeepsie Tapes, at least among the ‘alpha moviegoers,’ is now pure poison. The Poughkeepsie Tapes, as a niche genre film, is going to live and die on the opinions of the ‘alpha moviegoers’ – so this movie is now all but dead.
Don’t cry for the filmmakers just yet. The director, John Erick Dowdle, has been hired to do a remake of [REC], a Spanish mockumentary about a rabies outbreak in an apartment building. Of course it’s not great that this guy is doing ANOTHER mockumentary, but at least he’s working. And maybe I’m being premature in calling the time of The Poughkeepsie Tapes‘ death – Drew’s a damn smart guy with well-informed and hard to argue against taste, and if he likes the film, there may be something there. I’m certainly interested in reading his take on the screening and subsequent reaction.
If you were at Butt-Numb-A-Thon, or have seen The Poughkeepsie Tapes somewhere in the last year, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
*Although I am kicking myself that they showed Addio Zio Tom, a truly bizarre and fucked up Italian mockumentary about slavery. I was going to use that film to kick off my long-delayed Bad Taste series, where I defend movies that are disgusting and without class or redeeming value. Knowles beat me to it!