an old story about Charlie Chaplin coming in third (or was it fourth?) in a
Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in
bringing it up for no reason to friends in bars and then watching them chuckle
as they try to figure out how, exactly, a trite anecdote about a long-deceased
mime relates to the basketball game we’ve been watching. To be honest
I’ve never actually given it that much thought. It’s obviously embedded
with some message about the over-saturation of celebrity, or the loss or
identity through notoriety, or the value of a good toothbrush mustache. But
it’s mostly just cute.
I was reminded of the Charlie Chaplin bit the other day when I was watching
Matthew Ogens’ Confessions of a Superhero, a recently DVD’ed doc that
follows four superhero look-alikes as they try to wrangle tips from tourists in
front of Mann’s Chinese Theater—or at least that’s what happens during the
film’s deeply engrossing first hour and change. Then the camera attaches itself
like an electromagnet to Christopher Dennis, the Superman of the group, as he
travels to the rural town of
for a festival in honor of their most famous son.
The film appraises nicely up to the point where Dennis enters the
festival’s grand finale superhero look-alike contest, but when he actually loses
the competition I began to wonder if Ogens had not in fact unexpectedly
struck gold. You see, if Dennis would have actually won first prize it would have been yet
another weird haha moment in a weird haha documentary about a weird haha
life. Instead, the scene is heartbreaking because Dennis is so wrapped up in the mythology of the character that we begin to suspect
that he’s started to draw a dangerous correlation between himself and the fantasy—that he’s crossed the line between fandom and worship. Just look at
his face when he doesn’t win even an honorable mention. He looks lost, a little
embarrassed, and, worst of all, powerless.
when I knew that Confessions was a perhaps more than just an interesting
second or third tier documentary.
It had shown me a version of one of our most emblematic figures in an
entirely new, unexpected context—a Superman who works for a gratuity, who
thinks his mother is a famous, reportedly childless actress, and who can’t even
win a superhero look-alike contest. Here was truth, justice and the American way stripped of its naivety and
blind patriotism, and brought bruised and battered into the 21st
century. You want a risky superhero movie?
Here you go.
yet! Confessions also succeeds by not
passing judgment on Dennis, which for me puts the film in the company of one of
the all time greats, Gray Gardens,
which interestingly enough is also about madness casting its shadow over an
emblematic name. I’ve never liked documentaries whose shear purpose is to
educate, because I never feel like I’m getting the complete story told right
down the middle. I’m rather read a book about the Crimean War or healthcare, but a book could never perfectly describe Dennis’s face when he
doesn’t win that contest. Luckily Ogens’ camera did, and his film transcends
the genre because of it.
had two questions when Confessions was over: one speculative and one
rhetorical. A) Does a guy like Dennis know he’s fascinating to us for different
reasons than he might find himself fascinating? and B) If Christopher Reeves
circa-1981 would have entered that contest, would he have won it either?