Hot Docs: Weiner, The Last Laugh, De Palma, and Tickled
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Hot Docs: Weiner, The Last Laugh, De Palma, and Tickled

The unravelling of a democratic star, the rules of Holocaust humour, the career of film legend Brian De Palma, and the bizarre world of competitive endurance tickling—here's what's coming up at Hot Docs.

Directed by Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, USA, 100 min


Friday April 29, 3:30 p.m.
Isabel Bader (91 Charles Street West)

Saturday April 30, 1:00 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)

Friday May 5, 6:30 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West))

This superb political documentary about the excruciating collapse of notorious politician Anthony Weiner’s campaign for mayor of New York in 2014 is an outstanding chronicle of the real-time immolation of a political figure in the modern age. The film depicts his initial fall from grace in the opening sequence, as the fiery Democrat congressman upbraids his colleagues for voting against extending financial support to 9/11 emergency responders, before his promising career is derailed by the revelation of sexts and sleazy photos sent to young women, circumstances especially damaging for a politician named…Weiner.

Weiner attempts to reclaim his damaged reputation by running for mayor of New York and we see his attempts to redefine himself as a changed man, but the media interest in his campaign still seems oriented around his disgrace, with crowds gathering more for his notoriety than his ideas. He wears the hairshirt in the initial days of his campaign, bravely offering himself up to the tabloid press as a man who has been forgiven for his transgressions by his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s most trusted advisors); she is a huge asset to his campaign, the argument being that if she can forgive him, then the people of New York can forgive him too. And for a time in the campaign, things seem to be lining up for his redemption, with Weiner proudly waving the Pride flag in parades, and clear support from the voters building around him. But weeks before election day, an eruption of new scandals sends the campaign into a tailspin; graphic new sexts and dick pics surface, and his notorious alias “Carlos Danger” enters the tabloid lexicon, damning evidence suggesting Weiner hasn’t changed or learned anything.

What is most remarkable about Weiner is the ringside access the documentary crew are granted to witness the downfall (co-director Kreigman was one of Weiner’s congressional staffers). We are privy to his campaign staff’s feelings of betrayal and the palpable anger Huma feels at this second public betrayal. As the train wreck continues to pile up, with one of his phone sex partners trying to make herself a tabloid celebrity, Weiner soldiers on with the campaign, seemingly under the illusion that the voters want to concentrate on the issues. But the poor impulse control Weiner exhibits in his private life spills over into his public persona as he starts warring with talk show hosts and angry people he meets on the campaign trail. He no doubt feels justified to take on the hypocrisy of his critics, but in the world of social media, all he’s achieving is creating more content that cements his perceived unworthiness to hold public office. He is hounded all the way up to and including election day, culminating in a humiliating moment (of course caught on video) where he has to race through a McDonald’s next to his election night party in order to sneak through a side entrance and avoid an ambush at the front door from his phone sex partner and camera crews.

Weiner is an outstanding political documentary, the best one in years. It depicts a particularly vicious modern circle—the very technology of social media that brought Weiner to public prominence also enabled him to follow destructive private instincts in a world where nothing is actually private: all part of a media apparatus that also amplified his collapse. Through it all, Weiner comes across as somewhat likeable despite his fatal egoistic tendencies. Perhaps we feel something for him because of the attention the film increasingly pays to his wife Huma—who clearly loves him despite mounting evidence that he might not be worthy. Perhaps we also admire him for allowing this documentary crew to keep rolling.

The Last Laugh
Directed by Ferne Pearlstein, USA, 85 min


Sunday May 1, 1:15 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)

Monday May 2, 9:00 p.m.
Isabel Bader (91 Charles Street West)

Saturday May 7, 10:30 a.m.
Isabel Bader (91 Charles Street West))

It’s one of the most difficult high-wire acts for a comedian: can you make someone laugh at a Holocaust joke? Is it possible to find humour, even gallows humour, in one of the most horrific events of history? Who gets to tell these jokes, and what is the point of even making them?

For most of the comics interviewed in The Last Laugh (an impressive lineup including Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, and David Steinberg), a Holocaust joke is like any attempt at bad-taste comedy—if you’re going to try at all, it had better be funny. Mel Brooks (whose legendary farce The Producers was one of the first post-war attempts at an all-out, intentionally tasteless mockery of Hitler) says he draws the line at jokes or comedy about the actual Holocaust itself (singling out Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful as “the worst movie ever made”). The film also offers a glimpse at the notoriously ill-advised (and never released) Jerry Lewis death-camp comedy The Day The Clown Cried, memorably described by one of its very few viewers (Harry Shearer) as being like “a black velvet painting of Auschwitz.”

There is some chilling footage at the beginning of the film showing confiscated Nazi footage of cabaret shows and children’s choirs that were put on to entertain fellow prisoners at the Terezin Concentration Camp as a way to boost morale (and for the performers to subversively sneak in criticism of their captors). Obviously, laughter is a specifically human characteristic and a survival mechanism even in the worst circumstances, and the most interesting sections of this film explore this paradox.

The film meanders off-course in the latter half as the scope of the film widens to the ethics of transgressive comedy in general, from Lenny Bruce railing against obscenity laws, to Dave Chappelle mocking the KKK, to the challenges comedians faced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. This loss of focus draws more attention to the debt this film’s ideas owe to an earlier documentary of primary interest to comedy theorists, The Aristocrats.

For a film about a specific topic of comedy, there are actually very few laughs in the film. Most of the Holocaust jokes that are told here bomb, perhaps answering the film’s central question. And outside of the various comedic talking heads trying out off-colour jokes or explaining their approach and rationale, the film maintains empathy for those who endured the Holocaust itself through one of the main subjects: Renee Firestone, a 90-year-old death-camp survivor who maintains a personal sense of humour despite everything and has even lived to see her great-grandchildren thrive—she’s really the one in the film who gets the last laugh.

De Palma
Directed by Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow, USA, 107 min


Monday May 2, 6:15 p.m.
Tiff Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Tuesday May 3, 10:00 a.m.
Isabel Bader (91 Charles Street West)

Friday May 6, 9:30 p.m.
Tiff Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West))

Brian De Palma gets a long-overdue reappraisal in this feature-length interview with the prolific and somewhat maligned director about his life and career. De Palma was one of the most important film stylists of the New Hollywood Cinema of the 70s who, along with his peers Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, and Coppola, rewrote the rules of the industry. De Palma directed big Hollywood hits (Carrie, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), minor successes that gained major cult status (Phantom of the Paradise, Scarface), and colossal Hollywood bombs (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission To Mars). He discovered Robert De Niro, made a star out of Sissy Spacek, and fused the key influences of Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard into a career full of cinematic innovation (complicated long-takes, daring use of split screen, time-bending suspense sequences) and controversy (the envelope-pushing sex and violence of his psychological thrillers). It’s one of the curiosities of De Palma’s career that for all his display of formal control and his huge influence on American culture, he was never nominated for an Oscar for Best Director.

This film is a chronological tour of De Palma’s complete filmography, guided by the director himself with a bounty of clips and juicy stories about a career full of fights with actors (he had a tough time working with Cliff Robertson on his first big budget film Obsession), studios (Columbia Pictures wouldn’t let him cast the porn star Annette Haven in his erotic thriller Body Double), and the ratings board (which came to a head when he got an X rating for Scarface after submitting three versions, finally putting all the violence back in). De Palma is candid when discussing the highs and lows of his 50-year directing career: he passed on directing Flashdance and Fatal Attraction; he says he lost his nerve adapting Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of The Vanities; and feels he never made a better film than Carlito’s Way.

The final section of the film is unexpectedly moving as it heads into the director’s decline, which began after his greatest box office success Mission: Impossible, as he got lost in making the visual-effects-heavy Mission To Mars; its spectacular failure at the box office was the end of De Palma’s American career, as he looked to Europe for financing and the years between features lengthened. As illustrated by the clips from his recent, less-consequential works like Passion and The Black Dahlia, De Palma understands, like his hero Hitchcock in the years after Psycho, that his glory days are behind him, that the industry has changed around him, that it gets harder as one gets older.

Directors Baumbach and Paltrow are obviously huge admirers of De Palma’s work, and the film succeeds as a solid testament to his career and importance. This film is a feast for De Palma lovers who may not be so familiar with the smaller, harder-to-see films from earlier in his career, like Greetings, Get To Know Your Rabbit, and Home Movies; conversely, this clip-heavy documentary might not be the best place to start for newcomers to De Palma’s work, as the twists and climaxes to some of his greatest films will be ruined for you, especially the magnificent downer ending of Blow Out.

Directed by David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, New Zealand, 92 min


Saturday April 30 9:45 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)

Monday May 2, 10:45 a.m.
Tiff Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West))

The old cliche “truth is stranger than fiction” is bandied about a lot in the world of documentaries, but every once in a while a film like Tickled comes along that makes that aphorism seem like a true understatement. David Farrier is a New Zealand TV correspondent specializing in covering weird and wacky stories, so when he stumbles across a website promoting an offer to fly young men all-expenses-paid to the U.S. to audition for a Competitive Endurance Tickling tournament for big paydays (with online videos of young men being tied down and aggressively tickled by other young men), he knows he has his next story. But when he contacts the company promoting this sport, Jane O’Brien Media, hoping for an interview, he receives a shocking response: they tell him they don’t want a homosexual reporter to get anywhere near them—exceedingly bizarre, since this sport seems more than a little gay…of course, this only piques his interest further, and when he and his colleague David Reeve begin to raise funds to do a documentary about this mysterious enterprise, not only are they hit with warning letters from legal firms, but Jane O’Brien Media dispatches some men all the way out to Auckland to warn them in no uncertain terms that they must drop their plans or risk being sued into oblivion. Undaunted, Farrier travels to the U.S. and is finally able to find some participants in this demimonde willing to talk to him about this subculture, though the filmmakers soon discover that over-the-top and outsized cruelty is standard operating procedure against anyone who dares to stand up to the mysterious figures behind this enterprise.

What is Jane O’Brien Media? Why won’t anyone talk to Farrier about Competitive Endurance Tickling? What are these tickling videos? Is it some strange online bondage circuit? Is it some kind of front for an off-the-books military op? Who is bankrolling this thing and wielding such cruel power over anyone who objects or trespasses?

To say anything more would be criminal, because so much of the power of Tickled is in falling down the rabbit hole along with the filmmakers. Farrier and Reeve are first-timers, but this tale is told with assuredness, even as the accumulating details become almost too much to believe. Though the film has lighter moments (including a visit with a legitimate producer of tickling fetish videos), overall this is an investigation into a world of exploitation and abuse of power that is pitch-black and staggering to behold. Tickled is sure to be one of the year’s most talked-about documentaries.