Thursday, July 14, 2016

Competitive Endurance Journalism: HBO’s Tickled

A scene from Tickled.

I knew pretty much nothing about Tickled, a documentary by New Zealand directors and journalists David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, before I saw it. I had read a description that painted it as an innocent and curious examination of the alleged sport of “competitive endurance tickling” that quickly morphs into something far more bizarre and disturbing, but that was it. I’m hoping that by discouraging you from reading this until you’ve seen the movie, I can help you experience the film the way I did, which was to be led by the hand down a deep rabbit hole of the human psyche in one of the more vocal and memorable theatregoing experiences of my life. See this one, and report back.

Very little of what Farrier and Reeve uncover about the real nature of the “sport” of tickling, and the individual behind these competitions that Farrier stumbles upon, really comes as a surprise. Tickled presents what amounts to entry-level fetishism with an air of appalled disbelief, when any moviegoer with a dose of common sense and a WiFi connection could tell you, no matter what they were into, that there’s way weirder stuff out there. You can understand Farrier’s curiosity, though, piqued by the utterly strange idea of young, athletic men being bound and mercilessly tickled by other young, athletic men, and the company called Jane O’Brien Media which pays exorbitant amounts of money to fly them around the world to make this happen. You can also sympathize with his desire to dig in his heels when, after contacting the company to request more information, he was met with a volley of homophobic slurs and personal insults. This bizarre response to his perfectly innocent questions only stokes the fire of his curiosity, and he and Reeve eventually travel to the U.S. to track down the person behind the name Jane O’Brien – which is the beginning of the real story.

David Farrier (left) and Richard Ivey (centre) in Tickled.
Weird human-interest stories are Farrier’s bread and butter as a journalist, and so his original intention was to secure a simple interview with Jane O’Brien Media and their contact, “Debbie”, to explore what he saw as a humourously unique sport. His investigation into Debbie and her company, however, eventually point to a person called Terri DiSisto, a.k.a. Terri Tickle, who they learn has been soliciting tickling videos online since the early days of the internet. These revelations come to Farrier amidst a storm of legal and personal threats from Debbie and Jane O’Brien herself, which threaten to tank the story. Farrier takes them on the chin and organizes a stakeout of one of the company’s tickling video shoots in Los Angeles, and speaks with a former participant who outlines the blackmail, threats, and leaks of personal information that have plagued him since the videos appeared online. A pattern of lives ruined by slander and both verbal and legal abuse emerges as Farrier and Reeve uncover “tickling cells” that have been established all over the United States, which all point back to DiSisto. Tickled takes on an entirely different tone as it progresses from a lighthearted investigation into an expose of the wealth, corruption, and derangement of a person who gets off on controlling and humiliating others.

The weakness in Tickled is its inability to get close to its subject. Farrier and co. aren’t able to do much more than shine a light on DiSisto’s secret fetish empire, padding out the middle of the film with a look at legitimate tickling fetish material from Richard Ivey, an unrelated website owner, who is open and proud of his work and who can’t do much to support Farrier and Reeve’s desire to make this stuff seem weirder than it really is. The climax approaches something substantive when they finally track their subject down and attempt a confrontation on the street, but they’re rebuffed with a blank response and the air’s let out of the balloon somewhat. The strength of the documentary, however, is in its expert pacing and its balance of tone, which carries you along effortlessly with the filmmakers as their digging reveals more and more layers of bizarre material. It’s breathlessly exciting, and makes for a raucous cinematic experience when you’re with an audience who gasps and laughs and holds their breath together. Moreover, Tickled brings a history of abusive and toxic behaviour to the public’s attention, and while it seems like the vast inherited wealth that runs the Jane O’Brien machine will shield it from lasting consequences, the hope is that the whole disgusting edifice – created and maintained in order to satisfy the sadistic appetite of a deranged individual – might come tumbling down, given enough exposure. For that reason, and because despite its lack of true insight, it’s simply a terrifically fun documentary, Tickled is a must-watch.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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