Desperation, onscreen and off, has been a key element of reality TV from the beginning, and no wonder. Whether it’s seven strangers in a dorm-like condo or a dozen jocks on a remote island, this patently unglamorous, formally sketchy, verily flopsweating genre exploits our lumpen identification with the ordinary schmoes who’d stop at nothing to yank airtime away from bona fide celebs. “Real life” is one big game show, and the underdogs—UPN included—refuse to play by the rules. Would you believe Amish in the City? How ’bout Extraterrestrial in the City?
Pop will eat itself as always, but even more scavenging these days might be the indie film, its audience thinned to near-nonexistence by small-screen fare. Case in point: American Cannibal, a reality-style movie about the making of a reality show that was maybe almost aired. It follows two hungry young hustlers who pitch a porno financier on their virgin concept—kids competing not to get laid—but who instead take his money to concoct a sick Survivor wherein starving contestants are faced with the prospect of feeding on one another. The film begins in requisite shaky-cam mode with the revelation that The Ultimate Ultimate Challenge, shot on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico (but never completed), put one of its would-be cannibals in a vegetative state before blacking out itself.
For real? Does it matter? American Cannibal screened in the documentary category of last year’s Tribeca fest and immediately drew skepticism. The Times reported that at least two of the movie’s main subjects were given pseudonyms, and quoted filmmaker Perry Grebin’s vague description of an aesthetic other than vérité: “We created scenarios in which events unfolded, over which we did not have control, which is very consistent with the documentary tradition.” In fact, scenario-creation would seem more consistent with the tradition of reality TV, if not flat-out fiction.
Grebin and co-director Michael Nigro, whose collective résumé includes work in playwriting, publicity, criticism, and screenwriting instruction, may or may not be documentarians. But they can at least be credited with provoking the question of whether cinema should continue being held to higher standards than television when it comes to delineating what’s real. You may recall that Rupert Murray, maker of 2005’s purportedly authentic doc Unknown White Male, was practically put through psychiatric evaluation by film critics, whereas MTV’s superstar producer Jon Murray, one of American Cannibal‘s bemused talking heads, could seemingly get away with murder in The Real World.
In any case, American Cannibal, something like the (mock-)doc equivalent of The Producers, really, really should’ve been funnier. Its Bialystock and Bloom—identified here as Dave Roberts and Gil Ripley of KanDu! Productions—come across as mere frat house hopefuls on a pledge-week dare to infiltrate the biz. Not even their pretensions stand up to scrutiny, as the oversized Godard poster in their office keeps falling behind the couch. Frenzied reality pitches to Comedy Central and the IFC fall short of the plate, so the pair proceeds to Kevin Blatt, the colorful character who moved 700,000 units of One Night in Paris, a/k/a the Paris Hilton sex tape. Blatt also boasts of having auctioned a porn star’s surgically severed genitals on the Internet.
“We are a giant industry of pimps and whores,” muses Blatt, who passes on the boys’ “medically verified male virgins” concept, but throws in a hundred grand for KanDu!’s Ultimate Ultimate pilot, the Vieques Island escapade in which everything goes wrong. The would-be survivalist contestants mysteriously take ill after a single hour of production. The Screen Actors Guild, objecting to host George Gray’s participation in a non-union show, throws down an ultimate-ultimate challenge of its own. Ripley, believe it or not, is reduced to tears after learning that one of his hunger artists has collapsed, possibly from hypoglycemia. “I don’t even know what happened,” he says, “and it’s totally our fault!” Something on the island smells fishy. Not even television’s most pathologically truthful realist would take responsibility while tape is rolling.
For all we know, the fear factor might have been even higher on the Ultimate Ultimate
shoot, but, as a title card informs us, “The production’s insurance rules prohibit the documentary crew from recording any challenge events.” Funny those same rules somehow didn’t prohibit the producers from planning to starve their contestants and force them to consider eating human flesh to survive. While creating their scenarios, Grebin and Nigro might’ve considered a Springtime for Hitler ending wherein KanDu!’s surefire flop becomes a hit. But that would likely have required a little more reality than the filmmakers had available.