The Reeler


March 16, 2007

American Cannibal

Sublimely cynical look at the reality TV business may be too good to be true

So many things about American Cannibal, the doc-whatever-u- want-it-to-be-mentary about the pitch-to-pilot process of a reality television show, are too good to be true. From the first meeting aspiring TV producers Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts have with porn don Kevin Blatt (he of the Paris Hilton video's sudden ubiquity) to pitch “Virgin Territory,” where a group of "medically certified” eunuchs would compete to lose it to a porn star, the elements of a potential corker of a story are in place. Kevin, playing up his evil genius persona, says things like “every business is pimps and hos,” and, even better, “I’d like to open Jenna Jameson up to a new audience.”

Things really get going, however, when Kevin latches onto a passing, mordant comment made by Gil about pushing reality television to the next level: Where can we go from here? Why don’t we just put a bunch of people on a deserted island and starve them until they eat each other? Foregoing the virgin show, Kevin agrees to finance “American Cannibal,” and can’t wait to see America’s reliable supply of “sick fucks” clamor to sign up. “I can’t believe he thought that was so good,” Gil says to Dave, as they kick around the parking lot outside of Kevin’s seedy, strip mall offices. Neither could I, but just barely, and from there co-directors Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro play cat and mouse with documentary conventions and our by-now engrained willingness to associate them with the truth.

Similar in structure to the cash-in-while-you-can backbone of, and the pseudo-social commentary and risky genre-mixing of the upcoming The Great World of Sound, American Cannibal derives much of its impact (and its credibility) from the idea that these two schmucks have actually been given a pile of money to cast and shoot a show where people are expected to possibly eat each other on a deserted island. Dave is completely psyched, if only to have some money coming in, while Gil expresses some ethical and professional reservations. Interspersed with their narrative are some funny and incisive interview clips of people like Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show) and other veterans of the reality TV business, talking about the phenomenon, the gruesome, essentially cannibalistic food chain of ideas and what these voracious appetites might indicate about our viewing culture.

The directors do a solid job in portraying pilot development as its own special hell, and the lo-fi production values keep the energy and the believability of the various crack-ups and tiffs high. It is a sublimely cynical, though often merely glib, look at the reductio ad absurdum of the trend; once Bruce Jenner and Frank Stallone show up to talk about hosting “Starvation Island” (what the contestants will be told they are signing up for) the patina of plausibility is burnished to a high, tragic gloss. Something about the idea of people signing up to be starved on television suggests the ultimate American full-circle moment, and it hardly seems like this type of scenario needs to be concocted (It’s not cheating -- it’s meta!) in order to make an effective documentary about that moment. It’s the difference between Grizzly Man, where Werner Herzog clearly hit upon a gold mine of documentary material, and the less successful Incident at Loch Ness, which this film resembles, mainly in its attempt to hoist the genre (among other things) on its own petard while still calling on many of its tenets for stylistic and thematic currency.

In so far as reality TV is the bastard child of documentary, American Cannibal posits itself as critical, incestuous, necessary fare. The problem is in the filmmakers' refusal to talk openly about their process; even on the IMDB listing for the film, Gil and Dave are credited as playing themselves, when in fact those are not their real names and they may or may not be actors. True to formulaic climax, the duo begin to clash, and in the wake of the project’s collapse they dissolve their partnership. Throughout the shooting process, the cast members get only the most cursory consideration, and even when the (hypoglycemic!) injured woman is medevac-ed from the island, the producers lose track of her like so many script notes. The credits provide an eerie post-script, with various people attached to the project professing no memory of the woman in question, or admitting they have no idea what happened to her. Dave is shown pitching again, BS-ing once more about that elusive next-level shit, the “dark” stuff audiences really want. The executive responds, “You use the word dark, I use the word real.” For all of its self-consciously sophisticated layering, American Cannibal manages a few authentically dark moments of its own, and that is definitely one of them.

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Comments (3)

I saw this at Tribeca. One word: brutal.

I saw it Last Night. One Word: Brilliant.

I saw it tonight. One word: lame.

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