Monday, July 18, 2016


Tickled Movie PosterSex fixations are big business these days. At one time they were shut away in society’s attic, considered little more than comical deviances involving whips and handcuffs, usually indulged in by straight-laced Republicans caught with their pants down in cheesy movies. Now, kinkiness is marketed and sold as easily as eyeliner or Tupperware. Very little remains underground. Somehow, I remain oblivious. Which only means sex in its simplest form offers enough challenges for me, without having to wrap myself in a rubber suit or wear a dog collar. Ditto for spanking, “sploshing,” role reversing, or bondage. I understand that most fixations are backlit by some childhood experience, and that human sexuality is as complex as a rat maze, but I couldn’t find anything erotic in Tickled, a strange, mildly amusing documentary that sets out to expose the controversial netherworld of tickling videos. But I can tell you that the movie is sort of stupidly unsettling. Like an episode of Jerry Springer or Oprah, you’ll feel dumb as you watch, but you won’t remember it long enough to call it a guilty pleasure.

Early in Tickled we meet David Farrier, a New Zealand television reporter who specializes in goofy stuff – we see him interviewing Justin Bieber, and a woman who raises donkeys. We’re supposed to like him because he covers the weird and the wacky.  He thinks he’s stumbled across his next subject when he finds a “competitive tickling” video online. To his surprise, his request for an interview is not only rebuffed, but he receives several rude emails from a representative of the tickle company, including legal threats. This inspires Farrier to investigate further (and make a documentary!). As a journalist, he’s plenty nosy and self-important, determined to reveal these bullies who wouldn’t indulge him. He’s soon in America, storming into tickle video sessions, arguing with agents from the mysterious company, and being a general nuisance. As a filmmaker, though, he’s uninspired. Having a sit-down with folks at the local comic-con must not have prepared him for the dark and grisly world of tickle torture. 

Ultimately, this is a familiar tale. The victims, in this case a bunch of dimwitted jocks who, in the tradition of every hooker or nude model who finds herself having to explain her embarrassing past, explain that they did it for the money. Rather innocently, they answered ads offering good pay to be tickled. Sure, it seemed unusual, but times were hard, ya know. Without their knowledge, these videos started turning up on the internet. One of the boys, a college football player, claims his career has been ruined because coaches don’t want to explain to the press about his background as a ticklee. What is  most striking to me is that the tickle videos look so much like regular home-made  porn scenes: in a bare bones setting, usually a mattress and nothing else, or in a chancy motel off some random U.S. highway, the participants go through the motions looking rather apathetic. I noticed one kid, probably the star of his college swim team, looking to the camera with a sheepish expression, as if to say, I can’t believe I’m tickling a dude with a feather. 

The person behind the videos turns out to be a flabby creep who has used several false identities and his family’s wealth to build his tickling empire. We learn from his step-mother that he was bullied as a child and grew up to be quite maniacal. Perhaps luring dumb jocks into taking part in humiliating videos is his vengeance on the kids who used to stuff him into lockers. Farrier is warned by various people to stay away. And that’s about it. No one, as the heavy-handed promotion made me wonder, is tickled to death, and the man behind it all is not exactly Hannibal Lecter. He’s just a fat old pervert who threatens people with lawsuits. 

Farrier is diligent, but I kept wishing the movie had been made by Louis Theroux as part of his old ‘Weird Weekend’ series.  Theroux could’ve taken this same material and made it a lot more interesting. Farrier wanted to create something heavy, but it’s just not in him. There are occasional pans to crowd scenes in Los Angeles,  where so many of us peculiar Americans seem to be dressed as Spiderman or Chewbacca. There could’ve been something here about people and their love of false identities, how such things can turn malevolent, how fixations keep our real selves out of our sexual experiences and, in their own way, serve as a kind of disguise,  but Farrier, and co-director Dylan Reeve, aren’t especially deep thinkers. They prefer close-ups of some meathead’s dirty fingers jabbing into another guy’s armpit, because at heart Farrier is just a TV reporter, as cheap and cheerful as Justin Bieber and the donkey lady.


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