Warning - this review is written from the perspective that the new documentary American Cannibal is actually a work of fiction. There is much controversy surrounding the artistic "aesthetic" used to realize this film, a debate that the directors purposefully propagate in interviews and press releases. This critic suggests that, after reading the review, you Google the movie and the various reactions to it to gain a wider, and more informed perspective.
For those of us burned by all the Blair Witch hoopla, a moldy old proverb definitely applies. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice...and we'll cut out your throat - or something like that. That goes for all mock documentaries that hope to hoodwink us into thinking terrible events transpired in front of a conveniently available camera. Even worse is the post-production sham, which uses the naïve nature of your average audience member to convince them that what they're seeing is the unadulterated truth. It's a callous game one plays, a strategy that either builds belief or stimulates skepticism. And in a domain already rife with distrust and suspicions, fueling that fire does no one any good. Sadly, this is exactly what Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro do with their alleged peek behind the scenes at a repugnant reality show, American Cannibal. Even more depressing is the fact that, no matter how you view it - believable or bunk - it's the overall entertainment value that's truly lacking.
When their latest attempt at mainstream acceptance fails (a surreal show for Comedy Central), the writing team of Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts (apparently, not their real names) decide to take their agent's advice and work on pitches for what the industry really wants - reality shows. Reluctant at first, they finally arrive at what they think is a sensational idea. They want to take a group of male virgins, put them in a house inundated with porn, and see who can 'last' the longest. Unfortunately, few in the biz are interested. But when they make an offhand comment about a show centering on cannibalism, adult industry impresario Kevin Blatt takes interest. They decide to develop a saleable front - a Survivor spin off called The Ultimate Ultimate Challenge, and begin the process of production. At first, everything seems to be shattering. The company hired to help with casting is more interested in fraternizing, and the unskilled scribes end up carrying most of the load. By the time they arrive in Puerto Rico, nerves are frayed and personalities are clashing. Still, the show seems to start off without a major hitch - until reality really steps in.
Sometimes, a premise is just too clever for its own good. Case in point - American Cannibal. This quasi-pseudo-real documentary, covering the production of an ersatz-semi-serious reality show wants to peel the lid back off of the disreputable designs of the people and pariahs behind the reprehensible media trend. This excitable exposé has all the makings of a sensationalized spoof. Only problem is, there's nothing funny about what happens here - not intentionally or vicariously. Instead, filmmakers Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro use their voyeuristic viewpoint and their plant production team (Gil S. Ripley and Dave Roberts) to make points any fan of the jaundiced genre will instantly recognize. We see how the promise of money will lead artists to sell their soul (duh.), how the potential for being on television attracts all manner of flawed fame whores (DUH), and how poor planning and disconnected crew provide a recipe for onset disaster (DUH!!!). All of this is supposed to be scandalous and shameful...that is, until you've watched an installment of Big Brother, Flavor of Love, or Fear Factor. As a subject, reality TV doesn't need help humiliating itself. They manage to do a perfectly good job of it by simply broadcasting the swill they develop for public consumption. So Grebin and Nigro need to tell us something new or innovative. Better still, they could simply step back and let the experts heartily hang themselves. Either way, it's win/win
For a while, we're willing to follow this slightly scattered ruse, though Grebin and Nigro make it almost impossible. The Comedy Central 'series' our heroes are working on is so lame (Psychotic Episodes - where famous sitcoms are mashed up and presented together) that it screams fake. Even worse, potential producer Kevin Blatt obviously enjoys the opportunity to spoof his smut peddler persona a little too much. All he needs is a bag of candy and a line of barely legal babes to complete his depiction as a slobbering adult film cad. Any man who brags about "presenting" the Paris Hilton sex tape has issues beyond becoming a mockumentary star. Yet this is all part of our director's design. We are supposed to see the booze swilling sycophants posing as production experts as laughable and dangerous, while our earnest creators complain about disrespect and their level of involvement. Through the perfectly staged pitches, which tend to play out as real since, one assumes, they were done without the knowledge of the networks, to the moment when Blatt circumvents the original idea (something called Virgin Territories - figure it out) for the cannibalism angle, we're supportive of this story. We can't wait to see where it goes, and wonder how anyone would ever want to be a contestant.
Of course, things end badly. Grebin and Nigro have done such a superlative job of setting up a tone of dire doom and guaranteed gloom that this entire enterprise can't help but completely implode. Until we get there, however, the intrigue of the introduction begins to fade. The contestant search is like Idol without the atonal misfits, and Ripley and Roberts' emerging rift seems right out of stock dramatics. And then there is the finale. It can't really be discussed without giving away some major SPOILERS, so for all those who want to experience American Cannibal cold, said eyes should leave this paragraph...NOW. For those who've lingered, here's the problem. The entire premise is founded on people eating other people. The producers have made sure to pick individuals who'd be up for "anything". Yet the best these filmmakers could forge when it came to a climax is a lying little blond whose cover-up hypoglycemia results in an ominous accident...which we never discover the outcome of? What makes matters worse is that an obvious ending was sitting right in front of them. What if, after six days of semi-isolation and no food, they actually resorted to the sensationalized subject matter? Wouldn't that have been a better comeuppance than all this "information withheld for legal reasons" rigormarole? Apparently, our directors were devious when it came to cracking on TV. Courageous considering their preposterous premise was apparently out of their reach.
Since we are supposed to believe the off the cuff nature of this production, the video images captured here can be a little crude. There is a great deal of grain and some obvious camcorder crappiness to the transfer. In essence, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture (which looks purposefully cropped to maintain a "theatrical" look) is presentable, if hardly professional.
Considering it's a dialogue driven piece with very little ambient exposure except for a sometimes evocative score, the presence of a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is surprising. Granted, it renders the conversations clear and the moody music memorable, but a multichannel approach to a singular sonic situation is overkill. The back speakers barely rumble, and when they do, it adds very little to the aural atmosphere.
If you're already soured on the whole American Cannibal experience, the wink and a nod bonus content won't change matters much. The pair of commentaries attempts to continue the dodge, though occasional slip ups from directors Grebin and Nigro (as well as separate hints from Ripley and Roberts) seem sort of obvious. They are more interested in picking apart the reality TV industry and the real professionals they actually spoke to than describing their deception. There are also extended interviews and padded segments from the film, as well as a trailer and a TV spot. Not the most amazing collection of supplements, but for those who enjoy the film on its face, they will suffice.
In general, people don't like to feel cheated. Even when the scam is set right out before them, the notion that they're going to be the subject of a swindle usually puts them off. Such is the case with American Cannibal. If you believe it to be a 100% full fact documentary (including the truth that actual WRITERS were employed for many of its scenes), then by all means, lap up this material like the gullible eager beavers you are. For those with a far more cynical view of this kind of cinema, the pain from the whole Blair Witch ballyhoo should be enough to guide your reaction. This is clearly a "love it or loathe it" experience, and it's possible that Grebin and Nigro are themselves pitching a message that's ambiguous in its apparent meaning. It's clear that, whatever it is/was/wanted to be, this critic didn't get it. Maybe others will see things differently. That's why a rating of Rent It is in order. It's the cheapest, most convenient way to allow all interested parties to make up their minds. In interviews post-playdates on the film festival circuit, the directors described their final product as "meta" - meaning functioning of several, sometimes incongruent levels all at the same time. Too bad they couldn't figure out how to make it satiric...or smart...or salient. That's really all this tentative tell-all required.
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