What did I just watch?
The question stings hot in mind like a lightbulb moments from burning out. For days my roommate has been telling me to watch “Tickled”: an HBO documentary apparently about the “sport” of “competitive tickling” (it gets far, far weirder).
Considering this assignment, I decided to give it a shot, ignoring the tempting voice in my head telling me to just write about a familiar film I’ve seen a hundred times. So I plopped down on the couch and treated myself to his HBO GO subscription. What followed next I was completely unprepared for.
Tickled is a Russian Dolls set of a film: a bizarre story within a bizarre story within another bizarre story. It is also the most compelling documentary I’ve seen in recent memory.
A past professor of mine was fond of saying that Film is all about expectations and experiences. How the audience has a certain expectation going in, and their end experience will result in that film either satisfying or dispelling that expectation. For example, the next Fast & the Furious will be littered with over the top car chases and one-liners from Vin Diesel, or how we can expect a Quentin Tarantino movie to be violent and lengthy.
What makes Tickled so refreshing (and unnerving) is that it uses this audience expectation in a very, very different way.
Here’s the trailer:
***(If you have any inclination to watch the film I’d do it before reading below to avoid spoilers, its the type of film you want to go in mostly blind)***
When New Zealand Journalist David Ferrier Reeves and Director Dylan Reeve stumble upon an odd internet video of young boys in active wear tying down and tickling each other, he traces the source to schedule an interview about this strange “sport”. After contacting the media company that posted the video, he receives a flurry of scathing insults and legal threats to cease and desist any investigation into the practice from the shadowy figure “Jane O’Brien” of Jane O’Brien Media.
Like any good journalist, he persists.
Ferrier receives a legal letter from a high-powered NY lawyer that should he continue to do this story, there will be direct legal action taken against him in court. Ferrier continues to delve deeper into the Media Company, and Reeve hacks their website to reveal they own hundreds of different domains to other Tickling sites. That same week, O’Brien notifies Ferrier that she’s flying 3 of her associates – first class – from New York to New Zealand to speak with Ferrier on the sport and to convince him to cooperate with her demands to cease.
Soon, Ferrier and Reeve begin to realize they’ve stumbled onto a far larger story than they initially thought. The men that flew halfway across the world from O’Brien media tell them that they’ve never even met Jane O’Brien, and that if he keeps this up it will be “very bad” for him, at one time saying “if you want to stick your head in a blast furnace – go ahead.” The men assure them that although they’ve never met Jane, they know she’s connected with a lot of money, and she can use against the two.
Ferrier and Reeve are tumbling down a rabbit hole that gets weirder and weirder, and then even weirder. They discover the underground tickling empire is immense and widespread. They also uncover it’s been under the radar since the mid 90s, and connects the earliest videos with an AOl user named “Teri Tickle” (***told you it would get weird). We learn, as Ferrier and Reeve do, that there is no Jane O’Brien. There is no Terri Tickle – there’s just David D’Amato, a trust fund baby from New York, who funnels millions of dollars into his Tickling underworld, and has been operating under multiple alias’ for decades.
Oh, and he used to be a Guidance Counselor for several high schools.
D’Amato operates a ring of Tickling cells all over the country, flying in young men of choosing from all over the world, buying them expensive clothes, cars, tickets to their favorite concerts, anything. He tells the men that the tickling videos are strictly for his private collection. But the Tickling isn’t the derangement here, it’s the power that comes from it. We find out through interviews with several ex “Ticklers”, that the minute they tell “Jane” (or “Teri”, or whoever D’Amato’s pseudonym is at any given time) to stop, or right when they depend on Tickling for their sole income and living, D’Amato turns their world upside down. To quote one victim: “that’s when the rug is pulled out from under you.”
D’Amato then sends the damning tickling evidence to these men’s friends, parents, grandparents, college deans, potential employers, creates hundreds of websites just about them and their tickling videos – putting their full name and address up for the world to see – harassing them with letters and exposing them through every possible medium.
One victim interviewed lost his privacy, his job as a Football coach, and continues to struggle to find work because of it.
Just as the mystery is unraveled, the villain revealed, Tickled deflates completely. The film ends with the simple white text on black background that while the threats to Ferrier have stopped, D’Amato was never tried with a formal crime and continues to operate his father’s law firm.
Tickled excels at visually telling the story, and it does this in two ways:
- Introducing landscapes as part of the story
- Using speed, sound, and shot variation to cue the genre shift ( Tickled evolves from quirky mystery, to a sobering documentary, to a noir thriller. It’s production style changes to match each of these genres as they transform into one another.)
As Ferrier and Reeve traverse the globe unraveling the conspiracy from New Zealand to New York, to Florida to Michigan, the cinematography treats their respective environments almost like characters of the story themselves.
For example, when they travel to Muskeegan Michigan, there is a montage scene that shows rundown factories and paints the town like a barren wasteland:
This particular part of their investiagtion reveals how D’Amato uses recruiters for his Tickling videos in parts of the country where there is high crime, poverty, and overall lack of opportunities. These shots of post industrial buildings, a lonely shot of a single man trudging through the snow, and crime ridden neighborhoods, provide context that is here where it’s easiest to prey on young adults to whom a couple thousand dollars would persuade them to be “tickled”.
Another production angle I admired about Tickled was as the tone of the Story shifted, so did the cinematography. During the beginning where the mystery is yet to be unfurled, it is shot like a standard documentary: short and medium shots, lots of re-enactments from Ferrier, and light use of music.
During the middle of the film, when the scope of the Tickling Web and the people who suffer from it are revealed, the filming stlye becomes much more surreal. They make use of slow motion, shots last much longer. This makes this part feel like an alternate reality: a world like our own, but something’s wrong, something’s not exactly right. It visually puts in the same headspace Ferrier and Reeve are in as the tumble down the rabbit hole of a global conspiracy.
Finally, towards the end, when the two are driving to confront D’Amato in New York, there are several long shots of the New York Skyline, the bridge they drive on, Ferrier white-knuckle gripping the wheel, while a backbeat of cyberpunk themed montage music plays in the background. All these elements cue us that this is a far-cry from the off-the-wall documentary that began an hour ago, this is now the climax of a thriller.
Remember what I said earlier about how a film either satisfies or dispels audience expectations?
What makes Tickled compelling is it doesn’t do either of these things. It turns out Tickled isn’t a documentary on Competitive Tickling at all. It’s about the discovery of a far-reaching conspiracy, fueled by one multi-millionaire, to exploit and blackmail an unknown number of young men all over the world. It’s a cinematic boiling frog: weird documentary turned thriller horror drama before we even know what happened.
We realize at the end our expectations weren’t a promised to be delivered, but a misdirection; so that when our experience turns out to be something else entirely, it’s even more profound.
It’s like witnessing a baffling magic trick – we were too busy watching the right hand when we should’ve been paying attention to the left – but by the time we realize it it’s too late, and were on the couch silently mouthing What did I just watch? as the credits roll.