Happy New Year! I’m eagerly looking forward to a year of great films in 2008.
I was lucky, recently, to get a preview of a short film which I think is destined to make a big impact on the festival circuit in 08. It has only just been completed and is currently being screened by many festival directors. Although it has yet to be officially accepted to any, I am confident that it will soon begin to dot festival schedules and generate buzz amongst film buffs.
The short (27 minutes) is called “Clean Freak” and is the hilarious follow-up to director Chris Hansen’s “The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah” which was a festival hit in 06 and 07. Though presented as a straight forward documentary about the director’s obsessive compulsive need to clean his house, the movie actually mocks the recent trend of egocentric docs and challenges viewers to redefine their understanding of truth and reality.
Hansen turns his camera on himself to explore the nature of, root of, and solutions to his problems of being unable to live with general messiness, or as he more aptly puts it, being a Clean Freak.
The movie, broken up into chapters by Brechtian style title-cards, begins as Hansen films a typical day in his life when he comes home from work and must clean his house. His family thinks he’s a little, uh, abnormal. The look on his face, when he sees that his daughter has drawn a picture of him cleaning the kitchen floor, is absolutely priceless.
He searches for the root of his affliction by going back to his family and interviewing them. He’s able to trace his psychosis to a singular, primordial incident from his childhood in which he and his brother provoked their mother to near-homicide by flooding their kitchen. The incident is satirically recreated with toys and dolls.
Finally, Hansen searches for a cure. First through the use of drugs like St. John’s Wort, then by hypnotherapy, and eventually through a support group. Results are hilarious if not successful. Hansen is not afraid to reveal his vulnerability and allow himself to be the butt of jokes.
There is an awful lot going on in here, on a philosophical level, that is not only about our need to make order out of chaos, but about the very nature of film (at least documentary film) and our culture as both self-obsessive and our embracing that blurring line between fiction and non-fiction. Between objective truth and individual truth.
Unlike a real mockumentary, such as “American Messiah,” or “Bob Roberts,” or the films of Christopher Guest, where everyone knows it’s fake because there are famous actors reciting well-rehearsed lines, “Clean Freak” presents itself as the straightforward truth. And yet it’s clear that a number of the scenes are staged. More like Zack Penn’s “Incident at Loch Ness.” We’re forced to wonder how much of this is true, and then we further wonder does it matter? Does it matter if the therapist is a real therapist or an actor pretending to be one? No—what matters is the larger truth: therapy is a sham. Just like the actor within “Incident at Loch Ness” who pretends to be a crypto-zoologist. It’s fiction presented as truth. Just like so much of what we see on the news. Or like the White House Press Secretary’s spin. But some people believe it as the truth.
Here is where the line between fiction and reality really starts to blur. In “I am a Sex Addict,” a film which Hansen partly credits as his inspiration, director Caveh Zahedi looks directly into the camera and says, “What you are about to see is a recreation. An actress plays my ex-girlfriend and I play my younger self from 15 years ago,” and then he bends down and we see a make-up artist spray-paint his bald-spot in a half-hearted, humorous attempt to make him look 15 years younger. But Hansen doesn’t do that. Rather, Hansen takes a page from the makers of contemporary “reality” TV shows; he alters reality which he presents as truth. And yet it is done in such a way, with a wink, so that the audience knows what he’s doing, if they can stop laughing long enough to notice, and can see that his real goal is to mock that tendency of our culture.
There is also the issue of self-obsession here. As regular Chizfilm readers know, I recently saw several Alan Berliner films, so that is very much on my mind right now. Berliner’s been called “self-indulgent,” but that’s only because he has found himself, or those close to him, to be the perfect subject of his films; without that intense, personal focus, his films would be dull and uninspiring. The same can be said for Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” (another film Hansen credits for partially inspiring “Clean Freak”). To show the effect of fast food upon American culture and collective health, Spurlock could have simply gone out and interviewed nutritional experts and presented an objective, straight-forward report. Instead what he did was pure genius: turned the camera on himself as he pulled a crazy but very interesting stunt to prove a point, but also used interviews of nutritional experts underneath to support it.
Yet as great and powerful as these films are, Hansen’s right to point out that there is a bit of ego and self-importance involved. And by copying that, putting himself at the center of his film and mocking it to the extreme, even in the credits, he fairly criticizes in a very funny way that sense of egocentricity that drives some documentaries.
The final shot of the film, which I won’t describe for fear of ruining it for those who will soon be seeing this masterpiece, pulls the entire movie into focus. Literally as well as figuratively. It reminds us that, when all is said and done, this is a movie about movies.
And that takes us right back to the initial theme of making order out of chaos. After all, that is what the art of moviemaking is about. In all three stages: pre, production, and post. All three, each in their own way, require a director to make order out of chaos. And in that sense, all filmmakers are clean freaks.
I anticipate that when “Clean Freak” plays at festivals this year it will initiate a great dialogue about the nature and future direction of film; and I would love, like anything, to be present for that discussion. Maybe I will.
Let’s hope we’ll all get our wishes for 2008.
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