Once in awhile a documentary comes along with such a bizarre, out-of-left-field premise that it proves the old adage that reality is, indeed, stranger than fiction, and Tickled, a new one in theaters now that comes our way courtesy of the New Zealand directing tandem of David Farrier (a pop-culture correspondent for an Auckland television station) and Dylan Reeve (a techie-turned- research-guru-and-camera-operator), certainly fits that bill — but it also raises some reasonably thought-provoking questions in the minds of viewers, chief among them being “what, exactly, constitutes something as being pornographic?,” and “how far are some people willing to go in order to fuel their obsessions — and are those with greater financial means in a position to become completely swallowed up by them?”
I freely confess that I’d never heard of the so-called “sport” of — get this — “competitive endurance tickling” before seeing this flick the other day, even though it often seems like every weird thing in the world finds its way to my electronic “doorstep” sooner or later simply on account of the sorts of things I review. The idea of tightly-dressed men being bound and then tickled mercilessly by other guys, usually in similar Greco-Roman wrestling-type gear, doesn’t strike me as being particularly erotic or athletic, mind you (no offense intended toward those who do, in fact, get off on this sort of thing — whatever floats your boat, as they say), though, so if I had ever come across it, my reaction would probably be very similar to that of Farrier himself when he first learned of it :”seriously?” Investigating this sort of low-level “phenomenon” is well within the wheelhouse of his show’s “you’re not gonna believe this one, folks”-style purview, though, so he figured, reasonably enough, that it would make for a pretty interesting segment. Just how interesting it would become, though, only began to make itself known to him when he contacted the world’s leading purveyor of “tickle fetish” videos, Jane O’Brien Media, and was met with a series of vitriolic, homophobic responses to his rather blase inquiries. Okay, yeah, Farrier is gay, but his sexual orientation has nothing to do with his reporting and he doesn’t pursue stories from what anyone in their right mind would consider to be, for lack of any phrase coming immediately to mind, a “homosexual angle.” He just reports on quirky and/or slightly bizarre and off-kilter stuff from what appears to be a rather garden-variety “human interest” perspective.
Still, the mere fact that he’s an openly gay media figure was enough to send the PR flak from Jane O’Brien Media who was corresponding with him into a tizzy. There was nothing remotely “queer” about groups of youthful, athletic, half-dressed men tickling other youthful, athletic, half-dressed men who are bound to a mat or a bed until they beg for mercy, said “company vice-president” insisted, and she made it crustal clear that if he even insinuated that there was some element of homo-eroticism inherent in this sort of activity, they’d be coming down on him with all the force of the law in both New Zealand and the US. In fact, she went on to say, they didn’t want anyone of his sexual orientation to be covering this story at all — and letters soon began arriving from lawyers and private investigators in both countries trying to scare him off.
At this point, Reeve also became involved, doing “tech forensics” (or whatever you want to call it), and despite finding both himself and his young family subjected to thinly-veiled threats against their safety, he managed to convince Farrier that inconsistencies he’d found involving Jane O’Brien Media’s internet presence and activity meant that they should both stand up to this bullying and high-tail it to LA in order to find out what the fuck was really going on — especially after a visit with representatives dispatched to New Zealand by the company quickly headed south. And that’s when things go from standard-issue weird to seriously weird.
For one thing, nobody’s apparently ever met Jane O’Brien herself. For another, her company seems to be recruiting “talent” most aggressively from economically hard-hit communities (they spend a lot of time in Muskegon, Michigan, among other “rust belt” cities). For another, while lots of money seems to be spent by this “tickle-torture” outfit, none seems to be coming in. And for yet another, Ms. O’Brien’s MO is eerily reminiscent of that of someone who was pursuing a similar obsession with similar single-mindedness back in the 1990s — a person advertising herself as “Tickle Terri” who didn’t turn out to be who she claimed at all and who even spent some time locked up for what we now call “cyber-bullying,” among other crimes.
And “cyber-bullying” is definitely a big theme here. The “talent” recruited for Jane O’Brien media is paid well, but if and when they ever decide they’ve had enough of the whole “tickle thing,” they find themselves subjected to “email bombs,” unauthorized distribution of their videos via outlets such as YouTube, online advertisement of their “gay porn” work, phone calls to their schools, families, and employers warning them of the “adult film star” in their midst, etc. In short, the minute you tell Ms. O’Brien you don’t need or want her anymore, you become a target — and she won’t rest until she absolutely destroys your life.
Clearly, whoever runs Jan O’Brien Media is someone with more free time and money on their hands than either common sense or basic human decency, but when tactics, correspondence, and the like are compared with those of “Tickle Terri,” the film does, sad to say, play its “trump card” a bit early, a frustrating development that is effectively doubled when the confrontations with the person who’s actually behind it all — whose name shall go unmentioned here — prove to be a bit anticlimactic in nature.If you’re hoping for a big final act here, the truth is that you don’t really get one, given that you’ll have long since put two and two together, but fear not — as letdowns go it’s not a terribly severe one by any means, and questions about “how the hell did this person think they could get away with this again?” prove to be a fairly adequate follow-up for “who’s doing all this shit and why?” in the overall scheme of things, anyway.
And speaking of questions, let’s get back to the that two we opened with, shall we? When it comes to determining what qualifies something as being “pornographic,” well, I guess we’ll just paraphrase the US Supreme Court ruling : “you know it when you see it” — and it certainly needn’t involve even nudity, much less any sort of penetration. And as far as the idea of rich folks becoming swamped under the all-consuming weight of their obsessions goes, well — Tickled is proof positive that it can absolutely happen, and with devastating consequences for those in their path. If an in-depth exploration of those subjects sounds like something that would be up your alley, then you’ll definitely want to give this movie a look. Farrier and Reeve have crafted an engrossing and provocative real-life mystery story here that never fails to remain both disarmingly engaging and thoroughly befuddling throughout.