When Kiwi TV reporter David Farrier was sent a link to a video depicting ‘Competitive Endurance Tickling’, he thought it might serve as the basis for a light-hearted look at an essentially harmless subculture. When Farrier contacted the company which produced the tickling videos, Jane O’Brien Media, the response was: ‘Association with a homosexual journalist is not something we will embrace.’ Intrigued by this strange response, Farrier probed further, and was subjected to increasingly abusive and threatening correspondence. Farrier and collaborator Dylan Reeve flew to California to investigate, and found themselves immersed in an altogether darker world than they could ever have envisaged.
Tickled is proving to be one of the year’s most controversial films. Farrier and Reeve have already been hit with two defamation suits — both dismissed — and a website has been set up to discredit the film. Jane O’Brien representatives have attended screenings to conspicuously take notes; private investigators have been ejected from screenings for illegally recording; and the film’s primary subjects — David D’Amato and Kevin Clarke — crashed the LA première and used the Q&A to accuse the filmmakers of recording them without their consent. With so much rancour swirling around the film, one is left wondering what forces lie behind these seemingly innocuous videos of athletic young men being tickled.
Tickled is a strange beast indeed: it looks set to proceed along typically Nick Broomfield/Louis Theroux ‘befuddled observer’ lines, then transmutes into something resembling All the President’s Men (1976) by way of Foxcatcher (2014) as Farrier and Reeve ‘follow the money’ behind the ‘tickling cells’ that have sprung up in various cities, backed by seemingly unlimited funds from the elusive kingpin of the tickling scene, Terri DiSisto. Once one has overcome the intrinsic absurdity of its premise, and had a giggle at the sight of burly men squirming and shrieking, Tickled settles into a genuinely unsettling tone as Farrier and Reeve are informed they are ‘sticking their heads inside a blast furnace’.
Farrier has a winningly in-over-his-head demeanour which brings to mind Jon Ronson in his handling of the aggressive, defensive Clarke and the sleazy former tickle video casting agent David Starr. And Reeve remains as the a but resolute force behind the camera, pushing Farrier to overcome his doubts as Jane O’Brien intensifies the pressure. But Tickled is far from a journalistic triumph. Farrier does, as accused, surreptitiously record a meeting with Jane O’Brien’s legal team and uses it in the film, then accuses Jane O’Brien of uploading the tickling videos to the web without their participants’ permission. At times there is a visually histrionic pitch which gives it the feel of a lurid TV news expose, betraying Farrier’s roots producing lightweight human interest stories for New Zealand TV.
On the level of pure entertainment, Tickled is an unqualified success with some genuinely tense moments straight out of a conspiracy thriller. But there are lapses in journalistic decorum which serve to cast a pall over its admittedly pretty watertight case against Jane O’Brien Media. The transition from whimsy is an awkward one, but once this has been overcome, Tickled becomes an intriguing, if problematic, glimpse into how wealth, power and obsession can poison something as fundamentally joyous as the act of tickling. But a glimpse is all it offers. Tickled is as much about Farrier’s peregrination through a legal minefield as the human wreckage created by Jane O’ Brien’s borderline-Mafioso tactics. Farrier and Reeve stray into some troubling quarters, but one cannot escape the feeling that Tickled is in essence an act of journalistic adventurism in the Viceland vein.
Follow Daniel Palmer on Twitter at @mrdmpalmer.