This is the third installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
Tiger King (2020) | Mistress America (2015)
Last week, I saw Tiger King, and Tiger King saw me staring enraptured at my monitor for seven useless hours, occasionally pausing to say “what the fuck,” or “why the hell,” or “obviously, she killed her husband and then fed him to a tiger” aloud to nobody in particular. I gather the same thing is happening right now, or that it has already happened, in innumerable homes across the globe. That the great unifier in the current crisis has been a stranger-than-fiction documentary—one, no less, about an openly gay Oklahoman man named “Joe Exotic” who once bred exotic animals for profit, and is now in jail for hiring a hit-man—feels implausible, but not impossible: the show is bingeable because its twists and turns do not so much accelerate from episode to episode as enter warp speed from more or less minute one. It is the documentarian’s equivalent of the skits from SNL that star Stefon, Bill Hader’s high-camp club reporter. It has everything, including but not limited to sex cults, a missing-presumed-dead husband, missing limbs, country Western music, a failed presidential campaign, a eulogy in which the testicles of the deceased are described as “golden nuggets,” a priest’s outfit, a padlock purchased specifically to be worn on a cock ring, an extraordinary mullet, a meet-cute in which the man insists the woman holds him up at gunpoint, a furious tiger being told to “just fuck off,” numerous meth addictions, live snakes stuffed full of cocaine, and a tattoo across the pubis of a backwoods beefcake that reads “PROPERTY OF JOE EXOTIC.”
Several commentators have suggested that the titular King, Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage, has the air of a character from a film by the hipsterish homme terrible and hillbilly fetishist Harmony Korine. They may be thinking about Moondog, the bleach-blond beat poet played with Southern-fried, drug-addled magnetism by Matthew McConaughey in last year’s The Beach Bum, or about the cast of glue-sniffing delinquent characters in Gummo; they might be remembering James Franco, pre-Disaster Artist and pre-cancellation, as the cornrow-sporting, dirty-talking drug dealer Alien in Korine’s thrilling and magnificent Spring Breakers. When the critic Janet Maslin described Gummo as the worst film of the year in 1997, what she hated was the orgiastic way it reveled in its seediness: she saw its use of “nonprofessional actors … freakish individuals whom the film flaunts contemptuously” as sensationalist, an unforgivable act of exploitation. “Dirt is no crime,” Maslin seethed, “but willful stupidity should be.” Whether there is a nonexploitative way to allow nonprofessional actors who are also stone-broke addicts to portray themselves onscreen remains, I think, unclear—the morality of it every bit as hazy as the smoke from Moondog’s bong.
Is Tiger King sensationalist? It is sensationalist enough that I just ran a Google search to see if anybody had yet coined the awkward portmanteau “exploitertainment.” There is no world in which Joe Exotic is a decent man, in a strict sense—he is a sexual predator, an animal abuser, and a would-be murderer. In this world, it is also true that there’s no other Joe Exotic. He is a true-blue eccentric, a commodity as rare and valuable as a liger, making it almost inevitable that he would become a worldwide meme. Eric Goode, a co-director of the project alongside Rebecca Chaiklin, has suggested that the show was meant to have a more obvious moral purpose, and that Netflix has reduced it to junk entertainment for the sake of higher ratings. “Netflix is very adept at making binge-worthy television, and with these larger-than-life subjects that was pretty easy to do,” he told an interviewer at Vanity Fair. “However, my goal is and has always been the same, which is to raise awareness and help save the species.” That goal is not evident in the version of Tiger King that has made Netflix, which is almost entirely free of editorializing, and which occasionally veers into the lookit-them-poors territory of Dog the Bounty Hunter, Cops, or Jerry Springer. It may be this quality that is reminding Tiger King’s cinema-literate viewers of the work of Harmony Korine, who in Gummo masterminded a startling vision of “white trash” decrepitude despite being a middle-class kid with a father who made documentaries for PBS.
It is possible to argue that as much as Joe Exotic does resemble an invention of Korine’s, he also calls to mind John Waters’s proudly freaky, exuberantly sexual protagonists: the presidential campaign video in which he yells “I won’t wear a suit, I’m gay, I’ve had kinky sex, I’ve done drugs, I’m broke as shit” is kissing cousins with Aunt Ida’s rant about the “sick and boring” lives of heterosexuals in Waters’s Female Trouble. The big difference between Waters’s hicks and Harmony Korine’s is that for Waters, grotesqueness and down-home dirtiness are points of actual pride, qualifications that grant access to a dazzling fellowship of underdogs and pervert-geniuses. To Waters, “freaks” are not zoo animals, but treasured peers. Both directors, whatever their attitude to the extreme characters they return to movie after movie, are in search of a very particular brand of high-camp Americana: that of self-made men and women who have chosen to remold themselves into peculiar, unfamiliar shapes. Joe Exotic is a conman so successful he has conned himself into believing his own manic hype, so that at first his bizarre zoo looks like a paradise for weirdos. It is only when the grift fails—when the lawsuits and the suicides and drug addictions become too grim, too Korine—that the tragicomedy of Tiger King becomes a tragedy outright.
“I think I’m sick,” a stylish scammer named Brooke Cardinas frets, in the 2o15 Noah Baumbach film Mistress America. “And I don’t know if my ailment has a name. It’s just me sitting and staring at the internet or the television for long periods of time, interspersed by trying to not do that and then lying about what I’ve been doing.” Brooke, as played by Greta Gerwig, is a pretty but galumphing thirty-year-old adolescent, an immediately recognizable millennial type: a genius at patter, and a failure in life. One day, she might get around to writing a screenplay, or a novel; presently, her dream is opening a vaguely-defined restaurant. She is living on the money of a rich and absent boyfriend who she cheats on, and is hung up on another, richer ex, seemingly mostly for his fortune. Baumbach, who in 2015 was already dating Greta Gerwig, evidently finds Brooke charming in a way that I did not—the rest of the film’s characters are effortlessly sucked into her orbit as if by some irresistible, sensual charisma. When her bookish would-be stepsister describes her, in the film’s last scene, as “the last cowboy, all romance and failure … a beacon of hope for other people,” I found myself just as baffled by the hyperbole as I was by anything I saw in Tiger King.
Mistress America is currently on Netflix, making it available to anybody who is finding themselves sitting staring at the internet for long periods of time, interspersed by trying to not do that and then lying about what they have been doing. It is infinitely less showy than Tiger King, despite being a movie rather than a documentary series, but it is not entirely dissimilar in its subject matter. Brooke Cardinas has decided that she is in some vague, unspecified way an exceptional person, and that in accordance with her specialness, she should not be required to lead a normal life. When she ends up evicted and decides to move out West to LA, that iconic mecca for creative people with delusions, it seems obvious that she will fail there, too. She and Exotic are two bookends, sitting either side of a decades-old cautionary tale about the American dream: bottle-blond grifters whose big dreams turned into bear traps of their own design.