Tickled: Giggling in the Dark, by Matt Warren
For those of us (assholes) well-acquainted with the darker corners of the internet—be it through sickness, harmless curiosity, or lust for transgressive experiences—it will come as an absolute non-starter of a shock to learn there exists such a thing as tickle fetish videos. Once you’ve seen “Mr. Hands” fuck his big horse dick through a grown man’s abdomen until his equine cockhead pops through the fuckee’s solar plexus like a stage-2 xenomorph, the thought of some light-BDSM tickle-torture featuring shirtless Abercrombie dudes isn’t quite so scandalous. But the actual tickling part of David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s amazing new documentary Tickled isn’t the weird part—the weird part is everything else.
Tickled is Exhibit A why you should never go out of your way to be a needlessly shitty, self-hating homophobe. GOP presidential candidates take note. The film begins innocuously enough when Farrier, a New Zealand-based gonzo-quirk TV host of the Louis Theroux variety, discovers the world CET— aka “Competitive Endurance Tickling”—online and decides that it might make for the kind of oddball general interest TV segment that’s his bread and butter. But an initial press inquiry to reclusive CET impresario “Jane O’Brien” is met immediately, virulently, and disproportionately with hateful, “faggot”-dense recriminations and legal threats, including the deployment of three sketchy lawyer-goons from New York to Auckland to try and intimidate him.
Sufficiently irritated, Farrier and his co-director Reeve decide to tug at the thread, following CET’s trail of scare tactics, digital obfuscation, and seemingly endless financial resources across the globe—from the grimy porn studios of downtown LA to the off-brand MMA cage fighting scene of prime Michigan Juggalo country. Along the way they uncover a web of dual identities, institutional corruption, and high-level sexual blackmail the likes of which would make even David Miscavige quake with envy inside his shell of suppressive body Thetans.
Farrier’s faux-bumbling, first person investigator shtick is clearly indebted to Nick Broomfield (as well as the aforementioned Theroux) but Farrier only foregrounds himself inasmuch as doing is appropriate to the narrative. As the film’s onscreen protagonist, the “David Farrier” character is wisely underplayed—present, but nowhere near the smug and irritating crusader-hero archetype derived from Michael Moore and his performativity rabble-rousing imitators.
Farrier and Reeve find just the right tonal balance between the innate humor of Tickled’s ostensible subject matter and the tense, pulse-pounding suspense of the nefarious shadow world lurking just below this seemingly low-level kink. The film looks amazing, too. As with many on-the-fly docs, Tickled no doubt came together in the moment. But you wouldn’t guess it from how well constructed every shot is, including even talking-head interviews (typically the bane of any doc trying to be even the least bit visually interesting.) Gone are the days of using vérité as an excuse for shoddy production values. Filmmaking tech has elevated the nonfiction game, and Tickled has come to play.
Tickled seizes the nugget of what could have otherwise been a middling episode of MTV: True Life and transforms it, through dogged investigation and fearless perseverance, into the most compelling exploration of sexual abuse and institutionalized corruption since Spotlight. How’s that for something to laugh about?