Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii
What we call popular culture is, to a certain extent, a collective delusion, in which prognosticators, using sheer guesswork, assign importance to the herd movement of audiences and critics as being indicative of trends. Special priority is attributed to properties whose only measurable intrinsic worth, putting aside the intangible that is “quality,” is the financial investment that’s been made in them, all of this ineffably influenced by the shadowy machinations of PR. As I write, the day’s pseudo-event is the #StarWarsCelebration livestream, whipping up anticipation for a trailer for the forthcoming Star Wars movie, the seventh in the franchise’s history. (This morning I noted in passing that the New York Daily News had seemingly awarded five stars to the trailer.) Two weeks ago, another number-seven in a franchise—James Wan’s Furious 7—was grounds for panegyrics and pièces de pensée. At Salon, for example, an essay by holidaying television critic Sonia Saraiya identified the Furious films as “diametrically opposed to detached, blasé hipster irony,” a sort of Voltron super-straw-man if ever there was one.
In such a world as this, the Adult Swim web series Decker, a masterpiece of blasé hipster irony starring Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, is a necessary antidote. The second “Book” of the series, this one subtitled Port of Call: Hawaii, ended its 20-episode run two weeks ago. It stars Heidecker as special agent Jack Decker, America’s only line of defense against terrorist attacks, thanks to ineffectual, craven, do-nothing liberal President Davidson (Joe Estevez, the brother of The West Wing’s Martin Sheen). The first five-episode season, which ran in the summer of 2014, ended with Decker preventing a terrorist attack on “Central Park”—a nondescript, scrubby patch of picnic ground somewhere in southern California—by flailingly overpowering a suicide bomber, Abdul (Mark Proksch, noticeably not an Arab, though playing one, dressed in the fashion of a Saudi Sheikh), then throwing the explosive device into the sky where, superimposed over a stock aerial photo of Central Park, it exploded into the pattern of an American flag firework. The stock photo bears a very prominent watermark and, while “racing” to save the day on his Kawasaki motorcycle, Decker is easily overtaken by a female bicyclist. Every episode is densely packed with such “errors,” most prominently Heidecker’s line readings, each one a thicket of malapropisms and clichés. The second series catches up with Decker taking a much-needed Hawaiian vacation that is interrupted by a Taliban takeover of the islands, and features an expanded role for Turkington’s character, the code-cracker Kingston. (The name is variously pronounced as “Klington,” “Klingston,” and “Kington,” while the editing tends to disrespectfully clip off the end of his line readings.) The average episode runs around five or six minutes, with a third of that time devoted to recapping the previous episode and the opening titles, accompanied by Hot Guitar Licks.
Habitués of art cinema will recognize Heidecker as the star of Rick Alverson’s The Comedy (12), in which he and Turkington discuss the spotlessness of hobo dicks while brunching at a sidewalk café. Most recently, Heidecker and Turkington collaborated with Alverson on the screenplay for his new film, Entertainment, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Entertainment stars Turkington as an itinerant lounge comedian called “Neil,” a close variation on “Neil Hamburger,” a character whom 47-year-old Turkington has been playing, first on record and then in live performances, for nearly a quarter of a century. When I interviewed Turkington for FILM COMMENT some weeks back, shortly before Entertainment closed this year’s New Directors / New Films, he described the origin of the first Neil Hamburger records as “conceptual recording projects.” And though I am not usually in the TV recap business, Decker similarly has a strong conceptual underpinning which makes it worth talking about in terms other than “What happens next?” In fact, it has a great deal to say about the consumption of motion pictures and what we call the “conversation” in 2015.
On Cinema at the Cinema
Before delving into Decker, we should first discuss the show that it spun off of, and which it complements, <em>On Cinema at the Cinema. On Cinema first appeared in November 2011 as an audio podcast; according to a recent interview with Heidecker at the A.V. Club, the idea was hatched while shooting The Comedy. The podcast’s inaugural episode was a one-and-a-half-minute celebration of the 20th Anniversary of 1984’s Ghostbusters; the following episode celebrates the 20th anniversary of 1980’s The Shining. It introduced the characters of “host and creator of the show” Tim Heidecker and “film buff/special guest” Gregg Turkington, who share their names with the performers playing them, but presumably very little else. For the purposes of clarity, I will henceforth refer to the characters as Tim and Gregg, and to the men playing them as Heidecker and Turkington.
Reviewing movies—“classics” at first, then contemporary releases—Tim and Gregg exchange banalities, boring speculations, and gibble-gabble about the performance, past or potential, of the movie or actors in question at the Academy Awards. (“This is the type of movie that Oscar loves to reward, and what greater reward would there be than to get an Oscar?”) These early episodes, complete with their recorded-inside-of-a-coffee-can audio, are a goof on the interchangeable film podcasts hosted by mealy-mouthed, adenoidal movie enthusiasts, and on the culture of studio-flack film-buffdom generally—a target that other Heidecker projects have taken aim at in the past. On two of Heidecker’s shows with partner Eric Wareheim, Tim and Eric Nite Live! (07-08) and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (07-10), Bob Odenkirk appeared as Danny Mothers, a socially maladroit stale-popcorn-munching “film reviewer extraordinaire” with an uncontrollable wince, seen reviewing Christmas season fare and interviewing the local director of no-budget sci-fi epic Crystal Shyps. It is worth noting that Heidecker and Wareheim aren’t outsiders to cinephile culture themselves: they met as aspiring young directors in film school at Temple University in (as Wareheim put it in an interview with Marc Maron), “these bullshit theory classes with five hundred people.” There must be something in Philadelphia’s water supply that gives birth to a particularly acerbic brand of comedy: it’s the birthplace of William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W.C. Fields, as well as The Dead Milkmen, who took shots at both the “mainstream” and “countercultural” identities of their day. (From 1987’s “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything)”: “Oh, baby, look at you / Don’t you look like Siouxsie Sioux / How long’d it take to get that way / What a terrible waste of energy.”)
On Cinema began to appear as a web series beginning in 2012—under the aegis of Adult Swim subsidiary ThingX.com for its first two seasons, then through Adult Swim alone. The format is something like Roger Ebert’s At the Movies, with Tim and Gregg working on a screening-room set that the show leaves behind only for rare special segments like “On Cinema On Location,” which visits nondescript locations around Los Angeles where mediocre, non-picturesque movies may or may not have been filmed. Gregg, pale with a cowl of chin-length hair, looks the genial shut-in; Tim like a Young Republican club president gone to seed. (His vanilla appearance is a comic boon; I particularly loved the detail of his character in Season Four of Eastbound & Down being constantly clad in Wake Forest University gear.) As in its podcast days, the webcast is as much a study in passive-aggressive workplace toxicity as a commentary on hack expertise, a weekly psychodrama in which the host/co-host dynamic teeters on the brink of outright hostility. Most of the elements which would be developed and embellished in seasons to come are visible in the first episode, in which the films discussed are RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists and Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. Tim high-handedly wields his host status over Gregg, letting his second banana flounder in disapproving dead air whenever he oversteps his boundaries, hanging him out to dry in punitive silence, and reminding him whenever possible of the temporary, probationary nature of his guest status. (“Hey, guys, good to be back in my seat again!” “The seat is for anybody who’s a guest of the show.”) Meanwhile, Tim’s own incompetence—he impatiently blows through introductions and synopses, full of garbled English and blithely mispronounced names—goes completely unchecked. He is particularly resentful of foreign-sounding monikers, and often loses patience with “no-name” casts, demanding that Tom Cruise appear in more films. At one point he identifies Ryan Reynolds as Burt Reynolds’s son. The more qualified and competent host, Gregg vacillates between open rebellion and toadying; most of the time he has to content himself with little victories, responding with tight-lipped, self-satisfied grins at Tim’s flubs.
On Cinema at the Cinema
The reviews are marked by unfailing default positivity, even when accompanied by no visible enthusiasm, and untouched by discriminations of taste. Per Heidecker: “It comes from that fanboy culture where, if it’s a Hollywood movie, it’s great.” Gregg specializes in cutesy pull-quote bids full of sub–Gene Shalit wordplay—“John Goodman should be renamed John Greatman after this, because he’s Oscar-worthy”—and some of my favorite moments involve Tim letting his guard down, blandly smiling at one of Gregg’s puns. Films are rated on a scale of up to five “bags” of popcorn, which are rewarded liberally. Though initially there was some minor variance in the (again, almost uniformly positive) ratings, now practically every movie receives the maximum. Sometimes Tim goes to six bags, which is the cue for Gregg to petulantly remind him that the scale only goes to five, which Tim dutifully ignores. The only time when either of them gives a movie a bad review is when they are in a spat and an opportunity appears to use ratings as a way to wound their partner, as in Tim’s relentless slagging on Gregg’s beloved James Bond franchise, which pushes Gregg to call Tim’s cherished Jack Reacher the worst movie of 2013. It is unclear whether either Heidecker or Turkington have watched the movies that they are talking about—I strongly suspect not—though as we have seen, this is no hindrance to many real cultural commentators, and if anything fact has outstripped parody in this department.
While Tim wields absolute power over the show, he is himself a weak-willed, easily taken-in faddist, always on the lookout for a new self-reinvention, be it a flax-seed diet, an acupuncture program, a scam website, or a temporary move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And while Tim’s enthusiasms may come and go, his grudges are forever—since the podcast days, the duo have kept up an ongoing debate over whether it’s Star Trek II or IV that takes place in San Francisco. (Gregg insists it’s the former, and must know better by now, but can’t stop himself.) Gregg always greets Tim’s latest preoccupation—including the addition of backup guest Ayaka (Ayaka Ohwaki), introduced as a foreign exchange student from Japan staying with Tim’s family (though she soon becomes Tim’s girlfriend)—as a threat to his always tenuous place on the show, and a distraction from the movies. If the derailments which occur to Gregg’s great chagrin tend to focus on Tim’s personal life, this is because Gregg doesn’t discernibly have any personal life of his own. The references that he does make to his leisure hours mostly refer to his unending quest to add titles to his exhaustively catalogued VHS tape collection. (“…if you haunt the dollar bins…” “…one of my journeys to the flea markets…”), and his mission to earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records by watching #500Moviesin500Days. Gregg’s VHS collection is highlighted in one of the show’s recurring segments, “Popcorn Classics,” which is introduced by a snatch of wobbly, old-timey music that only struck me as really hilarious when I’d heard it for about the hundredth time. Titles discussed include Just the Way You Are (84), Murphy’s Romance (85), 18 Again! (88), A Simple Twist of Fate (94), The Mod Squad (99), Two Weeks Notice (02), Jack Frost (98), and Forget Paris (95), most coming from the final decade of the VHS format’s life. The impact of being reminded of these mercifully forgotten movies is something like that created when Tim introduces celebrity guest Joe Estevez by reading off every single item in his filmography—reminding one of the staggering excrescence of movies that exist, the utter ephemerality of most of this product. Heidecker addressed this point in the aforementioned A.V. Club interview:
“[T]here’s just a shitload of movies that come out; there’s just an unending river of movies that come every week, and a lot of times there’s not a lot of demand for them. There’s a film review show in L.A. every Friday morning on NPR that’s called Film Week or something. They have these three critics come in and they sit there and talk about the 11 movies that are out that week and it’s like, ‘How did you guys have time to see them? How did you form opinions about them?’”
I suppose that some of my colleagues might take offense at this, but if you’re offended, you’re probably part of the problem.
We first hear tell of Decker sometime around the end of season four of On Cinema, when Estevez, as a special guest, refers to Tim as his “director,” and Tim mentions he has been shooting scenes for his opus “every weekend for the last six months.” (On Cinema uses Hollywood journeymen like Estevez and Jimmy McNichol in much the same way that Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! used public-access “stars” like David Liebe Hart—with affection and a puzzled awe.) The first Decker series aired in the summer of 2014, in the middle of season five of On Cinema. Imagined as the ultimate vanity project, Decker exists to provide Tim an opportunity to preen and strut as the badass of his adolescent dreams: Jack Decker wears all-black attire, sunglasses, and a pinched expression studied from Steven Seagal movies. The show is also an outlet for Tim to express his political convictions, which he’s discouraged from doing in On Cinema: Gregg chastises him after his one attempted “60-Second Soapbox” feature (“It is a fact that when you look at history, it is better to not tax so much and have not as much regulations”), though he still manages to slip in occasional asides. His passion for acupuncture, he notes, is predicated on the fact that it is paid for out-of-pocket, not through Obamacare, and when he receives word that Ayaka, back in Japan, is pregnant with his child, he sends her money to take care of it, all while remaining a “member of the Pro-Life community.” (Decker, he notes in passing, was financed through a small business loan.)
Decker is an extension of the On Cinema world, and the same mounting tension, spats, and temporary truces circulate between one and the other. (Although he often boasts about his social life, it is not at all evident that Tim has any male friends other than Gregg who might appear on his shows.) The interconnected ecosystem achieved a new level of complexity on the concurrently airing runs of On Cinema Season Six and Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii, on which Gregg reprises his role as Kingston, and is credited for “Additional Dialogue Concepts.” On the penultimate episode of On Cinema, Gregg and Tim prepare to shoot the finale of Decker; Gregg hasn’t seen the script, which Tim announces that he’s “still tweaking.” The reasons for this evasiveness become apparent in the Decker finale, as Decker drags Kingston’s videotape collection onto the beach and sets it on fire—ostensibly to get rid of a “bugged” copy of the 1995 Paul Reiser comedy Bye Bye Love, though obviously it’s just the petty, vindictive act of a sociopath. Gregg, blindsided, breaks the fourth wall, and ineffectually tries to salvage a few tapes while 2000 dramedy Isn’t She Great smolders among the ashes. When we come to the On Cinema finale, posted this Wednesday, Gregg is MIA for not the first time, and Tim is working with “last-minute” replacement guest, Ayaka.
Those who have been following the On Cinema/Decker melodrama know that the end of the respective seasons of these shows is not the end of the Tim and Gregg narrative. Adding yet another wrinkle to the multi-platform melodrama, the dysfunctional relationship spills off of the set and into online backbiting via Gregg and Tim’s Twitter accounts. On the evening of April 13, @greggturkington broke the silence about the acrimonious split in a serious of missives, including “The $8800 @timheidecker owes me for funding Decker travel expenses with my Visa card will be addressed outside of this public forum.” @timheidecker responded in kind—“@greggturkington ‘s writing on #Decker sucked and he was not easy to work with. I doubt we’ll work together again,” and so on.
Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii
And there’s still more. Heidecker and Turkington’s project not only solicits audience participation, but relies on it to complete the work. After Tim explodes at Gregg for using his “On Cinema On Location” segment to repeatedly visit scenes where the movie Oh, God! (77) was shot, for example, Gregg retweets the support of the vox populi to vindicate himself. (“I thought all 3 #oncinema on location segments dedicated to #ohgod were wonderfully nostalgic and fun!”) The YouTube comments section of any On Cinema or Decker installment is a battleground between pro-Gregg and pro-Tim factions. From the season finale of On Cinema: “While I’m afraid that the Popcorn Classics series is now irreversibly tainted, I feel that Gregg could still salvage the smoking ruins of this once-so-great show.” There is even biased media coverage, as at the website of Consequences of Sound, which ran pro-Tim and pro-Gregg pieces.
What the fans of On Cinema and Decker presumably enjoy in them (their excruciating sense of humor and insight into the morbid psychology of codependence) is not what they celebrate them for in public forums (helpful consumer reports-style opinions about Hollywood product; pulse-pounding action and stirring patriotic brio). These are not opinions, then, but “opinions”—just as On Cinema and Decker are not shows, but “shows.” As it happens, both do exhibit a significant amount of artfulness and technique, but these attributes are in the service of creating work which completely and conspicuously fails on every plane to successfully emulate its obvious model: a professionally made, seamlessly constructed, conventionally entertaining movie review show, or a professionally made, seamlessly constructed, conventionally entertaining tough-guy espionage thriller.
The creation of a comic “universe” with a rotating cast of characters, like that which On Cinema has created, is nothing new: you can point to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, Springfield on The Simpsons, Scharpling & Wurster’s Newbridge, or Marvel Films world-building, for example. What is singular about the On Cinema universe, however, is its use of social media, the way it encourages fans to role-play a burlesque of fan culture, as they burlesque entertainment journalism and action filmmaking. Talking to Maron, Heidecker described his and Wareheim’s shared sensibility: “You have to all be on the same page that we’re all fucked and most things are garbage, most products, whether it’s movies or TV shows or books, it’s mostly garbage and patronizing to us.”
Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii
This attitude, which extends to Heidecker’s work with Turkington and the assumption he makes about the On Cinema audience, is diametrically opposed to a certain strain of gee-whiz populist enthusiasm which has never lacked for a platform—for it is reassuring to be told that we live in the best of all possible Golden Ages—and has enjoyed especial respectability of late. Two years ago, writing about Tim & Eric and other strains of “sick” satire which sought to “[fight] vulgarity with vulgarity,” I struck on a pungent metaphor, noting how “devotion to the pop news cycle makes us into an ouroboros, swallowing our own tail—and eating our own shit.” Only a few months later, Heidecker, who is a skilled musical performer and songwriter in the pastiche mode, did me one better for images of waste consumption and recycling, releasing an album performed in the key of Seventies Southern rock on Drag City Records called “Urinal St. Station,” under the auspices of the Yellow River Boys. The leadoff track, “Hot Piss,” begins as follows: “I got my two-gallon jug of apple juice gonna drink it ‘til the jug is dry / And then I whip out my dick and I fill it back up and drink it all up tonight.”
Caricature is a form of distillation. By rendering familiar genres in grotesque, exaggerated shape, stripped of the elevating sheen provided by performance or production values, Heidecker and Turkington create homuncular versions of their models—warped, reductive, but also disturbingly familiar. It is through the parody of Web 2.0-era fandom that they have cultivated around their creations, however, that their work gets at something entirely of the moment: the comments-section cacophony, the use of art as ideological upholstery, the urge to break into pro- and anti-camps. It’s in that spirit I say “No, thanks” to Han and Chewie, forget Dom Toretto and Brian O’Conner—Jack Decker and Klingdon are the action heroes of our time.