Cultural production posits a caste system based on creative ownership. Studios, producers, writers, directors, and distributors share ownership of a particular media franchise or phenomenon, while anything brought to it by the lowly audience is spewed out on the lower rungs of fan fiction, message boards, and Facebook groups. It can be fun to re-edit, mutilate, or expand an established fictional universe, but your customized, personalized creation will never be admitted into canon or given serious consideration by the creators of that series. Meanwhile legions of fans wait with bated breath for clues, confirmations, cryptic announcements, canonical addendums emanating from the vaunted lips or twitter feeds of the J.K. Rowlings and Joss Whedons of the world. The flow of imaginative traffic remains uni-directional – from lauded world-renowned talents to ordinary viewers/readers/consumers.
Bypass the implicit classism of this sketchily conceived relationship and you get at something more insidious. The obsessed-over sanctity of franchise-embedded fictional universes always yields diminishing returns. These branded fictions are milked for all their rigorously calculated profit potential, world-building becomes a matter of empty accumulation of meaningless miscellany long after the thematic or storytelling value of the original work has run its course, and every variant of the Klingon-speaking fan is manipulatively kept on the hook awaiting opportunistic market-mandated movie announcements and product launches. Meanwhile, the Art and Entertainment that initially formed the crux of one’s relationship with the fiction has withered and died, and you’ve scarcely noticed because capitalism has devised a formica facsimile in its place. As a one-time obsessive of The Simpsons – to my mind one of the greatest works of modern art – I know this from experience. When you’ve gotten to the point of buying episode guides, following Al Jean’s press releases, and downloading freemium smartphone apps for their tangential relationship to something you once loved for being a radical, subversive, living and breathing work of art, then you’ve lost your way, and we all know who is to blame.
So that’s fan culture in a nutshell, as I see it. But there is one fictional universe a few years under construction that, out of some mad Joycean ambition, has emerged as a never-ending text, wildly at odds with all notions of officialdom, with a fanbase that has been freely conscripted as co-conspirators in its creation. This would be Tim Heidecker’s and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinema at the Cinema, a psychodramatic epic played out on a few meager sets, based on the endlessly regenerative joke of the two lead characters’ mutually abusive but tragically codependent relationship. No matter what strange detours it takes or outlandish permutations it experiences, the show is based on a foundational, sitcom-style bit: these guys hate each other, but, deep down, they have no one else.
From this simple, straightforward dynamic, a universe emerges that is Tolkeinesque in its lore, Pynchonian in its densely free-associative sprawl, and ambiguously metatextual in a way far closer to Abbas Kiarostami’s mysteriously interstitial docu-fictions than Charlie Kaufman’s more easily processed self-reflexive puzzle-boxes. It’s also, I’d say, not unlike the films of Jacques Rivette for its splintered, collaborative, freewheeling process of self-creation.
But don’t worry, fellas, I’m not as far up my own ass as you might think! I know that name-drop-heavy academese can bludgeon a work into unrecognizable submission. I know that, above all else, On Cinema is authentically, instinctively hilarious and creative without any conscious aping of hifalutin arthouse precedents or striving for some larger significance. But, obnoxious shithead of a critic that I am, I can’t help but allege that, naturally and miraculously, it achieves what it doesn’t even need to strive for. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, across all of their work, strike me as radical artists by nature. But perhaps even more so than Awesome Show, Neil Hamburger in all of his incarnations, and their brilliant work for Rick Alverson, On Cinema is a work of staggering genius, even if that genius can only thrive so long as it remains hopelessly obscure.
So, yeah, how to take this voluminous unwieldy multi-platform Work Of Art and, uh, break it down so I can get any kind of handle on what I’m trying to say about it? With something like On Cinema, you can only really – to use a medical analogy – scrape off a few cells for microscopic scrutiny so as to make more general inferences about the organism as a whole. The things that I cherish about On Cinema are manifold, and I’m gonna list out only a few as briefly as possible:
1) The blurring of Tim/Gregg the On Cinema characters and Tim/Gregg as Actual people. This isn’t a Stephen Colbert playing-himself-as-a-character approach, as Tim and Gregg are really and truly embodying fully fleshed out characters of novelistic depth, abundant in rightfully stigmatized (but all too scarily human) personality traits in a way that is micro-attuned to the nuances of habitual gestures, bodily tics, speech patterns, and the most throwaway behaviorisms (i.e. this ain’t just comedy, this is capital-A Acting…and yeah, I’d say it’s Oscar-worthy) while also allowing these three-dimensional creations to recklessly, in some sense bravely overlap with their own non-fictional identities. It is in some sense obvious where the demarcation line is between Actual Tim and On Cinema Tim, but there is always the occasional enigma. I tend to believe that On Cinema Tim’s evaluations of various 6 Bag Cinemas jingle submissions are likely reflective of the extent to which Actual Tim is impressed by the fan-generated content that he, both in- and out-of-character, happily solicits.
Gregg, meanwhile, is clearly channeling or amplifying certain aspects of his Actual self – it comes down through the ol’ grapevine that he is an avid vinyl collector and old Hollywood enthusiast. And his characterization of his On Cinema doppelganger is so scarily accurate, inasmuch as we’ve all known (or have sometimes even been) people like that (you can find any number of them on Youtube, especially within the subgenre of basement-dwelling DVD hoarders who creepily pornograph their meaningless collections to likeminded whack jobs), that it can sometimes bypass comedy altogether and enter into hyperrealistic portraiture. But given that Actual Gregg has always hewn to the punk ethos of burying himself in transgressive personae (The Zip Code Rapists, Neil Hamburger), it is extremely fucking difficult to get a handle on Who This Guy Even Actually Is. Such mysteries crop up with staggering regularity in On Cinema.
2) ‘Behind-the-scenes’ takes on entirely new dimensions. Sketch comedy has long profited by show-biz send-ups wherein celebrities, sportscasters, pundits – whoever it may be – can’t help but air out their dirty laundry in an entertainment context (talk shows, radio broadcasts, etc.) where scripted talking points and stiff-necked professionalism are the unspoken law of the land. On Cinema takes this concept to an extreme I don’t think anyone imagined possible. For all of the richness of On Cinema, the plenitude of events and subplots that transpire within this universe – motorcycle accidents, Hawaiian vacations, infanticides by neglect, movie theater fires, rock shows in Dubai – these are all largely depicted off-camera. What’s on camera is just two guys on the same fucking set every single week, trying to do their shitty movie review show, the only real exceptions being the Oscar Specials (which function as special, bravura editions of the main show) and Decker episodes (a spin-off). Either way, we only technically inhabit an extremely limited low-budget space when we engage with On Cinema. And yet the show’s genius is in conjuring an entire fucked-up universe that exists forever outside the nominal scope of the show. Or, to put it another way, it stimulates the viewers’ imagination in a radically compelling way, with Gregg and Tim knowing exactly what microcosmic details to leave in and what large-scale narrative cataclysms to leave out. It is storytelling of the highest order – a multi-volume novel in which a throwaway tweet might function as an entire chapter.
This on-camera/off-camera dynamic might warrant an essay unto itself. Tim’s various maladies – the blood clots in his brain, his acupuncture-needled face, his bandaged, burnt-to-a-crisp hands, and now his rotting skin and protruding skull – are effects (rendered via the gnarliest make-up and costume jobs) from which we are forced to intuit the even more grisly off-screen causes. These continual lapses into what I suppose can only be called body horror are representative of the series’ extraordinary bathos, by which I mean the characters’ utterly mangled sense of priority. One of Tim’s most essential character traits is his short fuse, and yet he only blows his top selectively – usually if Gregg or Mark or another perceived underling is undermining his authority. By outlandish contrast he takes all of his life-threatening ailments in incredible stride, usually addressing them via the most nonchalant top-of-the-show “so this is what’s going on with me” announcements.
3) Uh, The Supporting Cast. Because of this aforementioned limited scope, we don’t see members of Dekkar’s audience, or patrons of the Victorville Film Center. In fact, we aren’t really privy to ordinary humanity – it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Ayaka and Sally Kellerman are the extent of female representation in this man-cave alter-verse. Axiom, Manuel and the rest of Dekkar are totems of the most hollowed-out rock-god culture. Mark and Gregg are charisma cavities, and what to even make of Dr. San, Chef John Lennard, James fucking Dean? None of these are ‘real people,’ except for the fact that they kinda are. The various ‘actors’ inhabiting these roles clearly aren’t chosen for their acting ability, but for something intrinsic to themselves, and the extent to which some of these people are ‘in’ on the joke is subject for extensive debate (if you’re enough of a sleuth, go down the rabbit hole of investigating the ‘real’ Axiom and see what conclusions you can draw).
And, furthermore, what would a general humanity even look like in this universe? We know from our vantage point as fans to laugh at Tim’s fat middle-aged attempts to be a rock god, or Gregg’s reverential attitude toward Michael Keaton movies, but we also take this to its logical endpoint, relishing the idea of a world wherein the VFC is playing restorations of garbage 80s movies to packed houses and Tim is performing at popular EDM festivals all across the country. So while we’re only witness to a cast of carefully selected freaks and weirdos, we (‘we’ meaning The On Cinema Family) can only view them as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave standing in for an even more warped general viewership. If these people are successful – if ‘Empty Bottle’ is the number one download in America, if Decker is exerting a limitless influence over Hollywood, if Joe Estevez is of America’s most esteemed actors – then who is the fictional audience that is fueling all this success?
4) WE ARE. We are fueling this success. We are a dually engaged viewership who, on one level, watches On Cinema as a work of brilliant transgressive comedy, while, on another level, doubling as the fictional audience that is referred to time and time again on the show. The nameless masses who are downloading Dekkar’s hits, writing partisan fan-mail (you know, the Timheads vs. Greggheads), seeking to get involved in the 6 Bag Cinema franchise, driving up Decker’s ratings, going to see Ant-Man, etc. on top of etc. To bring this bad boy of an essay full circle, it needs to be addressed that On Cinema is the antithesis to aforementioned closed-loop fan communities that seem to dominate popular culture. On Cinema does not exist without Tim and Gregg’s trust in our intelligence, our creativity, our ability to tune into their wavelength.
I used the term ‘regenerative’ earlier in this essay, and this is more or less what I mean. For all their shading and nuances as finely wrought characters, Tim and Gregg are ultimately proffering up two extremely simpleminded ways of viewing the world. It’s the old jock vs. nerd canard taken to a crazed extreme. Tim is a sponge freely absorbing all of the douchiest sub-cultures in America – middle-American libertarians, image-conscious classic rock fanatics, alternative medicine devotees, EDM bass heads, fine-dining hipsters with money to blow and ‘enhanced’ food palettes to satiate — and this list will probably never exhaust itself so long as 1) these subcultures still continue to exist in this stupid country and 2) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on. Meanwhile, Gregg’s perpetual reliving of the 80s and 90s, masquerading his nostalgia as Film Expertise, his relentlessly clichéd soundbite approach to evaluating motion pictures, his stubborn analog fetishism, and his single-minded insistence that movies are The Only Thing That Matters (meaning a total lack of interest in sex, an inability to grasp the indecency of insisting on CGI talking animals in a Holocaust movie, and his recently established indifference to the prospect of Tim’s suicide [after all, Heath Ledger did the same thing!]) – all of this is its own paradoxically comprehensive simplemindedness, an idiocy that is so nuanced that it can be explored to the end of time, so long as Hollywood keeps churning out garbage (it will) and (again) the bitterly but infectiously satirical spirit of On Cinema lives on.
And when I say ‘the spirit’ of On Cinema, I mean the fact that so much of the universe exists outside of the official, ABSO-produced, Adult Swim-distributed show. It exists on Twitter, on Facebook, in casual conversation, anywhere that fans are creatively engaging with it. This isn’t secondary, tertiary, or in any way supplementary material. This is what literally powers the show, not economically but CREATIVELY. On Cinema is not a barricaded world of sleek production values and big stars that we worship from afar. It intakes all the gangrenous refuse of American Culture, the cultural product we consume (and how and why we consume it), and vomits it up as comedy. And because the rest of us are wallowing in the same filth, we are freely invited to join in this regurgitative process. Tim and Gregg are not heaven’s gatekeepers, but the hosts of a house party in hell to which all are admitted, so long as we acknowledge that life as it is lived in this country – defined by pop culture, reflected in Hollywood blockbusters, set to the tune of derivative prog rock, corralled into hiveminded fandoms, role-modeled according to the fratbro mentality of right-wing action heroes, and discontinued as a result of serial neglect – is nothing if not a kind of perdition unto itself. But as long as we’re able to recognize it together and collaborate in the satirical process, then at least we’ll die laughing, our teeth flecked with kernels, and hopefully a popcorn classic playing somewhere in the background.