In his masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow, literary icon and comical genius Thomas Pynchon wrote what is called “Proverbs for Paranoids”, and the first proverb is “you may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures” – and until now, that quote hasn’t fully resonated with much as much as it did after watching Tickled, a film that might have absolutely no connection to Pynchon, but is so scarily Pynchonian in its approach to a very strange subject, that it was impossible for me not to view this as something right out of the mind of someone as strangely bizarre as Thomas Pynchon – and someone equally as ingenious as the great writer. I’m pretty sure Pynchon himself would laugh that he is being connected to a film like Tickled, because it is something that seems to be right out of one of his off-the-wall, outrageous literary epics.
I probably should have known that Tickled would be one of the strangest films I’d ever see when it was suggested to me through a very unlikely source – the Pope of Trash and cult film icon John Waters, who listed Tickled as one of his favourite films of 2016. The description itself was interesting enough for me to actually seek it out – David Farrier, a New Zealand journalist, sets out to make a documentary about CET, and has to face the repercussions that occur when he enters into a world that is unknown to so many people, but is far more complex and weird than anyone could possibly imagine, and even as his research borders on going way too far, Farrier and his co-director and friend Dylan Reeve are constantly drawn into the strange world of CET.
Of course, CET stands for competitive endurance tickling. This is a documentary about a journalist discovering an entire underworld of people who have a fetish for being tickled. This is not fiction, this is absolute, unadulterated, honest reality. There isn’t any euphemism or double entendre here – there are people that pay huge amounts of money to see young men tickle each other in some bizarre display of torture that apparently is incredibly popular, much to the surprise of Farrier, and I assume much of the audience. I am not sure what is stranger – that there are people that take part in this industry, or that there was an entire documentary made about it, and not only that, a pretty great documentary that exposes a pretty malicious underground market, just based off one journalist finding out about this industry almost by accident.
I’m not quite sure why I watched Tickled – it is a pretty obscure film, and having only heard of it a few months ago when Waters listed his favourite films of the year (amongst them Everybody Wants Some!! and Elle, both films I loved) – and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why the idea of a documentary about people being tickled (once again, this is not a joke) seemed so outrageously interesting. Perhaps I was just looking for something different – and I have to say, this film delivered.
Farrier starts out innocently enough trying to find out what this industry was about – it appeared to be some kind of sport, and being a light entertainment journalist who had a knack for strange stories, a sport where people tickle each other would make for entertaining television, if nothing else. Little did Farrier know, he was entering into a void which can only be described as being written from the imaginations of Thomas Pynchon and Franz Kafka – what initially seems to be a silly little bit of entertainment actually ends up being a dangerous and incredibly sinister industry that is controlled by truly villainous people, who make it their mission to destroy the lives of those that dare try and leave their greasy clutches (sounds like another massive industry that doesn’t allow members to leave, and if they dare, they have their lives ruined). Farrier and Reeve did not have the smallest idea of what they were getting themselves into, but like the viewer, you just can’t avoid wanting to satisfy that burning desire to ask the important question – what the hell is up with these people?
I’ll be perfectly honest – many horror films come out every year. How is it that a tiny New Zealand documentary about tickling turns out to be the most terrifying film of the year? Tickled is filled with extraordinarily thick tension, and the villains of the film (in the form of the spectral owners of the companies that produce these tickling videos) are mostly unseen, but loom as ghosts, terrorizing the subjects and acting as sinister presences through testimonies from ex-associates that have managed to escape their hold, and have had their own lives terrorized by these unseen figures who are set out to get what they want. The film’s climax is one of the most extraordinarily intense moments in a film I’ve ever seen, and you hold your breath, much like the documentarians. You feel thrust into their world, and go on this journey with them.
I won’t spoil anything about Tickled for anyone, because it is such a hidden gem of a film. I could talk about Tickled for ages – it is such a strange film, and one of the most bizarre cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. However, this is a film that I think needs to be seen, because while it is completely outrageous, it is also insanely fascinating, and exposes a strange faction of the world, and leads us to question the power of the internet, and what someone with power and influence can do with money and the naivety of youth. Tickled has some extraordinary twists, and the ending hits you like a ton of bricks. It is such a wonderfully strange little film, and is a fresh spin on the familiar documentary structure. I hope everyone seeks this film out, because while it may be the very definition of weird, it is also something that has to be seen to be believed. Just be warned, this is a grotesquely strange film.