Monday, January 25, 2016

Slamdance ’16: Art of the Prank

Prankster Joey Skaggs must be real—he has his own wikipedia page. Even though we are trained to be skeptical of what we see on the internet, many still tend to accept what they are served-up in documentaries and the old media at face-value. Skaggs has done his best to undercut the media’s credibility and authority with his politically charged pranks. The journalists and talking heads who fall for his hoaxes really ought to know better, but they are too lazy to do their due diligence. Skaggs revisits his greatest hits and reveals his latest extended gag in Andrea Marini’s as-true-as-you-know documentary, Art of the Prank (trailer here), which screens at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.

It will not surprise anyone when Jack Cafferty shows up several times in Prank with journalistic egg on his face. Skaggs punked some of biggest media outlets, but apparently Cafferty was an easy target. You might think after one such embarrassment, the media establishment would be on-guard against his antics, but they have taken his bait, time after time. Marini shows vintage footage of the Cathouse for Dogs, the Celebrity Sperm Bank, the Cockroach Vitamin Pill, the “Portofess” portable confessional, and the Fat Squad plenty of producers and anchors would prefer to forget.

Sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder who could be so gullible. On the other hand, some of Skaggs’ operations have been so elaborate, it is harder to blame his marks. For most of us, seeing would be believing in the case of a cathouse for dogs. However, his latest prank might have unintended consequences. Skaggs and his merry band of co-conspirators produced Pandora’s Hope, a phony short documentary (ostensibly directed by Kit Farrell) about the purported dangers of GMOs that also included completely bogus footage of Skaggs’ character getting genetic shark implants to regrow his lost teeth. It actually screened at a few festivals, including the Big Apple and Moondance fests, where the social conscious audiences bought it all, hook, line and sinker. Yet, you have to wonder if people will start to doubt the rest of its GMO alarmism when they realize the genetic shark grafts are a joke.

Frankly, greater skepticism regarding documentaries would probably be healthy for the body politic. Take for instance, Örn Marino Arnarson & Thorkell S. Hardarson’s Feathered Cocaine, which screened at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. Half the film is a rather interesting expose of the dubious practices of Middle East falconers, but the second half claims their intrepid focal bird trainer discovered Bin Laden was living in Iran, as a guest of the very Shia regime, by tracking the unique transponders on his falcons. Furthermore, the filmmakers clearly imply the Bush Administration was protecting Bin Laden, because they refused to act on this prime intel. Of course, unless the Obama Administration faked the Seal Team Six raid in Pakistan, these claims turned out to be complete garbage. Yet, it seems neither the filmmakers nor the festivals that screened Feathered Cocaine have issued any retractions or apologies.

Okay, so that is a wee bit of a tangent, but it supports Skaggs’ general contention that we cannot simply assume everything presented in a documentary, or a news report, is one hundred percent factual. So yes, Prank offers a valuable lesson in informed media consumption. Unfortunately, as a revealing work of film, it falls far shorter. Marini never really gets inside Skaggs head, instead settling for his sea story reminiscences and his warmed over hippy New Left ideology. She never challenges any of Skaggs’ pronouncements and he certainly never re-examines any of his assumptions.

Frankly, Prank becomes more than a little self-congratulatory. Still, it is quite amusing to watch Skaggs’ career highlights—unless you are Jack Cafferty. Diverting but disappointingly shallow, Art of the Prank screens again this Wednesday (1/27), as part of this year’s Slamdance.