Journalist and documentarian David Farrier likes strangeness on the fringes. And if his films are any measure (Tickled is such an odd artifact that I can’t say if I like the film or not), Farrier can’t avoid but get in the thick of the worlds his subjects inhabit. Who knows — perhaps he enjoys being pulled into the weird. (Harmless as the act was, he did not have to take the abandoned antique store’s sign, let alone go on to make an entire feature about the eponymous Mr. Organ).
Mister Organ begins at this store — Bashford Antiques. In the middle of what Farrier calls the “Beverly Hills of New Zealand,” a man is wheel-clamping cars parked in the lot by the store and charging the owners exorbitant prices just to get their cars back. One car owner, according to Farrier, was charged $360 dollars for 30 minutes of parking. The scandal becomes such tabloid news that the problem reaches parliament, where the laws are changed to prevent this from continuing.
The man holding cars hostage for hundreds of dollars is Michael Organ. Or Micheal Organe. Or Prince Organ. Michael Organ is a lawyer (except that he’s not), a prince (except that he’s not), and a duke (except that he’s not). One interviewee, a former roommate of Organ, retells a story where Organ tried to claim in a court of law that he was a prince. The judge had to personally walk the man to the elevator, ordering him to leave. The judge then returned to the courtroom and advised those who knew Organ to, if they could, never associate with him again.
Farrier’s reporting on Organ’s car clamping shenanigans puts Farrier in Organ’s crosshairs, and the film spirals out from an exposé into an auto-biographical tête-à-tête between the two men.
Farrier is nothing if not a storyteller. From moment one, he infuses the entire life of Organ with mystery and intrigue. Over the course of the first half hour, Farrier slowly draws out this man’s persona, scattering bits of information methodically and with clear purpose. Organ is an enigma, one we are asked to be both curious and afraid of. Organ’s actions follow through on this promise of morbid curiosity and danger, certainly, but Farrier cannot help but overindulge in this introduction.
Still, this opening act is the tightest and most fascinating part of the documentary. Once Farrier becomes his own subject, an accomplice in this narrative, so to speak, the whole story starts spinning in circles. Part of it, Farrier himself admits during the course of the film, comes down to there not being much of a story behind Organ. He got under Farrier’s skin, and the combination of Organ’s deceits and Farrier’s emotions leads to something of a docu-fiction. Truth and lies (moreover, accusations of lies and defensive claims to truth) stir a muck of pseudo-reality. It all very well might be true, but the truth is less important than the story.
Also, Farrier continues some ethically gray practices that were evident in Tickled. In at least one instance, he keeps the camera running after his subject has said that they do not want to be on camera in that moment. In another, a subject asking for a conversation to be edited out of the final cut also does not see his request honored. It is hard to know the full picture of these moments, given how the film cuts around things. And there very well could have been off-camera agreements with the subjects to keep these moments in the film. But they are odd elements to keep in a film, as they don’t reflect well on the director.
The sticky aspect of this, I suppose, is that Farrier does not care for neutrality. Not that he need to to be a good documentary filmmaker. But it makes for a messy narrative of confrontation which subsumes his subject and replaces it with himself. Farrier may claim it this is Michael Organ’s doing, as he aggressively pulled Farrier into his orbit (he does do some nefarious and blatantly illegal things, such as obtaining a copy of Farrier’s house key). Even so, the film moves from being a character study to being a study of Farrier’s failure to complete said character study. I’m not convinced the latter is more compelling than the former.
Mister Organ, a spiritual sequel of sorts to Tickled, will provide similar discomfiting and intriguing entertainment. Both films are imperfect pieces of creative journalism, and both are necessarily self-reflexive to a fault. Just don’t expect a resolution to the initially wild story, nor the same degree of twisting and turning as with Tickled.
Mister Organ: C+
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)