This Isn’t Supposed to be Therapy

‘Sure, a doctor saves lives. But is he remembered?’

— Costumed panhandler outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater

A reliable mathematical axiom: Like an English Professor, a performer’s sense of self-importance is always in inverse proportion to his or her actual social importance. In any major city you can always find performance art mixed in with street hustlers. Solemn as it comes, the famous Viennese Actionists referred to their transgression pieces as “action art.”

On some far-flung planet, known as Los Angeles, performance art mixes alongside tourist hustling side shows in a three-way with comic book fandom, producing a unique cultural edema. The after-birth of this moist conceptual mess consists of a costumed circus outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (which those in the know refer to as ‘The Chinese Man’s Theater!’). We shall call this new and challenging artistic form “panhandling.” Matthew Ogens’ documentary, Confessions of a Superhero, reveals a segment of the population that takes itself supremely seriously regardless of whether they choose to go to work every day dressed as Shrek, Wonder Woman, or Batman, all of whom believing they will soon “make it” in Hollywood.

Sincerity moves some people, yet it leaves me cold. Instead, I am always a sucker for unintentional irony. This movie was my dream. But it was almost too much! I felt great shame for these professional cosplayers (does the term cosworker now apply?). Watching this film felt like the very recent incident when I was washing my hands in the men’s restroom of my office building. The person in the stall had just “finished his business,” and was standing behind me, waiting patiently for the sink. My whole being filled with a fury at this social transgression. Why couldn’t he wait in the stall for me to leave before showing his face? He was more than an untouchable for publicly crapping — he had become an unseeable. I was socially ashamed of him. Imagine experiencing that feeling for close to two hours.

On the upside, this is one of the most beautifully shot documentaries I have ever seen. Ogens’ film-work loves the lingering steady-cam. Interviews and filmed scenes were intercut with photographs originally meant for promotional material, such as a couple of parking attendants staring at Wonder Woman’s butt, or, more simply, a guy in a full-body Hulk suit wandering around in the harsh daylight. I think I took 80 screencaps, but will only inflict a few on my readers.

Ogens and crew spent two years interviewing five main characters (though Spiderman was apparently scrapped because the crew couldn’t get sufficient “access” to him). Among them is Christopher Dennis, who plays ‘Christopher Reeves Superman’ and who is “on” all the time. Love/Admire/Iconize me! As You Did Christopher Reeves! his poses demand. I’ve seen clowns with more genuine gravitas than this guy. Though he does have a passing resemblance to Reeves, to me his physiognomy closer match to Don Knotts. During a filmed autograph signing, Margot Kidder makes a passing aside that “I think sometimes, some of the guys in the outfits should go to the gym. That’s my only comment.” Dennis cum Superman acts as the Boulevard’s costumed community hall-monitor, insisting that that a certain level of professionalism be maintained at all times. Speaking to a newcomer dressed as Ghost Rider, he explains,”Superheroes don’t smoke. It’s an image.” Dennis goes onto bicker with poor Ghost Rider for a while, demanding he stub out his cigarette since, “you’ll never see Ghost Rider smoking in the pages of a comic book.” Ghost Rider’s head is on fire in the comics. How the hell would you know whether or not he’s smoking? Super-egoic Dennis draws his professionalism and authority from lineage: he insists he’s the son of actress Sandi Dennis (of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf fame), though her authentic family is interviewed and their doubts show through. “Why wouldn’t Sandi tell us if she had a son?”

“Chris is 1 in 10 Billion.”
‘Lois Lane’ disses partner as wack job!

Christopher’s goal is to become a respected Hollywood actor, but he has so utterly laminated Christopher Reeves’ version of Superman onto himself that he can barely bring himself to be on camera out of costume. His girlfriend (later wife) is a Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology who can’t fully put into words how nuts she thinks he is.

‘He is so strange. And there are sometimes when it’s like, God, this is a train-wreck. But you can’t look away.’
Wonder Woman also talks shit about Superman

Though the documentary does not openly comment on the mental state of these people, their continual assessment of one another’s Crazy-Levels is one of the more amusing aspects of the film. For example, Jennifer Gehrt, the boulevard’s Wonder Woman, thinks that Superman is the nuttiest of them all. She rolls her eyes at his utter immersion into the role, his thousands of dollars worth of Superman collectibles, and refusal to be a person outside of the costume. (Incidentally, she has zero problem going back to his place on a hot day, and showering with her clothes on in front of him as well as the camera — to full wet T-shirt effect — while his girlfriend sleeps in the next room.) We get to know Gehrt pretty personally, visit with her small-town family, and watch as her marriage crumbles. She’s fairly good at squeezing out a small but salty tear on-screen without become unattractively blubbery. Her world-view is rocked less by the dissolution of her marriage (she actually seems pretty stoked to move out), and moreso by a conversation with her agent (another woman) who comments on Gehrt’s big bosom:

Agent – That’s because you’re voluptuous … I see you that way.
Gehrt – I guess I have some childhood issues with that.
Agent – You should let that go. This isn’t supposed be therapy.

‘Sure, it’s the boulevard of broken dreams, but it’s also the boulevard of dreams-come-true.’

Christopher Dennis may have some star-identification issues, whereas Jeniffer Gehrt has her body-image concerns, yet George Clooney look-a-like, Maxwell Allen, is the resident rage-a-holic. In an interview elsewhere, Ogens discusses Allen’s anger management issues, including his run-ins with an another costumed Batman. Allen rants incessantly throughout the film about his guilt for time spent working with the mafia. His very supportive wife claims that we should believe “50%” of what he tells us, and repeatedly emphasizes what a “good provider” Maxwell is. Allan revels in showing his humiliatingly terrible martial arts non-skills to the camera, including wonderful scenes with his female sensei scolding him in the dojo or of him flipping around in a Batman shirt at home.

Batman flips-out; practices his round-house. Wifie looks on admiringly.

Allen is a man daily climbing the mountain of his own insanity. His firing range scenes (he sneers condescendingly at the clerk renting him the gun) are nothing compared to when he reaches his peak. This culmination takes place a scene wherein he confesses his guilt for murdering enemies of the mafia during his days in the protection racket to a stunned psychiatrist, as he sits there wringing his hands in full Batman garb.

In almost all of these cases, these panhandlers seem to find the appropriate character to match their neuroses. Who better to dress as than Wonder Woman if you want to confront your own big-bosomed self-consciousness? Want to be a moral snob? – Then dress as Superman. Feel like attacking random strangers? – Batman will do nicely.

Confessions of a Superhero is about the downwardly mobile aspirations of everyday Hollywood, and by association the comic book industry. Certain comics enjoy the fantasy of the imaginary corporate perks of Superhero life, yet the low sales and diminishing returns of these story-lines point to the grittier, tip-grubbing, reality of ‘hiding in the light‘ for an income. Sweet, bucktooth, actor — Joseph McQueen/The Hulk –, however, won my affections. He stood out as the only truly admirable among them. Or, rather, the only one not smothered by his neuroses. He did, however, suffocate and blackout in his Hulk suit on a particularly hot day. Formerly homeless, McQueen wrestles with his memory of the difficulty of making it to auditions while hiding his sleeping bag and possessions. Ok, so maybe sentimentality can get to me. McQueen is the only subject of the four shown to be moving towards a viable acting career (though, admittedly, in B-movie comedies). His great anxiety is in his teeth. “My biggest obstacle … you know, trying to make out here as being an actor, you know, my teeth, you know, you know.” He consoles himself by thinking out loud of Steve Buscemi’s teeth.

‘To me it’s a different way of panhandling, … I have to say … performing for money.’
Acting, not acting-out

Local businesses consider the costumed types to be nuisances. “The characters have their place.. as long as they don’t get too aggressive,” says a policeman. Luckily the police are around to “educate them that they are ambassadors of the community.”

‘I took at least 7 pictures with these Orientals.’

I think the film-makers enjoyed catching revealing moments of casual, nonchalant, racism, such as Marilyn Monroe bitching to Superman and Ghost Rider about low-tipping Japanese tourists. There was also a great interview in Metropolis, IL, where one local resident reveals his discontent with the changing demographic of small town life.

‘It’s a dangerous little town, really is. A lot of black peoples has moved in here. Used to be none, but a lot of black peoples moved in now.’
— The Local Talent.

I highly recommend this movie, if not for the gorgeous camera work then to see Christopher Dennis propose to his fiance with a Superman engagement ring. This is the kind of thing I admire in others — consistency.


8 Responses to “This Isn’t Supposed to be Therapy”

  1. tromar Says:

    i am so on this movie. by the way. i’ve finally started a blog. nothing special so far. but with time…

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    Yo Omar, I have linked you on my blogroll and will check in.You absolutely have to see this. I really enjoyed the part where ‘Elmo’ gets arrested for aggressively demanding tips.

  3. absenteedebate Says:

    Interestingly, this documentary attracts the academic eye more than others.

  4. darknessatnoon Says:

    I like that interview, but didn’t link to it because I was confused. Isn’t the director’s name Matt Ogens, not Matt Ogden?In the interview, Ogens makes a fair point about a doctor, teacher, lawyer or entrepreneur’s aspirations to success being comparable to that of the actor. Wanting to be successful and famous for being an actor who plays Christopher Reeves’ version of Superman isn’t so far-fetched — which upon further consideration is a degree of alienation from traditional professional success — , but don’t lots of law students dream of becoming Clarence Darrow? Probably not, actually — more like they want to become Mitch McDeere in the first half of The Firm. But striving to imitate an actor’s interpretation of an icon, well, that’s what Brandon Routh did in Superman Returns.It might have something to do with comic film properties being treated as icons without continuity heavy baggage, yet referential of their own medium’s history. Routh was pure simulacrum, though, I will say about his version of “Christopher Reeves’ Superman” that the actor’s depression was truly palpable. Where Reeves played the icon with a twinkle in his eyes, Routh and Dennis seem to exude a kind of faded sadness by xerox.I wondered why the comic blogosphere hadn’t really engaged the documentary seriously. My suspicion is that it aims right to the heart of a fanboy. Apart from Greg Kuehn’s wistful soundtrack, the documentary doesn’t romanticize the dreamer, the collector nor the immersion of self into fandom.

  5. Ali Says:

    I sometimes drive past the area where the superheroes hang out in Hollywood. It’s close to my gym. I always see Superman. And he’s always smoking. So his “consistency” is lacking.

  6. darknessatnoon Says:

    Yes, and he smokes on camera, in costume, during the filming. I was wondering if that was an ironic gesture that the film-makers coaxed him into. But no, I guess he’s just a hypocrite.

  7. Rick Sparks Says:

    I watched this recently. It is amazing insight into the lengths people will go to in order to become famous. Also, many of them make more than I do in a week – tax-free! – and I found myself thinking, “Fallback career?” With my bald head, I’d probably make a great Borg.(slaps self)No!

  8. darknessatnoon Says:

    You should watch the documentary Donkey Kong just to see the desperation of people who want to be world champion in outdated video games.

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