INTRODUCTION, OR "HEY GUYS"
The On Cinema universe is probably among the most unique art projects of this decade, and its creators Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, and Eric Notarnicola have made it an expansive experience that feels part performance-art, part film, part alternative reality game, part film criticism. The various series, events, tweets, music, and now a movie under the On Cinema brand have chronicled the turn of American society from the quiet yet controversial late years of the second Obama period, to the outrageousness of the present, seemingly alt-right directed, reality as commanded by the possibly impeachable Donald Trump. And it does it in a way that isn’t entirely satirical as much as it is a direct look at the reality of how awful human beings can be when they’re under the impression that they’re right, no matter what.
Some writers have tried to grasp the meaning of this project, while others have made impressive primers as to understand how to watch it, how to understand it, follow it, or get caught up with it. I won’t try to do that; after all, the body of work encompasses ten seasons of the On Cinema at the Cinema web series (preceded by 50 podcast episodes of the same name that aren’t essential to understand the series), a special event-series called The Trial (which will screen in its entire 287 minutes runtime at the Museum of the Moving Image on November 16 as part of the “No Joke: Absurd Comedy as Political Reality” series), six Oscar specials (most of them over two hours), and six seasons of Decker, a TV/web series that’s a homage/parody to the most jingoistic action films of the 80s and 90s, and now Mister America, a feature film that will be released to theaters by Magnolia Pictures. There’s no way to capture everything that the project entails—every minutia, every thought, every reference—but the way that the On Cinema brand plays alternate realities and political satire is worth a lengthy analysis.
ON CINEMA AT THE CINEMA, OR "I DID THE RIGHT THING FOR THE SHOW"
Let’s start with what lies in the heart of this universe, what gives its name, the original web-series On Cinema at the Cinema, a mock movie review show in which the host (Tim Heidecker) reviews the latest releases alongside a guest (usually and most likely, Gregg Turkington, purported film expert). The structure of the show allows for a distance to be created between them as they go through the movies and sections, as there’s clear animosity amongst the two, but they seemingly can’t avoid each other. As much as they betray each other, destroy various projects and even houses that belonged to either one of them, the two keep getting together to do the show. Tim relies on Gregg’s expertise, while Gregg relies on Tim’s ability to put on the show.
On Cinema at the Cinema is to be understood as a movie review show that isn’t interested in movies, as much as it’s a canvas in which many things can be drawn on, it is the context with which the creators of the show have projected characters, situations and events that have shaped the universe that surrounds it. The reviews themselves are a joke, and if carefully considered, could be the least interesting aspect of the show itself (although a clear source of humor throughout). Both Tim and Gregg have clearly not seen the films, they’re usually given the maximum scores (no matter how great or awful the movie actually is, they always get the prized five bags of popcorn), and they make glaring mistakes regarding movie facts, which are one of the most discreet ways in which the show slides in jokes. The clearest showcase at how the show is made (and how much they actually care about being a movie show) can be found in the episode 6 of season 2, when they review Carrie (2013), a movie that was to be released the week when the show aired, March 14, 2013, but was delayed to October (this happens again many times in future episodes, sometimes not even the trailers are available).
If anything, On Cinema at the Cinema can be understood as a continuous chronicle of Tim Heidecker’s health, which is constantly under jeopardy mostly by actions of his own doing. He’s had blood clots in his brain, cut off part of his finger on a fishing trip, have a sore foot due to diabetes, an acupuncture needle infection, partial and temporary blindness, a motorcycle accident (had when he was just trying to get on the bike itself), drug addiction, third-degree burns all over his body and face, and a severe germ infection, among others that I’m forgetting. And all of these are supported by the amazing makeup work that has shown us the decaying face of Tim, pieces of his skin peeling off his face. Every season tries to surprise us with the next Heidecker sickness, and they always manage to surpass themselves.
And that’s how we’re reminded that Tim Heidecker isn’t Tim Heidecker, the comedian and performer, and Gregg Turkington isn’t Gregg Turkington, the famed stand-up comedian and actor. They’ve both have successful and long careers in comedy, and they’re playing clearly exaggerated and deformed versions of themselves. But, at the same time, their “real” life has crossed paths with the On Cinema reality they’ve created, most notably the year in which they both had bit parts in superhero films and most of the season (and its respective Oscar special) drew circles around the validity of those performances, each of them trying to undermine the experience of the other in different ways. So, who’s playing who? Are those particular performances to be thought as being done by the On Cinema Tim and Gregg?
There’s also the fact that their official (blue checkmark and all) Twitter accounts are mostly written in character, and sometimes they deliver information that they only hint at in the series, which means that there’s also lots of reading involved if one desires to be fully into the timeline of these characters and their path (that’s why the On Cinema Timeline is the first step for anyone that wants to catch up with this universe). They’ve both created a sort of simulacra, an imitation of life that’s almost inseparable from actual reality, which might be among the most interesting elements of the project they’ve created, and what draws most of its fans: the illusion of reality. And that’s because the characters they’ve created feel real, and that’s mainly because we see them in our lives every day.
GREGG TURKINGTON, OR "ROSEBUD IN THE LAST LINE OF THE MOVIE IF ANYONE WANTS TO CHECK THAT OUT"
Let’s start with Gregg Turkington, a film buff that constantly waxes praise for his own knowledge and expertise on films. Throughout the seasons he’s constantly seen as obsessed with movies, but maybe in what could be considered a wrong: he’s fixated on the collecting of VHS tapes (he even once mentions that he prefers it to see a movie on 35mm), slaps the concept of “classic” (“popcorn classic,” that is) on disputable and even widely critically unloved films from the ‘90s and even early 2000s, he’s endlessly fascinated by locations, the Oscars, and inane data like the runtime of a film. All of this could be confronted with the fact that he’s passionate, he wants above anything else to talk about movies (in very general and ambiguous ways), and he thinks there’s nothing as important as that. But the fact that he’s so constantly wrong about them (how he confuses Stark Trek II and IV is emblematic of this), and his complete inability to consider under any circumstance that he could be wrong are what constitute him as an ultimately flawed character.
Turkington plays Turkington in a very convincing manner. He’s under complete control of how he manifests his emotions, and his attitude throughout an episode or season can be clearly telegraphed from the way in which he says his iconic “hey guys” after being introduced by Tim at the start. There’s also a couple of attitudes that hint towards a mechanism of defense that is strictly related to his movie obsession, like when he constantly becomes catatonic under the duress and stress of Heidecker’s violent outbursts, constantly muttering “ok, ok” in an asserted yet quiet tone of voice, getting stuck on a position, his eyes fixated in something beyond the camera or whatever it is that surrounds him.
There’s also a darker side to him, as he is responsible for some of Tim Heidecker’s problems, like how he is the one that propitiates the revelation of Ayaka’s pregnancy (Tim’s Japanese girlfriend that was sent back to Japan and eventually comes back to form a family alongside their son, Tom Cruise Heidecker), or when he manages to hold some control of the show for a couple of episodes, we see how his inner self reveals, constantly cursing against Tim, his life, his decisions, ultimately signaling him as the only person that stops him from taking full control of the show. And when he does take control, he becomes greedy, he wants to dictate things with his misinformed information in a way that might even be more damaging than beneficiary to any discussion about movies (in the show’s 100th episode, he refuses to review the current release and decides to do a showcase of four popcorn classics… which consists of showing the VHS tapes, saying the length of the film—and that’s it).
TIM HEIDECKER, OR "FABRIC MADE IN CHINA IS NOW IN MY SKIN"
Speaking of damaging, Tim Heidecker. Definitely the more complex of the two characters, and maybe one of the most impressive performances of the decade, playing an avatar of every that guy you met once and never want to talk to again for a good part of the past seven years. While inside the universe of the series we must assume that Gregg watches the films they review (even if we’re pretty sure he doesn’t), Tim seems to never be able to pay attention to what has been the main subject of the show for ten seasons. He manifests this through the various diversions, shortcuts, and self-sabotages that he puts together to drive the show where he wants, without taking into consideration what the supposed audience truly wants from the show. But, essentially, it’s those diversions, whims, and strange choices what make up the meat and bones of the “plot” of the series, which feeds into every other parallel product that has been born out of the On Cinema brand.
Besides his already mentioned health problems, which are a plot thread on their own, Heidecker travels a rocky road of politics, turning into one of the most damning portrayals of what we currently consider the alt-right, a group of new conservatives that look for the absolute retrocession on practically every progressive advance that humanity and politics have made throughout the past decades, from civil to reproductive rights. And that’s because even if Heidecker puts forward the same ideological talking points, they are constantly being refuted by his own actions, his own delusions, being the perfect example of rebuttal to any of those hard-hitting topics. From his early mentions against Obamacare and healthcare (only to be later afflicted with wounds and sickness that he’s had to paid expensively for out of his own pocket, something he even weirdly proudly stands for once), mentioning he’s “pro life” (right after saying that he asked for Ayaka to have an abortion in Japan, saying that it isn’t the same when it happens to him), all the way through full QAnon conspiracy theory, which leads Heidecker to take an Oscar special hostage so he can see how a group of marines will descend on the Oscar ceremony to take every actor and elite under custody, in a denominated “zero hour” (which of course doesn’t happen).
Tim Heidecker’s many projects are a sign of his mid-life crisis, from his dabbling into filmmaking with the series Decker, which serves as a ideological dump of all his repressed ire against the government. But then along comes his music bands (which actually have released tracks done in character), first Dekkar, a generic-sounding rock band that suspiciously starts around the time in which he’s “forced into” having a family with Ayaka and his son Tom Cruise. He spends most of his time with the band and with its side project DKR, which does EDM remixes of Dekkar songs (most famously, “Empty Bottle,” a sort of anthem for the On Cinema fans, as bad as it is), around the time in which he suffers the loss of his child, again due to the ideology of anti-vaccination, indoctrinated by one of the most obscure and yet more hilarious bit characters in this universe: Doctor San, a phony holistic therapist who constantly puts Tim’s health in danger through various supposedly natural methods.
But besides all of that, the mental state of Heidecker is one that is way too familiar, and which leads to the behavior that’s been described so far, that of someone who absolutely believes that everything they say and do is correct, and he’ll do anything to make sure that reality is what he says it is, and not what it actually is.
No matter how much damage Tim takes, he’s always back on the grind of On Cinema, he can’t stay away because he has an obsession that everyone who’s watching is as obsessively interested in his life and what he thinks as he is. That, of course, feeds into his ideology, his drug problems, and his irate behavior when he’s put against a corner and forced to come clean: he’s able to hit, throw stuff around, and destroy, no matter where he is or who he is with.
In many ways, Gregg isn’t that different from Tim, although with a hundred less problems. But, if we had more Greggs in the world, it sure would be a more insanely irritating place, while having more Tims is actually more damaging to the way and even the freedom in which we live. And that’s something the series reckons with, when Tim’s legal problems remove some of his control over the show, leaving us with the insufferable antics and wrong facts spelled out by Turkington as he takes Tim’s place of power, certainly changing and somewhat hurting the humor of the show. But, at the same time, as annoying as it might be, Tim’s removal actually makes us breathe easier and feel a little safer regarding everyone that’s around Gregg.
THE OSCAR SPECIALS, OR "THIS IS MY PLACE"
I’ll take the opportunity when tackling the six On Cinema Oscar specials (and the one On Cinema Oscar special, commanded by Gregg when Tim was touring in Dubai with DKR) to speak a bit about the visual style of the project. While the On Cinema at the Cinema show has a classic three-camera shooting and editing structure (some changes of scenery here and there, and the usual editing “error” in some of the segments), it’s in the Oscar specials that director Eric Notarnicola excels at creating some truly visionary and hilarious visual gags. Being a live show, the abundance of cameras, screens, and people in the set gives some incredible ways in which the image can interplay interestingly with what’s happening, usually through the use of fades between two different video feeds, creating double images that contrast between them, or give way to comparisons, which are mostly detrimental, revealing, or even pathetic.
For example, one of the funniest segments in these specials is an “In Memoriam,” video in which the remembered performers didn’t necessarily die the year it was made. The power of that gag in the moment live was so great, that it even sent both Tim and Gregg into laughter fits that they had to suppress by turning their heads to the wall. These live shows are the most probable moments in which there’s a chance that the simulacra comes closest to being uncovered, but as years pass, the creators have become more and more expert at writing and directing these internet streams.
Maybe the masterpiece of these live shows is this year’s Oscar special, which started with Gregg Turkington donning a judge costume as he brings his own brand of expertise in a Tim-less show. It’s into the half hour mark that Tim breaks into the show with a gunman by his side to take the show hostage. The way in which the cameras pan, cut, muffle and turn on different microphone feeds is vertigo-inducing, producing small moments of true tension. These specials have created a visual language that fans of the show understand and expect, but in this last one it’s all perfected into a countdown for the promised “zero hour”. From the editing of the QAnon-inspired “news bulletin” by Tim, to the shot of a man with gold painting on his face and a bloody nose crossfaded with a shot of Tim singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Dekkar, these are some of the most hilarious and revealing choices, and how they’re managed to be done in a live show is commendable.
THE TRIAL, OR "I HAVE THE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO STRIKE HIM IF HE DISOBEYS ME"
The absolute pinnacle of this art project is the limited series The Trial, a document of the transmission of the murder trial of Tim Heidecker, accused of twenty charges of second-degree murder. Originally, this was transmitted as if it were live through Adult Swim’s webpage, retransmitting the local San Bernardino County Court sessions from day one all the way until the verdict is arrived by the jury. This is Tim Heidecker’s acting showcase; he manages to drive every emotion, from fear, to bullshitting to his absolute worst case of violent ire against some of the witnesses. We know that Tim is guilty: he organized an EDM music festival (without a permit) and gave out, alongside Doctor San, vape pens with a toxic substance that killed twenty young people and got hundreds into the hospital. But, at the same time, we know that he gets away with it—the question is how.
That question turns a summary murder trial into a tense ride through almost five hours of footage taken “live” from the court, which showcases the talent of most of the bit players of the project so far, like the actor Joe Estevez, to the presence of Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, among other films, who comes as an expert witness to finally put to the ground the controversy between Tim and Gregg regarding which Star Trek film takes place in San Francisco. And that’s because Tim, after he fires his lawyer in the first day of court, turns his self-defense into a sort of vindication ride, a way in which he can prove himself to be better than everyone else, better than the District Attorney that he’s fighting against, better than the witness, even better than the woman who comes crying to accuse Tim of murdering her daughter.
The realism with which this trial moves forward is taken to the extreme, and even if some real-life lawyers will come forward to tell that things don’t actually work that way (nitpicking, that is), they don’t understand that this is essentially television, this works like a TV show court, the dry and almost conventional way in which this is shot (it seems almost little better than what we could get from security cameras placed inside the courthouse) makes this even more exasperating to watch with every witness that gets called and more damning evidence that gets piled upon Tim. It doesn’t matter if the simulacra of the trial doesn’t exactly follow on what could happen in a real-life trial, it’s the idea that the banal minutia of a trial feeds into the illusion of reality, as outrageous as the events described are. And that is realized through the careful mimicry of the aesthetics of televised trials, but mostly through the performances of everyone involved.
The rambling nature of Tim’s discourses, either when cross-examining or interrogating a witness, or giving his opening and closing remarks, is a mark of a great performance and a feat that can only be done by Tim Heidecker, who’s lived inside the skin of this man for over five years at that time. His manner of getting at some points, how he diverts from them, to return to them without giving much thought about how he logically he can get from one reason to the next, mostly improvising (or seeming to, which would be remarkable) through a series of ideas of facts and reality that are only in his head.
MISTER AMERICA, OR "WE HAVE A RAT PROBLEM"
The feature-length film Mister America, directed by Eric Notarnicola, follows on a promise done by Tim Heidecker at the end of season ten of On Cinema at the Cinema to run for District Attorney for the county of San Bernardino. But more than anything, the film is a direct sequel to The Trial, as he sports a similar attire and look as he did there, and he mostly follows up on the events of his mistrial and how he wants to get back at the current District Attorney Rosetti for persecuting him and shaming him in public (mainly for showing the world that he is guilty), even if he was able to walk away a free man due to a technicality.
The film is a mockumentary, fake opening credits included (“a film by Josh Lorton”), and it follows Heidecker’s disastrous campaign for the position of District Attorney. He runs a one-man band, that is until Toni Morrison joins him, a woman who shares many of the values that Tim holds (in one moment she dangerously speaks of demographics and about how the city of San Bernardino isn’t the same that it was “way back when”). The relation between the two of them is strange, as she eventually moves to the hotel room that Tim’s staying at (to prove that he lives in San Bernardino), serving both as a secretary, a campaign chief, showrunner, social media community manager and provider.
As I ran through the series in preparation for seeing this film, it came to mind how much of Tim’s attitudes evolved in a way that mimicked those of Donald Trump, from his intent on always being right, to his manner of speaking, even using some of the similar phrases (in an episode of Decker, he says “make America great again” mere days after it was registered as Trump’s campaign slogan). Here, they already live in a world where Trump is president, and thus the satire wouldn’t work, instead the film focuses on the ineptitude and lack of scope that the campaign has regarding being actually able to be elected, if not get on the ballot at all in the first place.
Since this movie will have a theatrical release, it explains a bit too much regarding what came before and how it decides to introduce characters, particularly Gregg Turkington, who gives a wonderful turn here as the film buff he’s always been and who has the mission of bringing down Heidecker’s campaign. In many ways, mainly due to the promotion and because it continues after the events of The Trial, the film feels as if it were heading towards a brilliant high or conclusion, the most impressive achievement that the On Cinema universe. But it does not. The whole endeavor feels at times too serious for it to be taken as comedy, and any performance element related to conservative politics or the alt-right feels more like an unpleasant repeat of what we already have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, instead of being biting satire.
If anything, the film becomes a complete portrait of Heidecker’s On Cinema character: it reveals who the people like him are when they’re as troubled, assured and ignorant as he is. But maybe, at this time, that’s a risk too real for us to laugh at it much longer.
Mister America and The Trial screen at "No Joke: Absurd Comedy as Political Reality," which runs October 9–November 16, 2019 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.