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Entries in I Think We're Alone Now [2008] (1)

Friday
Feb042011

I Think We're Alone Now (2008)

Pop Creatures

I think we’re alone now.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone around.

I think we’re alone now.

The beating of our hearts is the only sound.

When you or I read these words—assuming we’re well-adjusted, pop-savvy people—we might think of Tiffany’s classic 80s ode to intimacy.

(Some of you might immediately think of Bill Hicks’ fantastic routine about Tiffany going down on Debbie Gibson.  But eventually you’ll work your way back to the song).

Yesterday morning I learned that there’s a small but very dedicated segment of society that views bubblegum lyrics not as filler for hummable tunes but as declarations of love.  Case in point, Jeff Deane Turner and Kelly McCormick, the stars of Sean Donnelly’s documentary, I Think We’re Alone Now.  Both people are roughly middle-aged adults with severely arrested development, who believe that their destinies are to marry Tiffany.

I almost typed “both men are”, but stopped myself short, because I can’t remember what Kelly prefers to be called.  You see, Kelly is a hermaphrodite, and I’ve never written about one before.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll refer to Kelly in male terms.

Kelly is thirty-eight, single, and lives in Colorado, where he runs obsessively and collects disability for a severe head injury he sustained as a teenager.  While in a coma, he had a vision of a kind and beautiful woman who guided him back to wellness.  The way he tells it, his sister had him listen to the titular Tiffany song just after he woke up, and he soon discovered that the singer was—literally—the girl of his dreams.  Thus began a lifelong, long-distance love affair (one-sided, of course).

Through the trials of high school and a confusing early adult life in which he chose to live as a woman without committing to a sex-change operation, Kelly clung to his beloved’s music—collecting CDs and taping pictures to the walls of his apartment; one particularly touching poster shows two women kissing, and Kelly drew arrows to a blank space below the picture, where he scrawled his name and Tiffany’s above the message, “This will happen very soon.”

Down in Santa Cruz, California lives Jeff.  He’s a very dear friend of Tiffany’s, and he can prove it with the dozen or so pictures they’ve taken together at conventions and concerts all over the country.  Jeff lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, which essentially means his mind is always on, always buzzing, and it doesn’t have time to trifle with social skills.  He also lives with mounds of garbage, as well as a yellow foam mattress pad that serves as—if I’m not mistaken—his favorite snack.

Jeff also tapes Tiffany memorabilia to his walls, but he takes his dedication nine thousand steps further by also tracking the exploits of Robert John Bardo, a Tiffany stalker who murdered television star Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989.  Jeff doesn’t see any connection between himself and Bardo, and even giggles when he reads an article on Tiffany stalkers aloud—because the author spelled his name right.

I’m not sure what Sean Donnelly’s aim was in making this movie—more to the point, I have no idea how he found these people.  There’s an eerie exploitive quality to I Think We’re Alone Now that made me sympathetic to the plight of the mentally ill while at the same time making me feel about as dignified as a corpse-raping pederast.  I’d like to say there’s an uplifting message or underlying theme here, but this movie’s a freak show, plain and simple.

For most of the film, which runs a scant 64 minutes (trust me, it feels like a full-length feature), I waited for either the characters or the director to give me hope that things would turn out well for these guys; but as we plow deeper into Jeff’s haywire mind, exploring his belief that he’s one of a handful of people in the world who sees behind the giant, fascist conspiracy that’s controlling us with sinister brain-waves; as we listen to Kelly justify his obsession in whining, crying, angry fits that make Kip Dynamite sound like George Clooney; it becomes clear that Donnelly doesn’t care about helping these people or making the audience sympathetic to their plight.

He’s just interested in making a real-life version of a Christopher Guest movie.  Indeed, there are several scenes where Jeff unwittingly channels Fred Willard’s Clueless, Pompous Dolt—as when he attends a porn convention where Tiffany is signing her issue of Playboy, and later tells his church group how he ministered to all the lost-but-very-cheery souls he encountered (“It’s a place where people go to make friends and renew friendships.”)

The plot thickens when Donnelly arranges for Jeff and Kelly to meet up in Vegas for a Tiffany concert.  It’s a perfect storm of awkwardness, and I couldn’t figure out if this was supposed to be funny—and, if so, who would laugh at it.  Like so many other scenes it felt constructed to pander to fans of uncomfortable humor.  I had flashbacks to Jesus Camp, a documentary about an Evangelical youth camp that made me so squeamish I called it the best horror movie of 2006.

I’ll leave aside the argument that once a filmmaker manipulates his subject in order to create a storyline, his or her film ceases to be a documentary.  To me, the more interesting questions concern Tiffany’s involvement in the movie.  Did she see it?  What does she think of it?  Does she find Jeff and Kelly to be indicative of her fan base?  Was it her decision to not allow any of her music to be used in the movie?

The music issue is big because I think the film is better off not having used her songs.  This isn’t a taste issue, but a narrative one.  In the Vegas concert footage, we see Kelly and Jeff dancing in a small club, waving their arms in worship of their faded pop goddess.  The score here is creepy and sad, and conveys the miles of distance between Tiffany’s heart and those of these two fans.  It’s the one facet of Donnelly’s scheme that feels genuine.

Despite all this negativity, I’m actually recommending I Think We’re Alone Now.  You may find it a great litmus test for determining where your humor/horror lines are drawn.  The way I’d heard the guys on The Nerdist Podcast discussing it the other day, I figured I was in for a kooky portrait of slightly deranged enthusiasts, not a journey into isolation and mental illness.  If so much of this movie hadn’t been played for laughs it could have been about something; instead we’re stuck on the celluloid freeway, rubbernecking a Special Ed bus engulfed in flames.