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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

'American Cannibal' Claims Premiere Audience in East Village

More than a handful of this year’s Tribeca selections have evoked that most puerile of criticisms in me: the one that shakes my head and insists to myself and anyone who will listen, “Jesus Christ–I can make a better movie than that.” And then there are the few exceptional films that I not only enjoy but also ruminate on for hours or days afterward, thinking, “Jesus Christ–not only can I not make a better movie than that, but I should fucking distribute that film.”
The inner distributor in me is particularly excited about the documentary American Cannibal: The Road to Reality, which premiered to an enthusiastic New York crowd yesterday at the AMC Village. Local directors Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro (above) spent more than two years taping the professional lives of Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts, a writing team whose fruitless story pitches find a more receptive audience with Kevin Blatt, the C-list pornographer responsible for the Paris Hilton sex tape. Insistent on developing a reality TV show, the trio’s working relationship challenges Ripley and Roberts’s personal standards while tempting them with the overdue payday they both need.
Blatt latches on to Ripley’s joking suggestion for a series entitled American Cannibal, a show that would plunk starving contestants on a desert island to determine the lengths they would go to survive. When Black bankrolls the show, Ripley and Roberts sign on against their better judgment. They assume increasing responsibility for their unwanted child, clash with production heads and all but smoulder with resentment as the reality parade approaches its nadir on a rocky beach fringing Puerto Rico.
Grebin and Nigro’s triumph stems from their assiduous, unswerving filming regimen; while American Cannibal started out as an industrial project aimed at helping film students learn to pitch stories, it became a bruising reality exercise of its own as it narrowed its focus to a writing team wracked evenly with ambition and crisis.
“People were not pitching the way they normally pitch,” Grebin told the audience during Wednesday’s Q&A They weren’t coming in with sitcoms and dramas. Everything had switched to reality.”
“There were two writers who emerged from the group who were a little more interesting than others and had more wild ideas,” Nigro said. “It was more entertaining to watch them. So once we figured out we kind of had something of a documentary on our hands, we just kept going, because we thought (the team’s original pilot) Psychotic Episodes was going to be brilliant and it was really going to propel these guys. But we had nothing. But we realized that there’s much more to be said for reality than for traditional work–at least at this time. So why not follow? Of course, once we’d met Kevin Blatt, things just started rolling.”
The desperation depicted in American Cannibal resonates from one act to the next, from one subject to another. A director “specializing” in reality TV signs on, followed by reality host George Gray. Casting sessions gone awry lead to angry outbursts and cast members covering up physical ailments for the shot at competing on television. Ripley and Roberts risk everything they have, and watching them lose it day-by-day is as brutal as any of the trials facing their castaways. Which, naturally, is the point: These guys are the castaways, as is the entire creative industry subjugated to the reality craze.
Roberts acknowledged the toll the experience had on his emotions and family life. “There were definitely things that I’m glad are not in there,” he said from his seat in the middle of the audience. “They didn’t ‘Michael Moore’ me or Gil, and I’d have to say that the jerk I look like up actually is me. They were very fair.”
But the fact that Grebin and Nigro could be where they were when they were almost feels unfair; that they could edit their footage into three cohesive acts with an ending that does justice to the dramatic tension that precedes it almost defies belief. Judge for yourself what these guys’ souls are worth, and when–not if–the festival marketplace puts its own value on an American Cannibal distribution, believe me–I will pass along the news.

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5 Responses to “'American Cannibal' Claims Premiere Audience in East Village”

  1. max says:

    I saw this movie at at TFF screening and about a half hour into it got the feeling that this wasn’t actually a documentary. Things seemed pretty staged. As the movie progressed I became sure of this and expected the filmmakers to own up to their “mockumentary” during the Q&A. Instead they were very cagey and dodged any questions about the “reality” behind this story. Later on I read that the films two main subjects were just actors who didn’t even use their real names. I find this extremely annoying and disrespectful. This is not an “interesting comment” on our appetite for reality programing. It’s a dishonest hoax, and not a very good one. Mr. Grebin stood in front of us and lied outright about this production in a shameless attempt to “create a buzz” so they can get distribution. My guess, and sincere hope, is that this cynical rip-off goes down in flames. Not reccomended.

  2. mike says:

    Max: You seem very sure this is a hoax, (and take it very personally) but after seeing the film, and scouring the net all week, I don’t think it is.

    Where did you read they were actors? I’ve looked everywhere for that. The NY times in passing said it wasn’t their names, but said nothing about them being actors. Writers who changed their names doesn’t bother me; been that way for ages. If they were Actors, that bothers me. But, I’ve been thinking it over (and even tried to see it again but it was sold out) and I think it’s real. Sad, but real. Please post a link and change my mind.

    Besides, if it was a hoax, the end would have been better. There’s a big hole on the island and where the writers broke up, that a mockumentary would probobley have filled.
    I liked it. Made me rethink my reality show watching.

  3. Chuck says:

    the NY times article said the directors set up the entire movie and created the situations by putting the people in scenes and just wanted to see what happens. I didn’t see the movie it just sounds stupid. waste of money and time.

  4. Phil says:

    I too saw this movie at Tribeca Film Festival and i’m not sure what movie the above people were watching, but I recommended this film to everyone I spoke with about it.
    Reality TV is a disease in this country and this movie captures it at is core for what it is…a disgusting, seedy world of bullshit, insecure people desperate to be stars and no talent hacks. The filmmakers hit on something big just being there to watch this go down.
    I read the NY Times article and it didn’t say jack. In fact, I left more confused after I read it. I don’t doubt that some scenes in this movie weren’t exactly how they seem, its a movie for god’s sake, i’m sure these guys created stories in the editing room. The characters are still just as insane and real as any of the other losers in reality shows and thus it seems completely real to me. Highly recommended.

  5. timothy cantor says:

    Just returned from Cannes where I was lucky enough to see a private screening of American Cannibal: the road to Reality. I’ll give it a hardy 8 out of 10 (wanted more about contestants). There is so much more than meets the eye here and I applaud the filmmakers for having the stones to actually do what they’re doing.
    I spoke with both of them after the screening. (Nigro likes red wine). But who says that they’re not forthcoming with the HOW and WHY of the project. Perhaps these journalists need to simply ask the filmmakers. That is thier job, is it not? The NY TIMES writer did, and as far as I can tell they spoke frankly to him. And, yes, they are cagey (Grebin more than Nigro, might have been the red wine though), but they do have a method and a meaning — one that the audience in Canne truly appreciated and embraced. The European audience gobbled American Cannibal up (oooo that’s terrible). At least at the screening I was at. Wished they had a larger theatre to screen in, a larger audience deserves to see this. But fear not, there is no way that you’ll not be able to see this, like the article above says.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon