Tickled (2016) by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve
Review by Andrew Swafford
Imagine a huge metropolitan city made up entirely of back alleys. There is no main street; there is no public square or shopping mall. The layout consists of a seemingly infinite number of tight concrete corridors that all branch off into unknown directions. At night, hundreds of windows give off light from the people doing something inside--but there’s no way of telling what is happening or who it is happening to in any given place on the map.
This city with no center is, more or less, how filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve present the internet in their debut documentary, Tickled. Farrier’s journey through the back alleys of the internet begins in a fairly pedestrian way: he finds an amusing video through social media. The content of the video in question makes for the movie’s unique elevator pitch: competitive endurance tickling. Videos like this one all look more or less the same, with one young, fit, and attractive man being held down (sometimes by the use of S&M-style clamps/cuffs) and tickled mercilessly by multiple other young, fit, attractive men who are then put in the hotseat when their turn comes around.
Farrier, a journalist who works in social media and viral content, is understandably fascinated by this previously unknown avenue of the internet, and sets out to document what it’s all about. He’s met with a lot of weirdly homophobic hostility while searching for information, and is driven by his conscience as a gay man into digital spaces that grow more and more obscure. His search becomes an exploration through other moments in time as well, as the eternal present of the internet now contains decades of activity all seeming to occur simultaneously. Eventually, Farrier find himself combing through message boards and chat rooms that date back to the early 1990s, when the web was far less web-like (i.e. centralized), and what he finds is an under-the-radar history of shareable tickling videos that begin to seem less like a series of harmless jokes and more like a sexual fetish.
Tickling videos never present themselves as pornographic--and explicitly distance themselves from homosexuality through gay-shaming slurs--but...there’s really no other way to read it. And on the internet, a click is a click is a click. Content uploaded for one purpose can go viral for another (see: Lenny Abrahamson’s 2014 film Frank, in which an avant-garde rock band thinks they’re generating an obsessive fanbase when, really, they’ve become a meme). Conversely, content can present itself in a completely casual way, while simultaneously working as a dog-whistle for certain devotees (see: the many tweets from white supremacist organizations that were, knowingly or unknowingly, retweeted by Donald Trump and/or broadcast on the jumbotrons at last week’s Republican National Convention).
Something akin to these scenarios is how the web videos of Tickled have been produced and distributed en masse, somehow constructing a culture and community of tickle-fetishists through the many disparate back-alleys of 1990s internet infrastructure (chat rooms, message boards, personal blogs, early file-sharing platforms, email blasts) as well as in the broad daylight of 2010s established social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter, mostly), which we tend to think of as public spaces or town squares of the internet’s metropolitan city. No viewers of tickling videos on any platform explicitly acknowledge the true nature of what they’re watching or why they’re watching it, but they all keep silent for the same reasons.
Though Tickled overall doesn’t have that much going for it in terms of cinematic style (watching people send emails and stream videos tends to be less than photogenic), there are a lot of fitting moments in which the camera is zoomed in for extreme close-ups of digital text, showing you not only individual pixels but the microscopic space between those pixels as well. For a movie about what may or may not be justifiably called the deep web (or at least the covert elements of the shallow one), this approach to presenting the internet visually is a perfect match.
In addition to being a study of how internet cultures develop and exist publicly, Tickled feels like a unique type of queer cinema as well. The audience for tickling videos is, most likely, gay men in the BDSM community who have a very specific type of softcore preference. However, the men acting in the videos are, by and large, straight--often underage bodybuilders, wrestlers, or kickboxers from impoverished white neighborhoods who want to make a quick buck. They don’t care if that buck comes from a competitive endurance tickling organization, AS LONG AS NOBODY FINDS OUT. There’s a lot of shame and gay panic seen in the eyes of the desperate men recruited for these videos, and they view ticklishness as something essentially feminine or flamboyant, despite being an involuntary biological fact of the human body. One wrestler in the film provides a telling anecdote about how tickling could be used to escape from almost any hold in the ring, but no self-respecting athlete would dare to compromise their masculinity by attempting it--defeat as a man is preferable to victory as a fop.
The organizations that develop tickling content for fetishists use this male insecurity to exploit their straight talent as well: large portions of the film focus on men who resorted to competitive tickling for money only to find themselves not allowed to stop, as their always-unseen benefactors would blackmail them with the content, threatening to expose them to employers or family members as sexual deviants. The infinite shareability of digital media allows for this type of exploitation, and the filmmakers behind Tickled really lean into the intersection between internet media/spaces and pervasive heteronormativity in a way that feels often disturbing, sometimes hilarious, and entirely new.
I do have one gripe about the film, however, which may seem relatively minor but has hugely affected the way I look back on it as a complete whole. For most of Tickled’s runtime, the conspiracy seems to spiral out into larger and larger Pynchon-esque circles. Unfortunately, the film ends up feeling a bit small by the end, as one man ends up being blamed for the entire internet empire in a way that feels weirdly unsatisfying. As viewers, we always want mysteries to be solved and for criminals to be brought to justice--and you can’t blame a documentarian for reality not being traditionally dramatic enough--but there’s a bit of a missed opportunity to make this story serve as a microcosm for the internet as a whole rather than a specific indictment of one man. This is cinema, not court! There’s plenty of substance in the first hour of Tickled that can be extrapolated upon and mulled over by viewers, but the ending seems to show the filmmakers cramming huge ideas into a tiny box.