Friday, September 13, 2019

Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski film screening

Where Fools Wander In: the collected parody films of Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski.
Curated by Gerald Saul for the Saskatchewan FIlmpool Cooperative
Thursday September 12, 7:00 pm, at the Artesian - Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

So What's the Deal? The Jody Fulkerson Story (17 minutes) 2003
 written by Jon Tewksbury, Jason Shabatoski, Logan Parkinson, Regan Jans, Rob Miller. directed by Jon Tewksbury

Shuya Show  (47 minutes) 2009
written by Jon Tewksbury, Jason Shabatoski, and David Stefanyshyn
directed by Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski

Spooksbury (18 minutes) 2017
written and directed by Jon Tewksbury

Jon Tewksbury and Jason Shabatoski’s collaborations began with meeting each other and many of their other co-writers and recurring performers when they were studying filmmaking together at the University of Regina. In the three irreverent short comedies in this program, Shabatoski and Tewksbury created parodies of genres which defy the conventions of satire, leading the viewer to question the nature, and perhaps the very existence, of the original genres for which they seem to reference.  
In this program’s first film, So What’s the Deal? The Jody Fulkerson Story , they embrace the mockumentary. . As with other works in this genre such as This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984), Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000), or Land Without Bread (Luis Bunuel, 1933), humour emerges as the filmmakers alter the tone of the source genre and twist the truth of the subject matter. Ironically, the titular character of So What’s the Deal? The Jody Fulkerson Story is a stand-up comedian and therefore the filmmaker’s task was twofold: to reverse the nature of the subject (make him not funny) but at the same time, make the film funny. While they do take a few cheap shots at this character, allowing viewers to laugh at him, they also find ways to show us the flaws in his armour and allow him to remain human, and even likeable.
Central to the film is an aspect of controlled improvisation, with each performer receiving co-writing credit for material that emerged from weeks of informal woskshopping (ie: goofing around in a role-playing method of script development). Nevertheless, the film never felt rudderless. The foolishness remained on screen and never in the driver’s seat. The end project has sophistication and polish, suggesting production values far above its meager student film budget.
The second film, Shuya Show, has the filmmakers working again with their filmmaker friends, in particular the late, great enigmatic Dave Stefanyshyn who used his signature deadpan performance style in this film which pretends to be what we can only guess is a beyond-the-iron-curtain drama. The faux dubbing of all dialog lacks as much in finesse as the production itself appears to have. Acting seems impaired, sets and design dreary, and special effects ludicrously flawed. At times, the viewers finds themselves uncertain if it is satire or simply an appropriated low budget cinema flop. Shuya Show carries on these filmmaker’s obsession with the nature of failure, and drudgery of life, and the pointlessness of celebrity through a mix of clever role reversals, ironic comedic surprises, and low-brow humour. Attention to detail and knowing when to let the project suffer from its orchestrated mistakes was a balancing act that the filmmakers needed to carefully consider.
In their most recent film, Spooksbury, Shabatoski and Tewksbury again place the viewers in a liminal space behind the scenes of production but watching the movie at the same time - uninformed insiders. As such, we become uncomfortable because of the tension of seeing characters, primarily the title character played by Jon himself, who should be uncomfortable but is seemingly oblivious to the situation he is in. It is a sort of dramatic irony but on an emotional level rather than a dramatic one. Just as we ask how could Jody Fulkerson not know that he is making such huge mistakes with his performance, we also ask how Spooksbury does not know how ill-suited he is for the performance he is supposed to be giving?
As with So What's the Deal, Spooksbury is another project about a failed or incompetent performer, and like in So What's the Deal, the peripheral characters are similarly aware of the problem. These side characters, film crew, interviewer subjects, and others share the film viewer's awareness but lack the distance privileged by the cinematic fourth wall which allows the film viewer to see the train wreck events for their absurd humour.
The films each draw attention to the act of filmmaking, grounding the projects in the world that these filmmakers are most knowledgeable about.  In So What’s the Deal, the voice of the interviewer (Jon) talks from behind the camera and in some cases, subjects talk to the camera operator. In Shuya Show, dubbing, titles and other graphic elements are miss-fitted, leading us to question the film process. In Spooksbury, we are most often placed behind the scenes, watching the crew rather than the subject. This creates what arguably is as much a self-portrait of the filmmakers as it is a drama as the lines between what is the story and what is the filmmaker’s role in creating the story is blurred. Furthermore, in each of the three films celebrities (each named in the title of the corresponding film) are treated by everyone around them as just people, with a certain amount of cynicism about being in the spotlight.  This brings media in general into the realm of the everyday, into being just life.
One might further argue that this reflects a prairie sensibility, the misbegotten belief that greatness only exists elsewhere, and filtered through zero-budget filmmaking and through Groucho Marx who would suggest that any celebrity who would be willing to associate with us would not be worth associating with. The films are full of fools and losers because it is a mirror to how we see ourselves. This is the true prairie Gothic, a world of inescapable depression where the only thing more foolish than being a fool is to think that you are not a fool.
Presenting fools as protagonists, these three films contradict the conventions of narrative cinema and deny the need for crisis and climax. Though steeped in the absurd, Tewksbury and Shabatoski’s films give us a frighteningly accurate mirror to gaze upon the inability most of us have to change or grow. We may find that we don’t like their characters, respect their characters, or even believe in their characters, but deep down we know that any of us could be these characters, living in a state of denial of our perpetual failure. We do not laugh with the characters nor do we laugh at the characters, we laugh at ourselves.
Enjoy the program and laugh.

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