On a recent trip to my childhood home in Virginia, I decided to spend an evening watching home movies from my youth — in particular, the mythical “camera tape,” which my dad utilized to record all the random shenanigans my brother and I used to get into. Most of the tape is filled with unscripted stuff — my brother sprinting across our front yard in a downpour, the two of us hunting for Easter egg baskets — but there are also several scripted pieces (skits, if you will) that unfold like outtakes from a subpar sketch comedy show. 

For the sake of something to do, I will now conduct a critical exploration of three of these skits, offering a brutally honest review of each. I hope to chart my progression as filmmaker, screenwriter, director and actor — an amateur at all four — and to discover what I did moderately well, and what I utterly failed at. Childhood is a time of creativity that’s often refreshingly devoid of self-consciousness — this can be a beautiful thing, for sure, but the lack of quality control usually leads to art that’s absolute horsecrap. Have you seen some of the paintings kindergarteners churn out? I mean, come on.

Anyway, what I must know is this: do my short films stand the test of time? Or was I a talentless hack from the beginning? Let’s find out. 

Alien in the Newsdesk

The first skit begins with me sitting behind a large rectangular cardboard box in the living room, playing the role of newscaster. I monotonously read the weather for several minutes, then shift to a developing story about a “phone that wouldn’t stop ringing.” I summon the help of on-scene reporter Jack Jokel (played by yours truly) who, standing by the kitchen landline, explains that a phone has been ringing for 27 years straight and nobody knows “why, or who’s calling.” Riveting stuff. 

After Jack (me) concludes his report, I run back to the newsdesk, thank him (me) for his award-worthy reporting, and announce that “we’ll be back in a few minutes.” I then stare awkwardly at the camera for 10 seconds and repeat: “I said, we’ll be back in 10 minutes,” while anxiously tapping the cardboard newsdesk with my palm.

This is where the skit takes an absurdist turn, ala “Mr. Show,” a program I like to think my home videos had a major influence on: A hand breaks through the top of the newsdesk, I scream, and from that point forward, it’s a mess of wrestling and shouting. I yell at the cameraman (my mother) to “turn off the camera,” as I pummel the creature (my 5-year old brother) who’d just exploded out of the newsdesk. My brother and I are wearing oversized t-shirts and tighty-whities, rolling around on the floor like a couple of alcoholics on an episode of “Cops.” After the “alien” — which I inexplicably pronounce “aliem” several times — has been slain and the chaos subsides, I drag my brother’s lifeless body out of the cardboard box for the viewers to see. “Look at this, folks,” I say. “The first video recording of an actual aliem.” I then demand my mother to stop filming.

My critique: The plot is too thin and nonsensical to leave a lasting impression on the viewer. And the 20-30 seconds spent listing the high and low temperatures for the week are flat out unnecessary. Some of the small details — the reporter’s name being “Jack Jokel,” the side story of the phone that rang for 27 years — are creative enough, sure, but what statement am I trying to make by turning my brother into an alien and stuffing him inside a flimsily-constructed newsdesk? Am I making a comment on how things are never as they appear, that once we dig deeper into existence, we realize that each of us is harboring our own personal aliens that can only remain hidden for so long?

My brother, circa 1998.

This in-depth analysis, I think, gives too much credit to the filmmaker, who — let’s remember — was only 8-years old at the time, and a huge “Goosebumps” fan, to boot. I think the face-value interpretation is the way to go with this one: I thought aliens were super rad, and I wanted to murder one on tape. Simple as that.

One last thing about this skit: did we really need three minutes of tighty-whitey-clad children rolling around on the floor together? Seems like unnecessary fodder for creeps.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 50-percent

A “Blair Witch” parody

The “Blair Witch” parody I filmed with my best friend Jake is a departure from my previous output in a number of ways. It marks the first time I employ first-person camera work. It’s also my inaugural stab at parodying an existing piece of art. Additionally, it has a longer run time than any film I’ve directed/written/shot/starred in, before or since. 

I employ a wide cast of characters — including Jake, my brother, my neighbor, Emily, and Emily’s brother, Josh — to bring my dubious vision to life. What ensues is a phenomenal waste of time for everyone involved.

My Critique: This isn’t a movie or a skit as much as it is an untalented kid wandering around the woods with a camera and no plan as to how the movie is actually going to unfold. The “scariest” moment from this piece of junk occurs within the first minute, as Jake and I walk down a path toward the woods. Jake takes over behind the camera and quickly realizes he’s lost me. He hears grunting in the woods.

“Michael?” he asks in a trembling voice. “Are you OK?”

A few minutes later, I stroll out of the trees, perfectly fine. Turns out I was only taking an extremely noisy fake dump. Crisis averted. 

From that point forward, the film fully unravels. It’s clear that I have no control over my cast, as Jake walks beside the camera reciting random rhymes — including: “My name is Jake/Brother of Joe/I need me some poopy/I need me some poo” — that have no bearing on the plot and fail to advance the story in any way. The embarrassing debacle ends with an unprompted orgy of confounding violence in the middle of the woods that features members of the cast beating each other with sticks and other random objects.

The embarrassing debacle ends with an unprompted orgy of confounding violence in the middle of the woods that features members of the cast beating each other with sticks and other random objects.

Bottomline: The “Blair Witch” parody is a failure on every level. What began as an attempt to stretch my creative boundaries turned into a formless farce that highlighted my immense weaknesses as a filmmaker, director and actor.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 26-percent 

‘Break a Leg’

The next skit is a highly conceptual art piece the likes of which haven’t been equaled on any comedy show that I’ve seen. It’s presented to the viewer in four distinct scenes. 

The film opens with my mother and I standing in the living room, facing one another: “OK, honey.” She says. “Break a leg.” We walk off screen, and CUT. 

The next scene is of my brother speaking directly to the camera. He introduces the next performer (me) in what I assume to be a talent show. You can’t really make out what he says, but it has something to do with flying. And CUT. The screen fades to black.

When the video starts again, I’m sitting indian-style on the living room floor, tugging on my right shin as hard as I can. There’s a loud SNAP — the sound of someone breaking a sizable branch or limb off-screen — followed by 3-5 seconds of me writhing around on the floor in obvious pain, leg broken. And CUT.

The next image is a tight shot of a toy ambulance, with a voice-over by yours truly discussing how health insurance can ensure that injuries like the one the viewers have just witnessed don’t suck their bank accounts dry. And CUT. 

There are many interpretations for ‘Break a Leg,’ but I like the following one most: what happens when we blindly take authority figures at their word? What kind of world do we create for ourselves when we break our bones merely because someone in a position of power has told us that it’s the right thing to do? When viewed through this lens, the skit becomes almost anarchist in nature: kill yr idols and think for yourself, that sort of thing. On this level, I suppose it’s a success. 

My critique: Composition-wise, this is one of my finer works. This skit represents the moment I began to mature as a filmmaker — progressing from a sprawling, unedited and unfocused approach to a more refined sensibility. There’s no fat here: scene, and CUT. Scene, and CUT. I’m no longer obsessed with childish things like aliems: I’ve moved on to high art. I want to be taken seriously by the upper crust of the critical elite, and this skit was my attempt at creating a work that would withstand rigorous analysis from even the saltiest of reviewers.

I’m no longer obsessed with childish things like aliems: I’ve moved on to high art. I want to be taken seriously by the upper crust of the critical elite, and this skit was my attempt at creating a work  that would withstand rigorous analysis from even the saltiest of reviewers.

The performances, however, are uneven. My mother is fantastic, appearing believably as my mother. She delivers her one crucial line with heartfelt authenticity. My brother, however, is an insufferable bore in his role as host. His annunciation is lackluster at best, leaving the viewer unsure of what they’re going to witness in the next scene. If there’s a low moment in the skit, it’s his appearance.

I, of course, am magnificent. I really make the audience feel my pain as I flop around on the floor like an idiot fish after purposely snapping my leg. The one qualm I have with the leg-breaking thing is this: what kind of person is strong enough to break a shinbone with their bare hands? If realism was my aim, this is an obvious failure. If I was going for something more surreal, ala David Lynch, then I guess it checks out.

The ambulance scene at the end — which features some spectacular, close-up camera work — probably could have been cut, though it does bring an absurdist sense of humor to what the viewer has just witnessed. Health insurance is important, folks. And don’t break your leg just because The Man tells you to. Even if The Man is actually your mother. 

Rotten Tomatoes score: 88-percent

Free, like a blackbird pecking trash

Walking may not be the most practical mode of transportation. But there’s something magical about strolling around a city.

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