For the better part of the past decade the Ridgewood, New York-based filmmaker John Wilson has been churning out short documentaries that catch reality unawares (usually at its most bizarre and/or embarrassing). The works tend to organize the raw material of life into dissertations on post-postmodernity’s most tragic, beguiling and profound manifestations. Wilson’s ethic feels at once familiar—finding its analogue in D.I.Y. punk scenes and contemporary major label “surprise” album releases alike—and idiosyncratic. He has made most of his output available to the non-film festival attending public on his Vimeo page immediately upon completion, deliberately bypassing today’s dominant channels for the exhibition and distribution of independent cinema. He claims to have no burning desire to partake of the festival circuit, and maintains that his films are made only for the pleasures that shooting and editing them bring him and the responses that they provoke from friends and total strangers online. The most fitting cliché to invoke here would be that this former private investigator has amassed his oeuvre for no other reason than the love of the game.
One of his earliest films, Looner (2007), evinces the uncommon sensitivity with which Wilson chronicles the absurd underbelly of contemporary society. The film profiles balloon fetishists who produce internet videos of strippers inflating all manner of balloons to the point that they burst, each instance of which has an abrupt, orgasmic quality rendered disarmingly understandable by Wilson’s sympathetic fascination and refusal to editorialize. (This is one of his only films not to feature his signature voiceover narration.) The fetishists who’ve made erotic balloon-popping their business bluntly discuss the economics of this niche sex market, and the takeaway isn’t so much that this is merely a slimy capitalist exploitation of an aberrant perversion, but rather a full-fledged underground trade born of a surprising twist of the collective libido.
The films that account for most of Wilson’s internet notoriety belong to the How to… series, a suite of short essays that both spoof and genuinely approximate the conventional online video tutorial. These works are firstly hilarious (to the point that any precise description of their best gags would diminish much of the fun) but they are also marvels of observation (relying upon the most modest of consumer-grade video cameras).
The first of the tutorial films, How to Live with Bed Bugs (2013), doesn’t simply outline ways to cohabitate with bloodthirsty pests: Wilson’s voiceover explains that a crucial aspect of sharing an apartment with bed bugs entails earnestly trying to eradicate them, an interminable, psychologically excruciating, and ultimately futile pursuit. Wilson and his roommates go through all the steps of dealing with a bed bug infestation (my favorite: his landlord sends “an actor” to come visit the apartment several times to assess the situation, each time demanding more cash compensation for his trouble), and the result is a kind of diaristic horror doc that conjures the spiritual destitution wrought by domestic nightmares specific to living in NYC.
How to Keep Smoking (2014) and How to Remain Single (2015) cover roughly similar ground, but with a more melancholic underbelly. From How to Keep Smoking’s helpful tips on how to smoke cigarettes constantly and alienate everyone else around you in the process, to How to Remain Single’s guidelines for maintaining a profoundly sad form of solitude (“As we all know, New York City is home to some of the most beautiful, desperate, and selfish people on the planet, which makes it the perfect place to avoid relationships,” the narration of How to Remain Single begins)—these works sophisticatedly take the piss out of being a poor and lonely New Yorker. In How to Remain Single, Wilson stumbles upon the mantra that informs every level of his filmmaking: “do your own style,” culled from a Craigslist listing for a decrepit six-bedroom apartment.
The latest, How to Act on Reality TV (2016), finds Wilson sitting in on a few sessions of the New York Reality TV School, led by a bargain-bin Svengali named Robert Galinsky (an “entrepeneur,” “performance personality,” and “coffee muse,” per his website). Wilson doesn’t concern himself so much with the content of Galinsky’s teaching—as you might imagine, there’s not much there, and what there is ranges from fairly irritating to wildly offensive—as with the faces, bodies, and souls of the people who’ve enrolled in this absurd program hoping to procure their Warholian fifteen minutes. Though How to Act on Reality TV is more maddening than the other How to… films, the students’ few moments of catharsis are among the most touching events documented in his work to date.
Wilson has recently moved away from the tutorials and toward a more adventurous, associative mode with Temporary Color (2015), The Spiritual Life Of Wholesale Goods (2016) and Los Angeles Plays New York (2016). In Temporary Color, Wilson is invited by filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross to help with their own documentary of the David Byrne touring multimedia performance Contemporary Color; when it becomes clear there’s not much for Wilson to actually do to contribute to the production, he sets about chronicling the endless waiting around (and embarrassing private moments therein) bound up in the undertaking of such a large-scale spectacle.
The Spiritual Life of Wholesale Goods begins with Wilson’s fascination with a line of dollar-store products manufactured by a corporation called Trisonic, each of which has a seemingly incongruous line or two of homespun philosophy (think higher-brow fortune cookie) printed on the back. After paying Trisonic a visit to their office in Queens, he flies out to visit their booth at a wholesale goods trade show in Las Vegas. The convention is a bizarre and grandiose happening situated within the capitol of post-modernity itself, prompting Wilson to ponder the meaning of life, commerce versus art, reality versus simulacrum, etc., on the floor of a VR-savvy casino, in the inhospitable lobby of a Trump hotel and at a pinball museum.
Los Angeles Plays New York marks arguably his most ambitious film to date, a jet-setting investigation of both how to sue someone (an online fashion retailer that refuses to pay Wilson for a video lookbook they contracted him to produce) and the surreality of daytime courtroom reality TV shows (after Wilson successfully applies to have his case heard on one such show, which is several tiers below Judge Judy or The People’s Court). His appearance on the show brings him and a friend posing as the defendant to Los Angeles, where it’s filmed despite purportedly taking place in New York. The lengths Wilson goes to in order to wrap his head around LA passing for NYC in this context are both legally perilous (he includes a shot of himself signing a nondisclosure agreement and wears a hidden camera during the show’s taping) and extremely funny. Los Angeles Plays New York prompts laughter, disbelief, and reflection as few recent documentaries have, amounting to a breathtakingly gonzo achievement.
These recent films suggest that Wilson is heading in even weirder, riskier directions with his already-singular art without changing his methods in any appreciable way. Non-internet notoriety may be inevitable—whether he courts it or not.
DAN SULLIVAN is a curator and writer based in New York City.