It’s strange to see a grown man being tickled—unless, of course, you’re into that sort of thing. His back tenses, arching and twisting like a torso-length strand of rope. He giggles, squeals, and wheezes, clenching his teeth all the while. “I hate this,” the hairy, tattooed star of a Florida fetishist’s latest video cries, laughing hysterically. And it’s in such cognitive dissonances that Tickled finds its surreal sting: the child’s play that forms an adult subculture, the pleasure that replicates pain, the soft feathers and fingertips that become instruments of erotic torture. If only David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s twisted investigation weren’t subject to the same disconnect, the documentary might’ve been a mystery distinctly of the digital age, but it’s no more than a modest intrigue, mostly uninterested in its own implications.
This is, perhaps, a function of Farrier’s training as a TV reporter, tasked with covering the eccentrics of his native New Zealand—survivalists, donkey ladies, acrobats, LARPers—with an eye toward human interest, producing the small slices of life that most American affiliates squeeze into their 11 o’clock broadcasts before “one last check of the weather.” After coming across a phenomenon known as “competitive endurance tickling” (CET) on the Internet’s far reaches, Farrier contacts Jane O’Brien Media, which posts clips of young men in multicolored Adidas sportswear tickling their bound fellows on a spare, white set. The response he receives is startling, combining threats of legal action with homophobic slurs, and the disproportionate nature of these attacks piques his interest. If CET is an innocent (albeit bizarre) pastime, then why is Jane O’Brien Media’s online representative, who goes by the name Deborah Kuhn, firing off emails calling Farrier a “faggot”?
As Jane O’Brien Media, desperate to stop the project, continues its campaign of harassment and intimidation, the film turns up a series of pseudonyms and shell corporations associated with the company; interviews with people involved in the production of the CET videos sketch a far more sordid truth than the filmmakers bargained for. But in their pursuit of the person behind Jane O’Brien Media, the notion that the outfit’s scare tactics might shed light on the darkest corners of web culture remains largely untouched. Tickled thus comes to resemble an exceptional segment from your local station’s I-Team, down to the ambushes of Jane O’Brien Media’s wary emissaries. Its cloak-and-dagger routine, replete with a camera hidden in a coffee cup, is terrifically entertaining, yet there’s no sustained effort to answer the first question any editor or J-school instructor worth his or her salt would ask: So what?
Tracing Jane O’Brien Media’s origins to the Internet’s infancy, referring to doxxing, fraud, and the familiar anti-Semitism and homophobia of online abuse, the film is, without knowing it, a shadow history of cyberspace itself—a sotto voce rejection of Silicon Valley’s empty paeans to free information and unfettered commerce, in which the anonymity at the heart of the system isn’t a feature, but a bug. “I’m being violated on so many different levels right now,” a former Jane O’Brien Media performer says in one video, as four men tickle his armpits, stomach, and feet, and his phrasing is prophetic. It’s as if he recognizes, long before the media company attempts to ruin his reputation, that the web’s transgressive possibilities are certain to cut both ways.
By the time Farrier and Reeve confront the real “Jane O’Brien,” David D’Amato, the son of a prominent New York insurance lawyer, the decision to focus their energies on the person, and not on the mechanisms that made his anonymity possible, seems less a nod toward nuance than a failure to see the forest for the trees. It’s a misstep any reporter is capable of making, particularly after being buried so long in the search for biographical details, but it leaves the film, an otherwise remarkable feat of persistence, feeling flimsier than its enigmatic composition would suggest. “If you want to stick your head in a blast furnace, do it,” warns one of three men D’Amato sends to Auckland, and though the remark lights an admirable fire under the filmmakers, Tickled never generates enough heat to make good on the metaphor.