(New Zealand, 95 min.)
Dir. David Farrier
“You pay a soul tax for every minute you spend with Michael Organ,” observes director David Farrier following an emotional call with his producer in Mister Organ. “When those minutes turn into days and weeks and months and years, well, that soul tax adds up. As a filmmaker, I’m used to finding amazing subjects, but this is the opposite: Michael Organ is a black hole and I’ve fallen in.”
Farrier knows something about getting sucked into that hole. His 2016 film Tickled! remains a cult favourite for its zany twists and turns that led to sex fetishists. His drolly sinister doc Mister Organ goes to similarly dark places. It’s a reminder that strangers may have interesting stories, but it’s something best to be cautious while venturing into encounters with the unknown. But Farrier is a filmmaker and journalist, so curiosity comes naturally. Or, as Michael Organ might insinuate, the filmmaker loves sticking his nose in other people’s business. Farrier pays a hefty price to access a character: Mister Organ out-weirds Tickled, if that’s even possible.
The rabbit hole starts in an unlikely place. Farrier finds himself in the parking lot of Jillian Bashford’s antique store. Reports of a shopkeeper with a fixation on illegally parked cars and an aggressive tow-truck drive with a pattern of extortive behaviour pique Farrier’s interest. He sees images of the driver, whom he eventually identifies as Michael Organ, asking exorbitant sums to remove clamps from cars. Farrier begins publishing stories about the parking lot brouhahas. Things get weirder when Bashford denies knowing the driver. Then a letter from her lawyer, one “Micheal Organ,” surfaces but Farrier can’t find any record of said lawyer.
Curiouser and Curiouser
The juicy peculiarities of this case inevitably tickle Farrier’s interest. He looks into this Micheal Organ business. He can’t find a lawyer of the same name, but he lands upon a story about a professed nobleman whose name varies in spelling and title, but shares a headshot with the man from the lot. The notoriously litigious duo latches onto him when the story takes a twist, and Farrier finds a perfect opportunity to gain access in ways that Bashford and especially Organ have denied.
Mister Organ builds upon these conversations to try to understand who Michael Organ is, why he’s inserted himself into Bashford’s life, and how his pattern of behaviour continues. The key word here, however, is “try.” One can’t comprehend Organ easily because he’s an extremely domineering, controlling, and combative character. He’s a serial liar prone to narcissistic ramblings. Farrier tries to run with Organ’s aggressiveness. The camera rolls as Organ blathers on, spinning elusive tails that pit himself as both the victim and the smartest guy in the room. Farrier, however, can’t get a word in. When he tries, Organ steamrolls him and kicks things up a notch, ensuring the diatribe inflicts as much misery as possible.
This strange behaviour follows a pattern. Farrier contacts Organ’s former roommates along with estranged friends. Their accounts could easily double as descriptive captions for Farrier’s footage. Organ is an out of control charlatan who can really tell a story. One interviewee even recalls being in court with Organ and watching as a judge escorted him from the room when the proceeding concluded and waited for him to take the elevator. He tells Farrier that upon returning, the judge advised all parties to stay away from Organ, having encountered his troubles as well.
Feeding Off Fool’s Gold
Farrier can’t heed the judge’s advice, though, and Mister Organ makes its fascinating character study twofold. On one hand, the affair of Michael Organ and Jillian Bashford is too juicy to ignore. Farrier can’t stop digging when he recognizes gold. It’s ultimately fool’s gold, though. As Organ realizes he’s revealed too much, Farrier becomes the next victim of his targeted harassment. Hour-long phone calls plague Farrier. Organ imposes one diatribe upon the filmmaker after another, which Farrier humorously captures while putting the calls on mute and discussing what to do with his cinematographer. Farrier realizes that the story’s great, but he knows he’s stuck with an intolerable and unstable character whom he must endure in service of the film. “He’s a fuckwit who bores people to death until they jump off a building,” Farrier notes, tragically anticipating a story that turns the doc on its head.
This is one of those films in which the less one knows beforehand, the better. It’s a gripping yarn fuelled by larger than life figures and twists upon twists without making light of serious material. Mister Organ is at once an absorbing character piece as Organ clearly needs help, as does Bashford, whom Farrier gradually recognizes to be another victim amid Organ’s pattern of parasitic behaviour. But Farrier observes how illness worsens when a person’s circumstances enable and fuel his behaviour.
It’s also a fascinating study of a filmmaker’s recognition of the self-destructive nature of his profession as he needs to latch onto his subjects and see the story through. It says a lot about Farrier’s character, and his tenacity as a journalist and filmmaker, that he burrows through the rabbit hole and comes out the other side. Whatever hell the film was to make ensures that it’s a delight to watch
Mister Organ opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Oct. 13.