Midlife Motern

(Originally published as liner notes to the Gold Ninja Video release of Metal Detector Maniac. For more information about the Motern Cinematic Universe, see this introductory essay)

For those of us deeply invested in the work of Matt Farley and Charlie Roxburgh, their story represents a triumph of art, friendship, community, and creativity over the cold indifference of commerce. Beginning with 1999’s The Paperboy (the hourlong comedy they made while still students at Providence College) and culminating with 2016’s Slingshot Cops (the buddy-cop pastiche that is their most ambitious production to date), they created 11 wonderful feature-length films in the forests and suburbs of New England, far from the contaminating influence of any mainstream film industry. With no one to answer to but themselves, they developed a unique style that combined the aesthetic of low-budget regional horror films by outsider artists like Don Dohler and Bill Rebane; a dryly absurdist comic sensibility informed by Pee-wee Herman, Chevy Chase, Woody Allen, and Chris Elliott; and the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of the monster movies that kids make with their parents’ camcorders. They assembled casts of friends, relatives, acquaintances, coworkers, and well-wishers to help them play make-believe, and over time built a repertory company as consistent and recognizable as Robert Altman’s. Increasingly elaborate but always charmingly handmade, the Farley/Roxburgh movies ask: What if we could keep making monster movies in our backyards forever? What if we combined the raw creative energy we had as kids with everything we’ve learned since? What if we made the best homemade movie of all time? What’s stopping us?

There are a lot of possible rejoinders to that last question. In his cinematic self-portrait Local Legends (2013), Farley tells us that the budget of a typical Motern Media/ShockMarathons production like Freaky Farley (2007) or Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012) is roughly the same as a used car – and while none has come even close to making a profit, “I’d rather have a bunch of movies than a bunch of used cars.” That spirit still burns inside Farley and Roxburgh, but it’s one thing to make The Paperboy when you’re living in the same dorm; it’s another to make Freaky Farley when you’re living on opposite coasts and filming on your vacation week, and it’s another when you’re making Slingshot Cops after your life has grown to include newborn babies and houses with mortgages. And then add to that the stress of wrangling a huge cast of nonprofessional actors with their own lives and obligations, all of whom have been asked to give up a weekend out of the goodness of their hearts. Farley and Roxburgh have said that coordinating Slingshot Cops’ centrepiece party scene, in which nearly all their regular actors were present, was a breaking point for their traditional methodology. The truth is that Farley and Roxburgh really do live in the real world, and really are only human, and whatever they were doing was no longer sustainable.

In 2017, Farley, Roxburgh, and their rep company reunited for The Motern Media Christmas Special – a simple, party-like production that was shot over a weekend and released online a few days later. And then, for four years, silence. Well, not really. Matt Farley continued communicating on his Motern Media Infomercial Podcast, where he promised that more Charlie & Farley movies were coming. In the meantime, fans were sated by his steady output of thousands of songs per year, plus his annual Motern Extravaganza event in Danvers, Massachusetts. But who were these fans? Part of what’s inspiring about the Farley/Roxburgh story is that they spent the years up to and including Slingshot Cops building a whole cinematic universe in near-total obscurity.

Since 2016, however, a small but real word-of-mouth cult has blossomed around the films. Circa Freaky Farley, the only easy way to see a movie was on DVD, but by the mid-2010s most of the Farley/Roxburgh films were available online (as of this writing, you can watch Riverbeast alongside many of its regional-horror inspirations on Tubi). Five-star reviews have snowballed on Letterboxd, where amateur critics have produced an impressive body of writing that attempts to articulate the Farley/Roxburgh alchemy. Fans began documenting Farley and Roxburgh’s creative output through projects like the Motern Media Wiki, Leor Galil’s “Freaky 4 Farley” zine, Anthony Frith’s documentary Lessons from a Middle Class Artist, and The After Diner Podcast’s extensive interviews. Meanwhile, Farley’s absurdly productive music career began earning him a steady trickle of press coverage and a historic 2017 appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. And if I may be so gauche as to make this claim, I think that Justin Decloux, Peter Kuplowsky and I helped direct attention to the filmmakers through an episode of The Important Cinema Club podcast.

In a 2018 interview with Justin, Farley teased an upcoming movie in which he would star alongside his friend and frequent musical collaborator Tom Scalzo: “Tom and I play characters very much like ourselves. We’re just the funny selves that we are all the time, but we just happen to be dealing with a scary situation – which is probably a premise that a lot of people do, but our worldview is probably unique enough that it’ll stand out.” In the same interview, Farley spoke of developing a new, more manageable way of shooting: “This is a movie where it’s mostly me and Tom on the screen, and maybe one other actor at a time. It’s not a lot of moments where there are tons of people. And the last rule that I made for this movie is: we film for a weekend, and then we’re not allowed to film again for at least three months.” Shooting on the movie, Metal Detector Maniac, began in 2019 and stretched for over two years – prolonged by a global pandemic that put a stop to interstate travel.

Even with MDM on hold, 2020 was a watershed year for the filmmakers. Justin Decloux released Local Legends and Riverbeast on tricked-out Blu-Rays through his Gold Ninja Video label, with the previously unreleased films Obtuse Todd and Druids Druids Everywhere included as extras. In the early months of the pandemic, Toronto’s Laserblast Film Society partnered with New York’s Spectacle Theater for a highly successful streaming retrospective of all the Farley/Roxburgh movies on Twitch. How fun it was to see new and old fans cheering the appearances of recurring cast members like Kevin McGee. How inspiring to see Farley and Roxburgh dispense wisdom about low-budget filmmaking in the chat. Determined to preserve some of these stories between covers, Justin and I passed several lockdown weekends interviewing the filmmakers over Zoom for our book Motern on Motern: Conversations with Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh.

I happen to know – because I heard them say it on a podcast – that these interviews were the first time that Farley and Roxburgh ever spoke at length about such obscurities as Obtuse Todd, and along with the success of the online screenings, inspired them to again rethink their filmmaking practice. Farley writes in his recent book The Motern Method: “Charlie and I started thinking about the exciting time when we made 5 movies in 3 years. Now that we had a tiny fan base, maybe it was time to get back to that pace. Only we should increase the pace, of course!” So, following the principle of writing manageable screenplays with no more than a few characters onscreen in any given scene, they vowed to release two movies per year for the next five years.

While waiting for the chance to complete MDM, Farley and Roxburgh wrote and shot Heard She Got Married, released in summer 2021 on Vimeo to the surprise of fans. After finally building a cult, it would have been intuitive for Farley and Roxbrugh to pander to their new fans by delivering another monster comedy in the vein of Riverbeast. Instead, Heard She Got Married is melancholy “suburban noir,” harnessing the off-kilter humor and handmade aesthetic of their earlier work to express more difficult ideas. All Motern/ShockMarathon films feel like the work of adults recapturing the spirit of the backyard filmmaking they did as children, but this is the first to feel like the work of middle-aged men.

Farley stars as Mitch Owens, a variation on his self-portrait from Local Legends. Unlike that film’s “Matt Farley,” Mitch has achieved a measure of mainstream success: during a sojourn in Nashville, he generated music that was featured in “a few independent films, on the internet, and on select radio stations,” culminating with a brief run “on a major nationwide tour.” But Owens’ career has clearly crested, and now he’s back home with a faint whiff of unfulfilled potential. He fields condescending questions from local media wondering why he left Nashville. He haggles with a concert promoter (Ricky Mapleton aka Milhouse G) over a performance that didn’t sell enough tickets. The friends with whom he once dreamed of conquering the music industry have now settled into lives of 9-to-5 work and quiet domesticity.

Looming large in Mitch’s psyche is Tom Scalzo (Phil Kelhofner), the onetime Garfunkel to his Simon. Fans will know that “Tom Scalzo” is the name of Farley’s longest-standing real-life musical collaborator. The real Scalzo appeared in Local Legends as himself, still jamming with Farley in the basement. Here, the two men have been through a bitter falling-out that led “Tom Scalzo” to abandon music and marrying Mitch’s onetime girlfriend, Tara Edwards (played by Farley’s real-life wife Elizabeth Peterson). Whatever sparked the final split, there were deep philosophical and temperamental differences between Mitch and “Scalzo”: “He didn’t believe in the music the way that I did,” says Mitch. “To him it was just like a fun thing to do on the weekends. To me, it was everything.”

Everywhere he goes, Mitch is reminded that society expects us to give up on our dreams in order to assimilate into the adult world, and that a market-driven society has little value for art for its own sake. Into this bleak landscape enters Van Hickman (Chris Peterson), a postman and amateur bassist eager to become Mitch’s new musical partner. Van Hickman seems ready to lead Mitch to a creative rebirth, but suspicions are raised when claims to have received unsolicited nude photos from Tara Edwards. Could this possibly be true? Or perhaps Van Hickman means Tara Edwards (Sharon Scalzo), another member of Mitch’s college-era crew who has receded into her own adult life as a barista. What does it mean if either or both of these women are in touch with Van Hickman? What does it mean if he’s lying? If Van Hickman represents creative rebirth, then why is he dredging up these figures who want to remain firmly in Mitch’s past?

Perhaps Van Hickman is the part of Mitch that hangs on to the dreams he had in college. Maybe it’s time to reckon with the reality that those dreams can never be fulfilled, or at least not in the way he thought they could be. You can’t go home again – you have to move forward. Most movies that we get to see are by people who have “made it,” and so there have been very few films about the struggle to remain creative when any hope of “making it” recedes further and further in the rear-view mirror. Like Local Legends, Heard She Got Married celebrates the act of creation even when the world is indifferent, but it also acknowledges that the “art for art’s sake” ethos doesn’t get easier when you get older. But you have to keep creating, because to stop is to die.

The jollier half of Farley/Roxburgh’s 2021 output, Metal Detector Maniac is a return to straight comedy built on one of the most ridiculous premises ever conceived for a feature-length film. Y’know those guys who wander around a park with a metal detector? They’re kinda weird, right? What if they’re harboring dark secrets? That’s the pitch. Don’t agree with it? Well, Farley and Roxburgh insist you should, and will not let it go. Don’t think that’s funny? Farley and Roxburgh insist you should, and won’t stop until you laugh.

Matt Farley and Tom Scalzo (the real one this time) star as Matt Farley and Tom Scalzo, two college music professors who are on a sabbatical to conduct a major research project. They are quickly distracted by the titular Metal Detector Maniac (Chris Peterson), who they spot minding his own business in the park where they play basketball. They take an instant disliking to him, and after being told by police that there is no reason for suspicion, launch an investigation of their own into what, exactly, his deal is. They spend the bulk of the movie learning everything they can about the Maniac, who it turns out is named Art Wiedenhauer, is an amateur poet of little talent, and is (according to them) almost certainly connected to nearly every crime and misdemeanor to befall their sleepy community in recent years. At no point do they uncover any solid evidence to support this idea, but c’mon – look at the guy.

Nobody else would make a movie with this premise. Nobody else would follow it through to the gaspingly hilarious conclusion it reaches here. Metal Detector Maniac proves once again that there are some benefits to building a body of work in near-total obscurity. Imagine pitching this idea to a studio. Imagine trying to market it to the general public. Think of all the masterpieces we’ve lost because of all that needless bureaucracy.

MDM is a gloriously committed shaggy-dog joke, but it’s also more than that. Where Heard She Got Married was partly about the importance of artistic creation for its own sake, MDM articulates the filmmakers’ philosophy of art-making. The movie lays out its thesis in its opening seconds, when a student (Peter Kuplowsky) at Farley and Scalzo’s “summer songwriting session” improvises a song about singing a song at the summer songwriting session. “Doesn’t matter if the words don’t rhyme / Whether you’re able to keep in time,” he sings. “Just let out what’s on your mind / Professors Farley and Scalzo have made sure that we all know / Not be break our creative flow.”

It’s an ethos that has guided Farley to write over 23,000 songs, and which has also guided Farley and Roxburgh as they’ve constructed entire movies out of ideas like “What if we made a buddy-cop movie with my uncle?” and “Wouldn’t it be funny to make aa movie where the main joke is that Farley wears a fake beard?” You could be Stanley Kubrick, laboring over every detail of your next masterpiece until you’ve finally completed Barry Lyndon… or you could be Farley/Roxburgh, following your instincts wherever they take you until you’ve made Metal Detector Maniac. Probably only one of these career paths is open to you, so you know what to do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: