KUNG FU ELLIOT Review: Black Belts, White Lies
For as long as there has been Fame, there have been people clamoring for Fame. As time has passed, and as Fame has gradually and grotesquely morphed into the monster known as Celebrity, getting it has become easier than ever.
Affordable audio/visual technology and the Internet allow for the masses to create an endless supply of content – perpetual demos, if you will – to be posted publicly as often as desired. This irresistible force of supply’s “Hey, look at me!” is equalled only by the immovable object that is content demand. Once again the Internet plays a key part, this time as a distribution outlet, as does television (particularly of the Reality variety). People perform and the industry buys it. The industry cuts checks and people perform. Which came first, Narcissus or the egg? It doesn’t matter. The Big Bang of supply against demand means the creation of a world where the odds of winning the Celebrity Lottery appear to have gotten better for the players.
Simply put: YouTube is the new Schwab’s.
In this modern Celebrity model, we’ve been treated to the Good (American Idol Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson) and the Bad (pick a Kardashian, any Kardashian). All that remains is the ugly. In Kung Fu Elliot, co-documentarians Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau show us the ugly.
Elliot “White Lightning” Scott is a self-proclaimed martial arts champion who is also an amateur filmmaker, with two independently-made martial arts films to his credit: They Killed My Cat and Stalker and the Hero. Elliot’s dream is to one day become Canada’s first action star. The documentary picks up with Elliot in the middle of shooting his third film, Blood Fight. Working with almost no budget and with help from the two people closest to him – live-in Linda Lum and best friend Blake Zwicker – Elliot remains focused on making his dream a reality.
But something isn’t right, and it goes beyond the poor quality of his filmmaking. It’s one thing to want to turn today’s dream into tomorrow’s reality, but it’s another thing entirely to rewrite yesterday’s history in an effort to help realize today’s dream tomorrow.
Elliot Scott is in heavy rewrite mode.
Kung Fu Elliot is a documentary with some serious game. I thought it was going to be a funny look at a quirky guy in a small town trying to make a name for himself in a niche genre. What I got was a profile of a man with a distorted view of his own reality (past and present), who has an immeasurable desire to become a movie star. What makes this doc truly disturbing, though, is not the scope of Elliot’s fantasy but the subtlety of his delusion. He isn’t screaming, “Look at me!” He’s whispering it.
On the surface, the film is straight out of the Gospel according to Christopher Guest, with players who feel more like humorous caricatures than everyday people.
The composer is inspired by Survivor‘s “Eye of the Tiger,” but he can’t sing. An actor thinks he can attain Brando-esque heights in his craft because he reads a book by Stella Adler and recites William Shakespeare aloud. The girlfriend is bitter at what her life has become and frustrated by the lack of an engagement ring on her finger, yet she continues to support her man and participate in all aspects of the film (while verbally roughing him up in the process). The star overvalues his experience by clinging to literal truths and giving them a flashy paint-job. He won a local martial arts competition in a small Canadian town, but he refers to it as having won a National Martial Arts title. He has film festival credentials, but it was the Canadian 8mm Independent Martial Arts Film Festival. You get the point.
Throw in Canadian accents and some terrible filmmaking on Elliot’s part, and all that’s missing is Guest’s troupe. They don’t arrive because ultimately, this isn’t funny.
Where the film’s first act of this real-life tale sets up Elliot as some poor dope who’s not very good at his craft and who goes swimming in his own press a little too far in the deep end, the second act – when he travels to China to study acupuncture and then returns home – exposes him for something a little less lovable and a little more delusional. I had more than one “What?!” moment in the film’s hearty center, especially as Elliot’s little white lies grew larger and darker. It’s here you start asking deeper questions, too. You wonder about things like Elliot’s aversion to marital commitment (which he always dismisses or pivots away from) or his complete inability to recognize when Linda is right about something on the set of the film.
By the third act and the closing credits, after Elliot’s delusion is super-sized to rage, you will find yourself looking back at everything he said and everything he did and short of what you saw with your own eyes, you will question everything, from his childhood tales to his last moments in the documentary. I won’t kid you – some things are flat-out debunked (by Linda) while other things remain there for you to digest and connect and dissect and judge in the hours and days that follow.
This clever construct is all the doing of co-slashes Bauckman and Belliveau (directors / writers / producers / cinematographers / editors). They understand that a documentary, while often headier in content and different in executional structure, is still a film, and no matter how interesting the story or subject might be, the film must be made well to be successful. This film is made well. This film is successful. Bauckman and Belliveau give you what you expect – they set you up with the Gospel of Guest – and then they bring that zany world to a staggering halt and lead you down a path you didn’t expect to follow.
The film is not without its flaws, though, the greatest of which is an absence of a clear childhood picture of Elliot. Other than one particular event in his youth (a story that suggests his desire to be famous, and his penchant for exaggeration, started when he was young), there is nothing of Elliot’s past that is clearly revealed prior to his first film. Some sense of his life’s path might help better understand why he is how he is. Along those lines, there are no testimonials about Elliot from anyone other than the main characters – no teachers or former coworkers or any of the other usual suspects in a profile like this. It certainly doesn’t diminish the experience, though.
In our fame-obsessed society, it is easy to find the bombasts – those wannabes who scream the loudest or act the angriest or dress the trashiest, all in an effort to call as much attention to themselves as possible. Harder to find are those fame-seekers who appear to be going about it the right way until you get up close and see the deep ugliness that the superficial bombasts don’t have the dark depth to achieve. Kung Fu Elliot found one of those hard-to-find seekers and proved, with excellent storytelling, that great line from David Bowie‘s hit, “Fame”, is correct:
Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.
Disclosure: Garage Doc Films and Cargo Film & Releasing made available to me a streaming copy of this film for review purposes.