I began the decade with a Kim’s Video membership and an unslakable thirst for documentaries about crazy people. I’d rent their only VHS of Chicken Hawk, a doc about NAMBLA members, that featured a particularly memorable monologue from a yellow turtleneck aficionado about something he called “gentle time.”
Crumb, my favorite movie at the time, was a then-rare example of what’s since become considerably more popular: documentaries about fascinating people who suffer from different strains of mental illness, chased with a bit of tidy white-text-on-black-background coda information about what’s happened to them since.
Crumb, with its slow burn reveals and its post-production update of (spoiler?) Charles Crumb’s suicide, became a linear alternative to the ol’ “turn the cameras on the characters, then walk away” method of 70’s gamechangers like Grey Gardens. And throughout the last decade, finding abnormal psychology-themed documentaries with a story arc and an update before the credits became cake. Movies about deteriorating families, madness streaked with genius, and zany kooks followed in Crumb‘s big footsteps. And 2005’s Grizzly Man is still our nation’s most chilling reminder of what can happen to unhinged narcissists once they lose the part of “Woody the Bartender” to a totally different blond vegetarian.
Recently, TV began producing more and more docu-style programming starring people suffering from demons or addictions, and some bedazzled blithely with harmless quirks. And just in time for the now-defunct Mondo Kim’s space to become a karaoke place, I finally have a DSM IV-worthy cornucopia of bats characters to ogle; as an armchair shrink, a camp aficionado, and a hoarder of human personality quirks I haven’t seen before, from a safe distance.
This year alone, TLC aired “My Monkey Baby,” a special (would that it were a series!) about American families who live with capuchin monkeys they treat like children. HBO aired the exquisite and insane “Cat Dancers,” about a husband and wife circus act that eventually became a husband and wife and third guy they were both sleeping with act. It’s also about the albino tiger that caused tragedy for all three. And A&E’s “Intervention” spun off a show this summer that elevated the white-text-on-black-background coda into high art-or at least high storytelling-while the subject matter brought viewers into the “deep cuts” section of ab-psych curiosity. Obviously, I’m talking about “Hoarders.” It is the show of the decade: our inevitable apex. More people watched this season’s premiere of “Hoarders,” in which a 68-year-old cat-lover from Louisiana named Augustine, than this season’s premiere of “Mad Men.” It was a doozy of a show.
Augustine, whose son came home from Washington state to help dig his mother out of the detritus that kept her company since he left home, was a remarkable “Hoarders” subject-not only because she didn’t immediately thank the workmen who found her missing false teeth under the mounds of garbage on her living room floor-but because the producers found not one of her dead pet cats, frozen in time after possibly being killed under the weight of Augustine’s own falling trash, but two. They found two dead cats. And when they found that second cat, it was as though we could all finally move on from the era of the kind of cringe-doc that we can trace back to Maysles, but lives specifically in the aughts as a thing that we found and made perfect. Maybe in retrospect, Grey Gardens was just “Hoarders” 1.0.
Anyway, the second cat. Do you know that song Jews sing on Passover, “Dayenu“? Hebrew for, “It would have been enough?” Come on, yes you do. Or text a Jewish person. Anyway, it’s about how great God is, and how if all He had done was rescue us from the desert, and etc., etc., it would have been enough. If all He had done was rescue us from the desert and take us to Israel… and so on. It’s like that “B.I.N.G.O.” song, only with a new Old Testament specific each verse instead of a hand clap.
So: If Augustine had found her bottom teeth and not her top ones.
…If there had been one cat’s corpse underneath the useless things and dirt she kept around her in hopes of filling the void of not having anybody in her life to talk to.
…If she were just another bra-less character from the Delta region with an oddly photogenic mental illness.
…If she weren’t merely a pawn in the latest installment of the “Intervention” franchises, only without the part where they ship you off to rehab and they interview you once you’re okay so people watching can feel like they’re not just marinating in schadenfreude but instead participating in some kind of redemptive process that helps people help themselves, as though that is what television is for or has ever been for, even though I guess in the long run that might be a better feeling to give yourself than the feeling that you’re just smugly laughing at how screwed up sick people can be, and so on and so forth, and “Hey Paula” too…