The Baffler
John Semley,  November 19

You’re the Man for Us

The un-cynical irony of Mister America and On Cinema

The Baffler
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“Politics—what a concept!”

It’s a refrain repeated on the politics-and-pop culture podcast Michael And Us, in which two left-leaning, irony-numbed Canadian men (co-hosts Will Sloan and Luke Savage) muscle through an unruly canon of entertainments that pertain to what is broadly called “political life.” Many of these alleged entertainments (Running With Beto, Race For The White House, Journeys With George) document the campaign trail in America, where supposedly decent, optimistic people roll up their shirtsleeves, board a coach liner, and crisscross the nation, bravely sustaining themselves on gas station sandwiches and continental breakfasts, suffering in the service of the thing we call Politics.

Across candidates, party lines, and ideologies, the theses of such docs is the same: doing politics is hard and noble, and those who do politics are animated by a selfless, high-minded desire to mend fences, unify the nation, and make the world a better place. Politics is good. Politics is necessary—and, sometimes, necessarily evil. Even when the candidates fail, or are just straight-up bad, that conception of politics itself is always restored. This seems to be the common aim of so many of these fly-on-the-bus campaign trail docs: they renew our faith in the necessity and nobility of politics. Mister America tweaks all this.

A new mock-documentary by Eric Notarnicola, Mister America tracks the campaign of Tim Heidecker (played by the comedian, actor, and sometimes-musician Tim Heidecker): a scrappy, self-inventing entrepreneur who, having narrowly ducked a conviction for mass murder, commits to launching a campaign for San Bernardino District Attorney against the lawyer who almost convicted him, Vincent Rosetti (Don Pecchia). Working largely out of a mid-range hotel suite—in which he also resides, for no reason other than claiming the county residency required to run for office—Heidecker falsifies voter registration lists (adding names like “Tom Cruise” and “Vincent Price”), records “viral videos” (which reap view counts in the low single digits), and places drunken, threatening phone calls to his political rival, whom he refers to, pretty much exclusively, as “Rosetti the Rat.” Stupid, racist, and dressed in billowy, Trump-cut suits, Heidecker is a creature of venal, opportunistic political ambition.

Mister America’s Tim Heidecker is like someone who spends his time watching people grift, and feels he can reach his own nefarious ends through hollow mimicry.

Mister America is a feature-length extension of a character, and a whole dense mythos, the real Heidecker has been developing since 2011. It was then that he, and fellow comedian Gregg Turkington (likely best known as his phlegmy anti-comic stand-up persona Neil Hamburger), launched the podcast On Cinema, subsequently adapted as the web series On Cinema at the Cinema. Playing dopey alternative versions of themselves, Heidecker and Turkington offered zippy, shallow reviews of current film releases. They’d enthuse in hackneyed, often nonsensical terms (“Every minute there’s a new, different kind of laugh,” says Heidecker of the 2012 Bette Middler/Billy Crystal comedy Parental Guidance), routinely awarding each and every title a top rating of “five bags of popcorn.” 

The On Cinema project expanded to include a spin-off series (Decker, in which Heidecker plays a cartoonishly patriotic secret agent), annual Oscar specials, Twitter squabbles between its stars, and an intricate lore that worked as a wonky, warped-mirror reflection of current culture of bloated fictional “universes.” (Vulture compiled a handy guide to the On Cinema Universe earlier this year; the fan-compiled On Cinema timeline is even more exhaustive.) It has attracted a niche audience of enthusiasts (and I count myself among them), who jokingly organize into two camps, as either Tim-heads or Gregg-heads (I count myself among them too). The fans’ relationship to the series and its self-parodying stars is, like the franchise itself, deeply ironic. It reproduces the shared fiction that Heidecker and Turkington are real guys, with real opinions, and genuine enmities. To admire On Cinema is to take part in it.

Irony sometimes gets a bad rap. It is a cheap reflex; a way of shrugging off the abiding horror and banality of existence instead of confronting it. On Cinema is ironic in the most productive sense of the word. Heidecker and Turkington’s vacuous commentary on the current cinema offers an incisive condemnation of our present culture of meaninglessness, in which entertainment is weaponized by its own consumers as a bludgeoning instrument of increasingly monopolized corporate hegemony. As if it’s not bad enough that Marvel Studios or live-action Disney remakes exist, we must also now regard them as somehow “important” or “relevant” or “timely.” (The recent hubbub about Todd Phillips’ Joker, in which the movie’s actual content was seemingly deliberately misunderstood in order to serve some broader, buzzier panic, is only the latest example.) In its brain-dead enthusiasm for literally every film to hit multiplexes on a weekly basis, On Cinema underscores the absurdity of these distracting cultural gabfests. As Turkington explained in a recent interview, instead of flatly condemning the latest no-merit blockbusters, On Cinema applauds them “with the same idiotic tone that the movies themselves are made.”

While Turkington plays the role of the good-natured “movie expert” or “buff” (really just an enthusiast, whose character offers contemptuous comment on our current culture of dead-eyed fan zeal), Heidecker’s character sees On Cinema as a mere platform. He leverages his exposure to push all manner of imbecilic business ventures: alternative medicine treatments, a system of “germ deterrents,” a coffee table book about motorcycles called Hog Shots, a number of self-funded and objectively horrible musical experiments, and a line of toxic vape pens. This last scam lands Heidecker in court, following the deaths of twenty people at the fictional Electric Sun Desert Music Festival, a sort of low-rent EDM Coachella where attendees were poisoned by the (literally) venomous vape fluid. (This all unfolded well before the current alarm around real-world vape-related deaths.) After a five-day trial—broadcast in its absurd entirety online—Heidecker evades conviction, despite his rather obvious guilt. In one of Mister America’s funnier scenes, a Bud Light-drunk Heidecker mocks the prosecutor Rosetti for being a bad lawyer, precisely for failing to convict him.

In On Cinema and, especially, Mister America, Heidecker embodies a distinctly American archetype: the post-Trumpist huckster. (While the series predates the current administration, Heidecker’s turn to barely coherent MAGA-ish politics accelerated after Trump’s election.) He is part of a long tradition of political carpetbaggers who seize on movements, icons, and ideologies for only as long as it proves personally fruitful. In the run from On Cinema to Mister America, the character has morphed from a numbskull businessman (as scion of the On Cinema franchise), to a constitutionalist living off the land on a ranch in Jackson Hole, to an Alex Jones-styled provocateur profiting off dubious medicinal supplements, and finally, a Trumpian hate-monger and avatar of political resentment, attired in ill-fitting trousers and way-too-long neckties. Heidecker reinvents himself and recasts his core beliefs from one scam to the next, changing them as frequently as he does his asinine haircuts. His patriotism, his Christianity, his interest in movies (about which he knows nothing) are just exportable commodities. He is, in the contemporary parlance, a consummate grifter.

Yet he is also terrible at it. He’s a bad grifter. Just utterly incapable. He is the exemplar of every bloated middle-class boat dealer who watches Trump con the nation and thinks, “Looks super easy. I can do this.” Throughout Mister America he flails wildly, attempting to build momentum for his dark horse DA candidacy by pressing the flesh of San Bernardino residents whom he holds in utter contempt. He’s rebuffed by local restaurants for attempting to place anti-Rosetti “WE GOT A RAT PROBLEM” signs in their windows. Passersby holler at him, calling him a murderer. He’s persona non grata.

Heidecker’s campaign manager and wine-glugging love interest, Toni (Terri Parks), is even more incompetent. She fails to place ads in the local papers, generate interest for a debate event, and bungles the order of rope-brimmed, Trumpian promotional baseball caps. The two of them—and the two of them alone—operate under a shared delusion that Tim can somehow win the DA seat, despite having next-to-no legal experience and (even more pertinently) being a genuinely unappealing person. (And Gregg-heads rejoice: Turkington also appears in Mister America, offering extensive comment on Heidecker’s non-existent moral character, and desperately attempting to reorient the documentary’s focus around his expansive collection of used VHS tapes.)

Both On Cinema and Mister America seethe with a deep contempt for ostensible subjects, whether the current cultural discourse or contemporary politics.

Mister America’s Tim Heidecker is like someone who spends his time watching people grift, and feels he can reach his own nefarious ends through hollow mimicry. Yet beyond appeals to his own vanity, he has nothing to sell. He is, to paraphrase Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, simply not there. Watching Heidecker stutter and scam and wince at a feature-length runtime proves both hilarious and deeply enervating, producing the same feeling of unsettled annoyance that one might justifiably feel following an actual political documentary—or, for that matter, actual politics. Watching Heidecker fuck up and fail over and over again is just so exhausting.

It’s also encouraging. Mister America pulls off a pretty interesting trick. While it is (like anything emerging from the On Cinema Universe) deeply ironic, the movie is not at all cynical. Its characters—Tim, Toni, and even the torpid Gregg—may be cynical and singularly self-interested. But Mister America itself resists this. Because Tim Heidecker loses spectacularly. Failing to even qualify for the ballot, he nets 0.0 percent of the vote. Nobody buys what he’s selling because he has nothing to sell. His sole major policy platform (reducing all crime in the county by 100 percent) is patently ludicrous. And his bullying, self-persecuting manner alienate pretty much anyone he meets. People hate him. And they’re right to do so. A more mean-spirited movie might depict average people responding to Heidecker’s messaging, however hypocritical and worthless.

Both On Cinema and Mister America seethe with a deep contempt for ostensible subjects, whether the current cultural discourse or contemporary politics. Yet they abound with generosity for the people caught up in these things. They presume a basic level of intelligence in their audience. They optimistically maintain that people aren’t dumb enough to fall for just anything. Even the fandom surrounding On Cinema invites a form of active participation, which contrasts the character of modern franchise fandom, which can simultaneously seem sluggishly passive and dementedly overzealous.

As On Cinema questions the very conception of pop culture, Mister America challenges the self-renewing idea that politics is, in and of itself, somehow good or noble. These entertainments entreat us to rethink not just a movie or a platform, but the collective social relationship to culture and politics. It’s a sympathy rare in the grinding culture industry, and even rarer in politics, which are similar in regarding their target audience’s gullibility as basically bottomless. Both politics and the corporatization of culture may be utterly corrupt. But, as the On Cinema Universe implies, in its own sneering and ironic way, we deserve better. What a concept.

John Semley is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent book is Hater: On The Virtues Of Utter Disagreeability.

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