CIMMfest 09: Who Is KK Downey? (2008)

Directors/Writers/Costars: Pat Kiely and Darren Kurtis

CIMMfest: The Chicago Movies and Music Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Take an immature, completely self-absorbed, wannabe rock musician. Put him with a geeky, self-absorbed, wannabe novelist. Throw in a cute, wannabe performance artist who has just broken up with the rock musician poseur to take up with a self-styled guru journalist, and shake with a lot of jealousy. What do you get? One of the funniest movies about hipster and media culture to hit screens in a long time. Who Is KK Downey? is absolutely, absurdly hilarious!

Pat Kiely, Darren Kurtis, and the rest of the cast who comprise the Montreal-based repertory group that is Kidnapper Films and the Kidnapper Comedy Troupe satirize a situation that has, in recent years, become not all that unusual—writing a sensational story of a person from the gutter for the consumption of a hero-seeking cadre of middle- and upper-middle-class hipsters and winning fame, awards, and a lot of cool cash. In the 1980s, one of the offenders was Janet Cooke and her Pulitzer Prize winning series on an 8-year-old junkie who never existed. In the 1990s, we had Stephen Glass (the subject of Shattered Glass), who not only fabricated stories for The New Republic, but also covered his tracks with fake websites and phone numbers, and Laura Albert, whose fabricated street poet JT LeRoy became the inspiration for Who Is KK Downey?

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Terrance (Darren Curtis), our self-absorbed wannebe rock star, is pining away because his girlfriend Sue (the wonderful Kristen Allen), a performance artist who anthropomorphizes objects by putting two staring eyes on them, has dumped him to worship at the feet of the hipper-than-thou music critic Connor (Pat Kiely). His best friend Theo Huxtable (Matt Silver)—and yes, it’s a stitch when he answers the phone “Huxtable residence”—is trying to get his novel “Truck Stop Hustler” published. The publisher says he needs a commodity he can sell along with the book, a personality. Terrance hits on the idea of taking Theo’s polysexual, drug taking, street poet character KK Downey and making him real. At first, Theo, a nerdy, doughy hanger-on, is timid about the idea, but he wants his labors of three years to bear fruit. He goes to the publisher and says there is a real KK Downey, whom he helped write the book. The thought of such a disreputable character as a literary darling brings out the radical chic in everyone. Terrance dresses in a blond wing and dark glasses and goes on the interview and lecture circuit.

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Truck Stop Hustler becomes a runaway best seller, providing hipsters everywhere with a dose of cool and a philosophy of real that makes them feel like they understand themselves. Terrance as KK is able to draw Sue and all of Connor’s hangers-on away from him. Theo becomes an abusive megalomaniac with an entourage and his own goon squad to protect his interests and keep Terrance from removing his wig for good. Eventually, Connor discovers the real KK, a patient in a mental ward named Frankie Lola (Dan Haber), whom he helps escape to expose Terrance and Theo’s hoax. When it’s all over, Sue agrees to have coffee with Terrance “some time.” Terrance does a fist pump of victory. Hee hee!

The young troupe of performers has all the energy and comic instincts of many of the great troupes of the past and present, such as Monty Python and Second City, the latter of which Pat Kiely told me in a phone interview was a strong influence on Kidnappers. All of the actors have an affected look characterized mainly by exaggeratedly poofy, sleek hair that injects a subtle adsurdity into the film right from the get-go. The choice of the name Theo Huxtable, Kiely told me, was something that resonated with the troupe as a show they all grew up with.

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The real joke, of course, is on hipster culture. I’ve had a bit of trouble understanding how hipsters see the world, and Kiely, a self-confessed hipster victim put it this way:

There is an ideology, a way of looking at the world and themselves. Hipster communities span from the middle class and hope to be special or different. They cling to artists with troubled backgrounds, with something beyond the music.

Connor represents the leader of the pack who seems to be an encyclopedia of cool. But he is blown out of the water by KK Downey, someone “authentic”—of course, the joke is that the stage version of KK and the media frenzy surrounding him are as fake as Theo’s “original” novel. Frankie Lola is funny and sweet, if a little annoying as a rabbit ready to hump any man within 10 feet of his crotch. As the one truly authentic person in the film, I actually was moved to affection for him. The affection one could have for the poseurs is simply in their naive race to discover a world they think is more real than the one they came from without realizing it’s all real.

Of course, hipsters didn’t invent this longing for the real. In fact, the word “hipster” isn’t even new. Look for the 1950s version of hipster among the people who coined the term—the Beats. They were just as pretentious and funny as the hipsters of today. Long live The Hipster. l

Trailer

  • Kimberly spoke:
    6th/03/2009 to 2:21 pm

    I never read any of Laura Albert’s books (I guess I’m not hip enough?!) but I was fascinated with the whole JT LeRoy controversy. Now I’m super curious about this film so thanks for the write-up!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/03/2009 to 4:53 pm

    You’re welcome, Kimberly. There isn’t a distribution deal, though it may show up at a film festival near you, but the DVD should be on sale in April.

  • bill r. spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 8:44 am

    I, too, was fascinated with the JT Leroy story, and found it very easy as an outsider employing hindsight to wonder how in the hell anybody managed to fall for that act. But anyway, thanks for cluing me into this film, Marilyn. I hadn’t heard of it, and now I’ll be on the lookout (for the DVD – it won’t be playing near me, I’m sure).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 8:53 am

    Honestly, I didn’t know anything about JT LeRoy until I did research for this review. The first thing that came to my mind was Janet Cooke. Believe me, it was a strange interview with Kiely, who’s probably 30 years young than I am. Our cultural references were in different places or meant different things to us.

  • Rod spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 9:24 am

    This is one film where nothing the makers can come up with can equal the mind-boggling real events. I remember reading an article about LeRoy in the New York Times about two years before the scandal broke, and thinking; “Something fishy going on there.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2009 to 9:42 am

    Rod – I think that’s why the troupe decided to focus on hipster culture rather than the facts themselves. Nonetheless, we had enough other cases like this for fabrication to be more of a cultural phenomenon than the individual stories themselves.

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