Celebrated screen and television writer Paddy Chayevsky, who once predicted we'd soon be watching live executions on the tube, couldn't have scripted a more pointed critique of reality TV-crazed culture than Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro's behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of a low-budget Survivor knockoff that went horribly wrong.
After Comedy Central understandably passes on their pilot for a grim-looking scripted comedy series called "Psychotic Episodes," New York-based television writers Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts reluctantly take their agent's advice and dip their collective toe in reality TV by brainstorming ideas for a new unscripted show. When their idea for "Fire Academy," a series following 10 New York Fire Department hopefuls through their rigorous 13-week training program, fails to generate excitement, Gil and Dave come up with the lurid "Virgin Territory," in which 10 "medically verified" male virgins attempt to preserve their chastity in a house filled with perilously sexy encounters. The winner gets to lose it with a porn star. After enduring a series of disappointing L.A. pitch meetings that could have come right out of THE PLAYER, the boys take a strip-club meeting with gregarious, self-described "accidental pornographer" Kevin Blatt, who made a name for himself promoting celebrity sex tapes, including the Paris Hilton videos. (The visionary Blatt also apparently took the term "flesh-peddler" to a new level by broadcasting porn star Houston's labial, then attempting to auction her genital tissue on eBay.) Kevin Blatt or "K.B.," as he likes to be called is looking to segue from amateur porn into the reality-show business and bites big when Gil and Dave pitch "Virgin Territory." But by the next meeting, K.B. favors "American Cannibal," an even dumber idea Gil happened to mention by way of illustrating how desperate the brainstorming had become. The show would be a tricky bait-and-switch a la Average Joe: Thinking they're participating in a Survivor-style show called "The Ultimate Ultimate Challenge," contestants arrive on a remote island to learn they've actually signed on for a starvation contest. Denied food for the next week, the increasingly weak and hungry are expected to participate in a variety of physical challenges. The last person standing literally is the winner. (Although it's never clear where the cannibalism comes in.) Excited by the prospect of replicating the successful Survivor formula of sex plus melodrama plus the potential for something really bad happening, K.B. puts up the money and sets them on the road to ruin.
Daring to go where only the most celebrity-hungry nobodies dare tread, the film follows Gil and Robert as they attempt to deal with sleazy producers, sleazier money-men and contestants willing to do just about anything, no matter the cost. The film's neat narrative arc, suspiciously serendipitous moments and lack of any real outside information about the people involved in the production of American Cannibal led more than one critic to cry "Hoax!" and to question whether what we see on screen is fact, fiction or a reality TV-style mix of the two. Whatever the project's "reality," it's insightful as well as entertaining, and the inclusion of real interviews with people both inside and outside the business means it functions as both an intelligent critique and a dire warning. But if there's a lesson to be learned, it was lost on K.B.: Days before the film opened in New York City, Blatt had reportedly begun holding auditions for "Virgin Territory."
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