After the news broke of Paul Henry’s secret feature film The Desk, it is officially coming to New Zealand in the Documentary Edge Festival. Alex Casey went along to a preview screening to see what on earth is going on.
Full disclosure: I don’t really know wtf I just watched.
I just got home from a media screening of The Desk. A small group of us, all lined up in a deluxe mini-cinema, ready to have Paul Henry’s secret (potential) masterpiece thrust upon us. The environment was tense, a lot of shuffling papers, tweeting, txting – and that was just me.
The Desk is a documentary about a short film about a failed TV show. It is made by (and stars) Andrew Goldman, a scorned former journalist for the New York Times. I say stars, he appears as himself in the documentary sequences and is played by an actor in the short film sequences. Sound confusing? You bet it is. Goldman caught wind of Paul Henry during the Dikshit era, and had been keen to do something with him ever since.
Goldman prides himself (incredibly obnoxiously) on having a similar no-holds-barred approach to his interview subjects, and joins forces with Paul as he arrives on his exodus to the bright lights of Hollywood. They make a bizarre short film together about absolutely failing to get anywhere with TV networks, pitching absurd late night talk show ideas and eventually resorting to their own mobile solution.
The Desk opens with Paul and ‘Andrew’ (played by a professional actor) staring through a fence at an assortment of jets. Paul picks out which one he would like to fill with champagne, and stewardesses with “asses so big they will walk one cheek down the aisle at a time.” As it turn out, this is one of the many short film scenes scattered throughout the documentary – it’s initially hard to tell because Paul is playing just an ever-so-exaggerated version of himself.
The Paul Henry that we see in the short film clips is genuinely funny, I think at least. In a Tommy Wiseau kind of way. Surrounded by a cast of genuinely artistically atrocious actors, Henry shines. Because he’s playing himself, essentially. It’s a pretty easy gig. We see his fake struggles through various network meetings – I was particularly fond of one pitch for a show called Let’s Get Naked America, wherein Paul promised a “tittyfest” from the Amish to New York city slickers. If you squint hard, this was a scene that could be mined from the Extras vein of celeb persona conflation. But I’m not going to give it that, because The Desk definitely doesn’t deserve it.
We get to know the ‘real Paul’ in the filmmakers’ ‘real story’ through archival footage. Paul’s golden breakfast years (the first round of golden years anyway) are all there, Qantas Media Awards speeches and alarming clips from the ’80s show Every Second Counts all flesh out the man behind the grin. The small audience watching couldn’t help but laugh as we were run through his greatest hits in a super-cut. The lady with the moustache. The Japanese and whaling. The sawing into a laptop.
If The Desk achieves anything, at least it brings a group together to experience Paul Henry in company of others. It’s an interesting audience to be a part of. He’s so oft-enjoyed at home, with the company of cornflakes and maybe a loved one. I have to admit there was a sort of cathartic and perverse delight in hearing other people laughing uncontrollably – despite being told by all external forces not to. It’s almost become folklore, still shrouded in a “can we laugh about it now?” mist that may never clear. It cleared, albeit very briefly, in that dinky little cinema.
The Paul Henry sequences culminate in some unsettling interviews from their makeshift fake TV show. Roping in poor man’s Ray Romano, Fred Stoller, tie-dyed energiser bunny Richard Simmons and famed porn star Ron Jeremy – the line between the real and fake blurs as they tell some very real-sounding stories from Hollywood’s D-listers.
The fake show wraps up, the making of the short film about the fake show wraps up, and the documentary turns into a portrait of a self-indulging bigot, hellbent on avenging those who fired him. I’m talking about Andrew now, not Paul.
Without getting into it too much, because it turns out to be dreadfully boring, Goldman is mad as hell about getting fired from the New York Times. After asking Diane Von Furstenberg if she slept with her current partner, and how many people on Rolling Stone covers she slept with, his interview columns stopped appearing in the New York Times following predictably enormous outcries of sexism in the online community. I must mention this isn’t the first time Goldman had done this, he also asked Tippi Hedren why she didn’t sleep with Alfred Hitchcock to get ahead. Anyway, he got fired and shit he is steamed about it.
I’m not going to call him a victim, but as a subject of a Twitter pile-on, the documentary had huge potential to hear from other people who have had lives ruined and careers burnt to the ground by one off comments. I would be genuinely interested in an examination of how effective or detrimental the 140 character mentality can be. That seemed like something we were promised when the opening credits culminated in the Twitter bird plunging into the ground, bleeding and dying. It was a bit much, if I’m honest.
Instead, all we get is just one guy who lost his job after a series of incidents – one which he had had already been suspended for. Cry me a river, mate. He tries to prove his integrity, defame the New York Times for their financial objectives at the time, and garner sympathy by retelling stories of his dead mother. That sounds harsh but, trust me, you’ll start rolling your eyes at about the fifth deathbed retelling too.
As expected, Paul Henry is 100% the highlight of The Desk. I’m almost defensive of the fact that Goldman tries to place them in the same ‘edgy’ canon. The difference is that Henry doesn’t care about what anyone thinks about him, and Goldman seems to care about what EVERYONE thinks about him. SO MUCH. To the point where he made a whole documentary about it. Even at the end, Paul returns to say to the camera “it’s just narcissistic, isn’t it?” And that’s PAUL HENRY.
So yeah, The Desk is pretty much a trainwreck – saved only by the interesting/confusing shift between reality and fiction, and the absurd Henry moments that are sure to be revered by New Zealand audiences. Paul Henry drunk and shirtless eating chicken, Paul Henry saying “titties”. Paul Henry interviewing a half-naked Wonder Woman about “hugs from behind”. It’s like his slimy persona has been deep fried thrice in American grease and left to slither his way down Hollywood Boulevard. As for Andrew Goldman, his “blistering critique” of the New York Times is whiny, pathetic, and so skewed in his favour that we were all laughing out loud by the end of it.
I hate to do this Andrew but, as one of our own once said – “start a group”.