Like many, the first time I can recall being aware of the mechanics of filmmaking was while watching Chuck Jones’ 1953 animated classic Duck Amuck. In this short, Daffy Duck attempts in vain to remain control of his own cartoon, only to be thwarted by the hand of an unseen animator, who constantly repaints the background, erases key props, and transforms Daffy into a ridiculous flower-beast (I won’t reveal the animator’s identity in case anyone reading this has somehow never seen Duck Amuck, but suffice to say he is, indeed, a stinker). It is an early and extreme example of breaking the fourth wall, in which the fabric of the narrative itself appears to spin out of control and transform itself into something strange and self-reflexive.
I was reminded of Duck Amuck while watching Mister Organ, the new feature by journalist-turned-filmmaker David Farrier (Tickled), with two notable differences. The first, obviously, is that Mister Organ is a documentary film, and, unlike Daffy Duck, its characters are real-life human beings. And where Duck Amuck sees its star battling against an all-powerful filmmaker, in Mister Organ it is Farrier trying to save his film–and his sanity– from its overpowering subject.
Mister Organ began life as a simple human-interest story: an antique store owner in Ponsonby, Auckland (described half-ironically by Farrier as “the Beverly Hills of New Zealand”), tired of motorists illegally parking in her driveway, hires a contractor to place boots on offending cars and intimidate the owners into paying exorbitant fees to remove them. Shortly after Farrier posts his article about Bashford Antiques, he receives a threat of legal action from a lawyer identified as one “MDA Organ.” Doing his due diligence, Farrier finds no evidence of a lawyer by that name, but does discover a Michael Organ: a convicted boat thief and self-proclaimed prince who happens to bear a striking resemblance to the rogue car-booter. Farrier’s story goes viral– but it doesn’t end there.
Shortly after Farrier runs his piece, Bashford Antiques closes, and Farrier takes home the sign as a memento. Almost immediately, he receives a court summons on behalf of Organ and Bashford. Farrier loses the suit (lawyer or no, Organ is apparently a formidable presence in the courtroom), but he does persuade Organ to sit down for an interview. It is here that things get strange: Organ, despite clearly being a lunatic, possesses an undeniable charisma, and Farrier soon begins to wonder who’s actually in control of his film– and whether his safety and sanity are in danger.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, because half the fun of Mister Organ is following Farrier down the rabbit hole of this deeply strange person’s strange life and powers. Farrier is a winning screen presence, an investigative journalist-cum-straightman in the tradition of Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson. Farrier first serves as a wry, deadpan narrator to the unlikely saga of Bashford Antiques; then, once Organ enters his life in earnest, he is recast as a sort of Sancho Panza, resigned to listening to his subject’s insane rambling (in some of the film’s funniest moments, he puts himself on mute while Organ rants at him over the phone, asking the camera in real time what he’s gotten himself into). Farrier is, in his own way, the Steve Irwin of documentary journalism, putting himself into increasingly dangerous and insane situations for the sake of a story.
But while the filmmaker is the protagonist, he is not the star; the film is not called Mister Farrier, after all. Organ is a fascinating person to watch, because, while he speaks with an easy charm, there is something not quite human about him. One can understand how he can worm himself into all of these people’s lives– Farrier’s, Bashford’s, and a parade of ex-roommates and acquaintances who share their stories (and it seems this may be the tip of the iceberg, as many more apparently declined to go on record for fear of reprisals). He is, if not diabolical, at the very least Scientological or Mansonian. At the beginning of the film, his story sounds too outrageous to be true; by the time the end credits roll, almost nothing you could learn about him would come as a surprise.
The structure of Mister Organ roughly mimics that of the now-ubiquitous true-crime miniseries which populate Netflix and other streaming services, with one “oh my god” revelation dovetailing into the next to keep the viewer binging (a woman towards the front of my screening couldn’t help but utter a full-volume “Wow!” every fifteen minutes or so). The difference, of course, is that those series have to pad their stories out to between four and eight hours, often stretching their subjects paper-thin. By containing his story within a tight feature length, Farrier concentrates its power (even as one suspects that, by the film’s end, the story may not yet be over). Mister Organ is an early contender for the most jaw-dropping and entertaining doc of the year, moving briskly and never outstaying its welcome. By the time it’s over, you’ve absorbed so many insane facts that you almost feel punch-drunk– or as if you’ve been forced into a room with Michael Organ himself.
So what’s Michael Organ’s deal? I hesitate to wager a diagnosis, both because I am not a psychiatrist and because I can’t discount the possibility that Michael Organ will browse the film’s Rotten Tomatoes reviews and put together a new hit list. But I will say that his type is not altogether unfamiliar in the year of our lord 2023. We have seen them over and over– on social media, in the osmotic worlds of entertainment and TV news, in the highest echelons of political and financial power– narcissists who lie with such ease and authority that even the most rational skeptic might be cowed into believing that there’s something to what they’re saying. Ten years ago I might have questioned how so many people could have fallen into the thrall of such a clearly deranged individual, but by now I know that they’re everywhere, commanding power and airtime and hearts and minds without having to say a single thing of substance. Michael Organ may not be the exception, but the rule– which might make Mister Organ the most chilling horror movie of the year.
dir. David Farrier
Screened at Brattle Theatre as part of the 2023 Boston Underground Film Festival – click here for schedule and ticket info, and click here to follow our continuing festival coverage!