2008 Denver International Film Festival
A man’s true character is revealed not by how he makes a living, his outward appearance, or even the company he keeps, but rather the nature of his obsessions. The origins of these fanatical pursuits and preoccupations are often shrouded in mystery, and the diversity of passionate interest as widespread as the shock we feel whenever we encounter unparalleled devotion. Some we understand (and expect) — sports, gambling, religion — and each in its own way has been sanctioned by the dominant culture. One may step over the line again and again, but no one’s ever really going to punish the man who lives his life for a decidedly mainstream desire. Friends and comrades are always around the corner. But what of the truly bizarre? The abnormal or the fringe? And what if the obsession itself becomes indistinguishable from the man? For Dallas and Wayne, two aging maniacs from Portsmouth, Ohio, one of those increasingly familiar Midwestern towns without any visible means of support, days and nights begin and end in search of the elusive Bigfoot, the ape-like creature that has haunted the imaginations of hill folk for generations. To call these men true believers is an understatement, and yet again, the documentary form has highlighted the infectious insanity of the American way. We’re fucked, but we’re fun.
Jay Delaney’s Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie is the aptly named study of the pair, for at no time does the film become a tired cultural analysis of the Bigfoot phenomenon. No scholars are consulted, no historians remain at the ready, and no unseen narrator provides an unsolicited take on the truth or fiction of the Sasquatch myth. Thankfully, this is simply an unvarnished look at two American originals and the pursuit that defines their lives. It’s enough that it’s real to them. Sentiment aside, though, there are laughs to be had, and yes, most are at their expense. And why not? Dallas, for one, a toothless old coot suffering from emphysema, says, without a trace of sarcasm, “I’ve had four different doctors tell me I have sheep DNA.” He’s even more serious about his spiritual “gifts,” which amount to shouting-in-tongues to attract the creatures, as well as unproven healing powers. “Feel better?”, he asks Wayne after a particularly intense round of mumbo-jumbo. That Wayne answers in the negative means little; Dallas is a god among men, or at least the men he chooses to surround himself with. One is his son, a seemingly level-headed young man who accompanies pops to a Bigfoot convention, which is nothing more than a packed-to-the-gills cabin containing more diabetics per square inch than any place not Mississippi. It stands to reason that sonny boy believes the Yeti race has acquired powers of levitation.
The film, far too short for the riches it unearths (just over an hour), contains a controversy of sorts; one that threatens to tear apart the friendship Wayne and Dallas share. You see, Wayne is a comically stupid man (he blasts Republicans, only to follow with how much he hates liberals), though one saved by a self-esteem so poor that he admits repeatedly that he’s a complete failure. Wayne cries, mumbles, threatens suicide, and speaks to a series of half-starts and dead-ends so pathetic as to achieve a reluctant grandeur. Wayne done fucked up on a radio program one day, and his contradictory, confused statements caused Dallas’ Bigfoot website to be classified as a fraud. I know, it was before and will always remain such, but no one had said so out loud, and now the magic was gone. Wayne got all twisted around about a picture he took that appeared to reveal the woodland beast at last, though close scrutiny seems to show a drunk wearing a flannel shirt. It’s far too blurry to tell, but for Wayne, it had been the equivalent of holding the keys to the kingdom. He had respect, a devoted partner, and, from his perspective, a fawning (and paying) public but a short ride away. And in an instant, he threw it all to the dogs. Needless to say, Wayne beats himself up over the humiliating interview, which leads to a painful phone call with Dallas to set things right. It’s touching in its own trashy, ridiculous way, and striking proof that even the most brain-fried among us need a shoulder to lean on. And something to believe in.
Again, this isn’t necessarily an insight into a subculture, and there are far more questions asked than answers given. For Dallas, Bigfoot clearly has some sort of Jesus allure, and its discovery, in his mind, would change the world. It’s an adventure to benefit mankind. Wayne just wants a little recognition and, of course, the money a “hot” picture would provide, though he’s not about to fake anything for the reward. No, these men take hundreds of photos and shoot thousands of hours of video because they are convinced that every smudge and shadow brings them one step closer to solving the mystery of the ages. Alas, one of Dallas’ fellow travelers dies along the way (though we never meet the man), and though remembering the beloved Fred turns Dallas into a teary mess, I laughed my ass off (and couldn’t stop for a good five minutes) when I learned that ol’ Fred had a heart attack and fell off a cliff. I couldn’t shake the image of a leathery Appalachian, overloaded with cameras, walking sticks, binoculars, and bags of trail mix, at last glimpsing the fruits of his labor, only to clutch his chest and tumble down a mountain right before snapping the money shot. But at least Fred died with a dream, as will Dallas when at last his lungs give out. And I have no doubt that when the end comes, he’ll be squeezing that plaque bestowed upon him by his fellow trackers, perhaps the lone reminder that his life was not in vain. I, for one, am not about to argue.