For the past few weeks I’ve been unhealthily fixated on the outsider art projects of Matt Farley and his Motern Media brand. Consistent with the other times I’ve found myself newly obsessed with insular worlds like drag, pro wrestling, or Doris Wishman cheapies, I’ve been obnoxiously shoehorning Farley & Motern into every conversation, stray thought, and Google search I can manage, to the point where I’m certain I’ve become an annoyance to everyone around me. Part of the appeal of Farley’s cinematic output in general is that it’s so aggressively localized that it feels unknowable to newcomers outside his dorkily wholesome New England community. The recurring cast of family & friends that populate Farley’s backyard film productions do become gradually familiar as you sink further into his Motern catalog, but there’s also a mystique to the unfathomable consistency of that recurrence. For instance, the weirdly muscly visage of the Tim & Eric-ready Kevin McGee is immediately fascinating, but only becomes more intriguing as you track the “actor’s” physical transformation over the decade between Druid Gladiator Clone (2002) & Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012). As much as Farley is making parodically silly horror movies around his new England neighborhood, he’s also documenting the evolution & aging of an insular community of people the outside world knows nothing about. There’s a wealth of material in the Motern catalog, but no immediate context to what you’re watching, so that the only way to fully understand what Farley’s accomplishing with his buddies (most notably his frequent director-of-choice Charles Roxburgh) is to watch all of his available movies. Even though the films are generally short & hosted on easily accessible sites like YouTube, that’s a daunting task, especially in an era where audiences are used to knowing practically everything about a film’s cast, plot, and production history before we experience the finished product for ourselves. Understanding Matt Farley’s work requires obsession, as it requires a hunger for small context clues spread over an untold number of film productions (I can’t even tell you exactly how many movies he’s produced, since even that information is mysteriously inconsistent depending on the source).
It turns out that attempting to piece together the mystery of Matt Farley’s decades-long dedication to microbudget film production through context clues in interviews, Motern Media’s website, and the Important Cinema Club podcast episode where I first discovered his work was essentially a waste of time. In addition to being the most self-aware man alive, Farley is also radically dedicated to existing in the public sphere as an open book; if you want any details about his life’s work, all you have to do is ask. He even frequently includes his phone number (603-644-0048) in the end credits of his films and the lyrics of his songs so that you can call him to ask questions directly. Interviewing Farley about his life & work is also a redundancy in its own way, though, because Farley has already laid out the essential details for all to see in a feature-length narrative film titled Local Legends, available for free on YouTube. Without shame or apology, Local Legends is a 70min infomercial for Matt Farley’s various outsider art projects. The film states in matter-of-fact, brazenly honest terms how & why Farley makes music & movies, as well as where you can find his work & support him financially. In addition to being a feature-length commercial for the Motern Media empire, Local Legends is also an artistic masterpiece, easily my favorite Matt Farley production I’ve seen to date. Any questions I’ve asked myself about his day to day routines, the amount of outside fanfare he’s seen for his work, and the context of where his community of adorable weirdos fits in on his local arts scene are answered plainly in the movie, which triples as a narrative feature, a documentary, and an essay film on the joys & embarrassments of amateur art production in the 2010s. Even beyond the convenient insight it provides into Farley’s Warhol-esque media factory, however, Local Legends is just stunning in its bullshit-free self-awareness as a small-time artist’s self-portrait. Local Legends itself is a kind of paradox, in that it could not exist without decades of back catalog art projects informing what Farley is saying about the nature of outsider art in the film, but it’s also a crowning achievement that feels like a philosophical breakthrough for Farley just as much an outsider’s crash course in his oeuvre. It’s a crass act of self-promotion, but the product being displayed is often about crass self-promotion & amateur hustling, which are necessary for a modern artist’s survival & longevity.
Matt Farley stars in Local Legends as microbudget filmmaker & novelty songwriter Matt Farley. As this is one of the select few of his productions not directed by career-long bestie Charles Roxburgh, Farley’s choice to write, star in, and direct the picture himself with an auteursist omnipresence recalls the unembarrassed narcissism of Woody Allen’s own self-indulgent oeuvre. Farley, of course, blatantly acknowledges this debt to Allen (something that hasn’t aged especially well in the last five years, for extratextual reasons you’re already aware of). He both shoots the film in a digital black & white that recalls Woody Allen‘s visual style and makes verbal references to touchstones like Annie Hall just so you know that the affectation is purposeful. Like with Allen’s works, it’s common for Farley to cast himself as a relatively unexceptional man who has multiple attractive women throwing themselves at him with romantic intent. That trope manifests here in Farley concurrently getting to know two women who are unsubtly interested in dating him, one he mutually cares for and another he finds to be annoying because she “only thinks about herself.” There’s immense irony to that criticism of self-obsession, as the only thing Matt Farley talks about for the entirety of Local Legends is Matt Farley. He recounts, at length, a detailed history of all his various art projects under the Motern Media umbrella, from how they’re painstakingly made to how they’re received and/or ignored, and confesses that he spends a significant portion of his day searching for feedback about his life’s work online (Hi, Matt!). Both the fascination generated by Motern’s backyard productions and the tension that makes Local Legends so rewarding is that Matt Farley pours every waking moment & spare ounce of energy into building a multimedia empire that the world outside his insular social circle of collaborators could not care less about. The Woody Allen-styled romances & flirtations at the film’s center provide a convenient plot structure for Local Legends, but it’s Allen’s narcissism that really provides Farley an interesting lens to put the full scope of his life’s work into perspective in all its magnitude & triviality – sometimes in self-amusement, often in self-deprecation.
My all-time favorite quote about filmmaking is from a Roger Corman interview with the A.V. Club, where the legendary microbudget director explains that cinema is the “preeminent artform of our time” partly because “[movies] are part art and part business. [Movies] are a compromised art form, and we live in a compromised time. And I do believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius of filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film better demonstrate an understanding of that compromise than Local Legends, which is so blatant about the necessity of commercial intent it would make Roger Corman blush. Besides giving out his phone number and mailing address for anyone who wants to contact him with professional prospects, Farley also explains where you can order his physical media online and the exact math of how he pays his bills by streaming tens of thousands of novelty songs on Spotify. In brutal honesty about the search-optimization aspect of his songwriting process, he details how he’ll find a buzzword like “gluten” to use in a song title because it’ll get instant hits for merely existing, regardless if it’s any good. He shrugs, “People don’t care. They just want a song about gluten.” This commercial crassness is a sign of exhaustion more than anything. Farley is entirely disinterested in fretting over artistic integrity. He builds a meta-commentary within the film where a Corporate Asshole version of himself issues executive commands to his subservient Artist’s side on how to improve the profitability of his various projects, including the very film you’re watching. It’s entirely understandable how he became cynical too, as he portrays in brutal self-cruelty all the various, barely concealed insults artists suffer from family & friends who do not understand the significance of their passion, dismissing it as a silly hobby rather than a worthwhile life’s pursuit. By crassly pandering to the sillier aspects of his work that increases his profits (and, thus, makes it possible for him to continue working), Farley only intensifies outsiders’ dismissal of his art as mindless, anyone-could-do-it frivolity. They were never likely to find his backyard horror comedies and novelty songs about diarrhea worthwhile either way, though, so all he does by leaning into the more profitable aspects of his work is help ensure Motern’s longevity, exactly as Corman advises.
I know the self-portrait Matt Farley constructs in Local Legends to be true to life, because the second we (a lowly, amateur film blog from over a thousand miles away) posted reviews of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, he was retweeting & promoting them to his dedicated audience of Motern converts and sending us personalized thank you notes. I also know it to be true because I recognize my own life in small-scale art projects (from this blog to long-forgotten punk bands to my dead-end college degree in poetry) in the minor joys & embarrassments that are depicted in all their naked honesty here. No matter how shameless my self-promotion of Swampflix can get or how pointless it may seem to anyone outside my immediate circle, however, I’ve only experienced a microscopic taste of Farley’s commitment to building Motern by hand over the last two decades. There’s a wisdom to Local Legends’s cynicism about the virtue of True Art™. It boasts an ingenious shrewdness on how to sustain D.I.Y. media projects over long periods of time by connecting with your audience on a direct, personal level and having no shame in seeking minor financial victories. As much as I can laud the film for being wise, insightful, and admirably honest in its melancholic self-awareness, however, its real selling point is that it’s damn funny. Matt Farley’s art nimbly avoids potential “so bad it’s good” mockery in all of his Motern output by being so deliberately silly & wholesomely earnest that you’d be missing the point entirely by laughing at it. Local Legends confirms that having (and documenting) good-natured, harmless fun with family & friends is most of what he’s seeking to accomplish with Motern and that he’s well-aware of how silly the pictures appear to outsiders. It also confirms that Farley is a genuinely, naturally funny person. He starts the movie delivering punny, Neil Hamburger-style one-liners in a sparsely attended, laughs-light stand-up set, but also peppering the frivolity of that humor with harshly self-depreciating jokes like “I had to break up with my girlfriend because we had nothing in common. For instance, she really likes me and I hate myself.” He then launches into a song about Scarlet Johannsen’s farts, which the audience eats up with an enthusiasm they don’t afford those more artfully constructed, personal observations, which is a perfect sample of the D.I.Y. art project Hell Matt Farey details for the rest of the film to follow.
I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen in recent weeks that I’ve been obsessed with the impossibly niche world of a backyard filmmaker from New England, but I’ve also been struggling to recommend how they can best join in the fun. Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas & Don’t Let the Riverbeast Yet You! were stand-out titles I could cite as favorites of his backyard horror comedies, but it isn’t until you fully sink into his catalog, taking in years of development over multiple films and sampling dozens of extratextual novelty songs, that the full significance of those crown jewels becomes clear. That’s a lot to ask of someone who’s likely never heard of Matt Farley before, especially in an era where it’s difficult to successfully recommend even a minutes-long YouTube clip. In that way, Local Legends is a godsend. It summarizes everything that is wonderful, daunting, immense, and trivial about Matt Farley as an outsider artist in a single 70min morsel – twenty years of unfathomable dedication to obsessive pet projects made digestible in just over an hour’s time. Miraculously, that infomercial style self-review of Farley’s back catalog also stands as his most substantial, rewarding work to date – a weirdly philosophical meta-commentary on what it looks like to make underseen, underappreciated art in the internet age. We live in a time where it’s more affordable to produce & publish movies & music than it ever has been before, which means that there are so many amateur voices in the game it’s near impossible to get noticed, even for someone as naturally entertaining as Matt Farley. Local Legends captures the essence of Matt Farley & Motern Media, but it also captures the current state of online self-publishing at large and, by extension, what self-funded D.I.Y. art projects look like in the 2010s. If Matt Farley ever “makes it big,” it will be because of decades of stubborn dedication & repetition, a ton of hard work for potentially very little reward. It almost doesn’t matter whether or not that happens, though, because he’s already delivered his masterpiece in Local Legends, a movie of and about our time in amateur pop culture.