One film into his self-financed oeuvre, I’ve already come to understand Matt Farley both as a kindred spirit and as a new personal hero. I’m sure he’d be surprised to hear either, as he churns out his weirdo art projects under the Motern Media umbrella from a small apartment in New England, more than a thousand miles from where I’m writing this in New Orleans. As someone who makes zines, podcasts, and runs an amateur film criticism blog in the late 2010s, I recognize myself in Farley’s dedication to his miniature media empire. Producing any kind of online content without a major outlet boosting your signal (even media that would have simply been considered Art pre-internet) is essentially just shouting into the digital void, listening to the hollow sound of your own echo. That’s why it’s essential to collaborate on a personal level, to make and share your projects with your friends. The only reason we’ve been able to keep Swampflix going over the last three years is that we’re our own little community, one that doesn’t necessarily need outside feedback to feel worthwhile. Three years is a minor pittance in Matt Farley time, though. Farley has been producing microbudget “backyard” movies with his own community of collaborators for nearly two decades now. He has an obsessive need to create that has spread from filmmaking to podcasting, making zines about long walks he takes in his Manchester, NH neighborhood, and throwing annual 6 hour-long concerts for an audience of dozens. He’s even managed to turn the music production end of Motern Media into a livable salary, uploading tens of thousands of novelty songs to Spotify with search-optimized titles to make fractions of pennies off every stream. All this effort, yet hardly anyone has ever heard of Matt Farley. I hadn’t heard of him myself until a couple weeks ago; that’s exactly why he’s my new personal hero.
Between writing torrents of novelty songs to support his family, Matt Farley has managed to produce seven “officially” released feature films since 2003. Each star (and are crewed by) family, friends, and fellow employees of the local group home for teens where he used to work. There’s an authentic John Waters energy to his productions as a result. The accents, cultural references, and shooting locations are aggressively local to Farley’s small town New England surroundings, which he treats with a reverence few outsiders could ever understand. Also like with John Waters’s films, much of the joy of his work is in watching these amateur players flatly deliver intentionally-overwritten dialogue, but not with any perceptible winking-at-the-camera irony. They each carry a strange screen presence that cannot be found elsewhere in all of cinema, but they’re earnestly trying to put on a good show, even if a goofy one. There’s also an aggressive dedication to politeness & good manners in Farley’s work that separates it from Waters’s more decidedly nasty aesthetic, but there’s an obsessiveness & localized specificity to their respective works that links them all the same. To fully understand John Waters or Matt Farley fandom is to immerse yourself in their obsessions, to spend multiple films soaking in the isolated worlds they’ve built by hand with family & friends and no outside input. As a result, it can be difficult to know exactly where to start in their respective catalogs or even how to judge an individual film’s merits isolated from the larger whole, as it’s the total, cumulative effect of their lives’ work that makes them so endearing. Much like how Waters’s early career had its Pink Flamingos, though, Motern Media does have its own calling card picture that serves as a gateway to understanding his brand of lovably wholesome amateurism: 2012’s Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!.
Matt Farley stars as the protagonist of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! himself (duh), a public pariah in a small Massachusetts town who’s returning after a years’ long absence. He suffers constant ridicule for his past insistence on the existence of a mythical “riverbeast” that stalks the nearby woods. Thanks to a William Castle-style introduction that warns us of exactly when & where the riverbeast will appear, we know the monster’s existence to be “real”, so that his reputation as an embarrassment & a kook is entirely unearned. What’s most charming about this set-up is that the riverbeast itself is almost entirely inconsequential to the movie, only appearing occasionally to interrupt the small-town drama as a kind of Roger Corman-inspired act break. Between the riverbeast’s rubber suit visage and the movie’s warnings of exactly when it will appear, there’s no sense of danger or dread established by the movie’s stubbornly infrequent monster attacks. Matt Farley is barely interested in the conventional thrills of a creature feature, if at all. That genre structure mostly serves as an excuse to pack the screen with small-town weirdos, comedic non-sequiturs, and tangential novelty songs about the river. The real centerpiece of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is not any of its monster attacks in the woods, but rather a lengthy wedding sequence staged in a backyard that starts with a petty argument over potato casserole and ends in a minutes-long dance party. Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is at its core a hangout film, in that it’s a document of friends hanging out & staging gags around the non-existent legend of a non-existent monster & the public triumph of the one man who believed it to be real. It’s the story of Matt Farley’s miniature media kingdom in a microcosm, as it’s the story of a man possessed by a singular obsession finding himself at odds with a world that could not care less.
If you only watch the microbudget end of genre cinema for MST3k-style, “so-bad-it’s good” heckling, you’re likely to find little joy here. Admittedly, the score is cruelly repetitious, the acting is preposterously amateur, the story is stitched together through voiceover walk n’ talks, the volume varies wildly from scene to scene, and the entire plot is re-explained in the dialogue roughly every three minutes. Still, as with most misunderstood B-pictures, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is far less valuable as a punching bag for cynics than it is as a genuine example of outsider art. Its bizarre references to a mysterious family activity called “helicopter hamburger,” lengthy lectures on breakdancing & cat litter, and dedication to novelty song dance parties recall the similarly amateurish antics of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, but again with a wholesome earnestness that show could never match. Making fun of Matt Farely’s movies would be entirely beside the point, as the core purpose of his productions in the first place is to have fun with his family & friends (immortalized for all to see, usually at full-length on YouTube). That’s a difficult concept to grasp in just one feature, so I’m not sure the full impact of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! could ever fully sink in on a first viewing without any prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre. It’s only after getting more familiar with his insular, hand-built world in a few other movies that Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!’s significance as a calling card for the Motern Media empire becomes crystal clear. Of course Farley, perhaps the most self-aware man in the world, knows exactly how significant it is within the larger Motern picture. He even brings out the titular riverbeast (usually his director/collaborator Charles Roxburgh in costume) for dance parties at his annual Motern Day Extravaganza concerts to jive with his crowd (of dozens). He really is a hero, even if he’s one that must suffer mockery to get his outsider art into the world.
Last week I spent four consecutive days in a massive convention hall distributing zine versions of collected Swampflix works to librarians from all over the country. It was a bizarre way to attempt to connect with people, but it was at least a more tactile experience than a typical day of running an amateur film criticism blog in the late 2010s. Over those four days of talking with other zinesters and trying to grab the attention of passersby, I often thought of Matt Farley’s aggressively localized media empire. Out of every dozen or so people who stopped to talk to us about our zines (or to learn about zine culture in general), there were only one or two who enthusiastically got what we were doing and found great joy in talking about movies with a stranger. Similarly, I doubt every person who heard the Important Cinema Club podcast’s (essential listening) episode on Matt Farley followed through to check out his work online, even though most of it is readily available on sites like YouTube. Farley had to chip away at the B-movie, independent film market for over fifteen years before that message even reached me and there was a high chance even I wouldn’t put forth the effort to check out his work once I heard it (the episode did initially get released over a month ago, after all). What I love most about him is that I have no doubt that he would likely continue to make these films with or without a growing, dedicated audience. Like all of Farley’s films, Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is a work born solely of passion & dedication, outsider art with no reward beyond seeing its completion and connecting with the few people outside your insular community who get it. I recognize that same stubborn obsessive dedication within myself, which makes me think of him as a kindred spirit. I also know that it will be nearly impossible to keep my own tiny film criticism community going for a full decade, let alone two, which is what makes him a true hero.