Local Legends (2013)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Druid Gladiator Clone (2002)

Slipping further back into the Motern Media catalog of Matt Farley film productions, I was beginning to worry that I was wasting time & energy in search of the initial high I found in standout titles like Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. A self-funded, microbudget “backyard” filmmaker, Farley has been making movies with his friends & family for decades to little outside fanfare, but something in his D.I.Y. auteurism really clicked when he reached his creative apex in Manchvegas & Riverbeast. It’s difficult to know even where to start when digging through Farley’s pre-Riverbeast titles, as their quality varies wildly (despite their shared financial ceiling). It’s difficult to even discern what qualify as his “official” releases. Most sources cite Freaky Farley as the official Motern Media debut, perhaps because of that film’s (largely unsuccessful) push for film festival submissions. Farley himself lists at least three prior full-length pictures on his own website, all available on YoutTube. IMDb, to the contrary, lists the first Matt Farley production to be Druid Gladiator Clone from 2002, a homemade movie that feels like it was designed for YouTube streams, even though it predates that site by years (and its current form only has about 1,000 views on YouTube to date). Seemingly captured on MiniDV camcorders and boasting special effects work that appears to have been pulled off with Apple’s pre-loaded iMovie software, Druid Gladiator Clone would appear from a distance to be an entirely skippable frivolity, even in Matt Farley’s microbudget terms, something not even worth its IMDb listing. Miraculously, Farley managed to turn it into a bizarre delight decidedly of its era, something as essential to Motern Cinema as the 16mm summertime slasher spoof of Manchvegas or the start of his modern digital era in Riverbeast. Druid Gladiator Clone is a dangerous film, because it’s one that might convince you that all Matt Farley productions are worth giving a chance, even the “unofficial’ castaways.

Farley & career-long co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh somehow transform the budgetary limitations of their camcorder equipment by leaning into its significance in early 2000s pop culture. Druid Gladiator Clone is staged with the fish eye lens “tracking” shots & “candid” camera techniques of a late 90s skateboarding video, aligning it with significant MTV media of its time like the Jackass series & The Tom Green Show. The movie is essentially a prank show made entirely harmless because its pranks’ “victims” are featured players who are in on the gag. Matt Farley stars as a modern-day druid named Farley, naturally, who zaps unsuspecting victims with his lightning-like “Beams of Goodness.” It’s initially very difficult to pinpoint exactly what this inane mythology means. Every time Farley shoots cheap CGI lightning out of his fingertips, the unsuspecting recipient of his Beams of Goodness immediately falls unconscious, appearing dead. Farley even lifts & drops the arm of each victim three times with bizarrely methodical repetition to ensure their zonked state. This effect is only temporary, though, and victims of his supernatural pranks tend to recover within a half hour of being struck by his fingertip lightning. In true Motern Media fashion, this mildly sinister set-up is then made weirdly, aggressively wholesome as Farley discovers that his lighting beams can be used to put his victims in a good mood instead of zapping them unconscious. This development contradicts what his druid superior (Motern regular Kevin McGee) trained him to believe. This shift from menacing pranks to learning the power of positivity occurs in the first third of the movie, leaving a full hour of runtime to be eaten up by romantic sitcom mix-ups, “gladiator battles” between fellow druids in latex Halloween masks, and Farley “fighting” the cloned version of himself promised in the title (by challenging him to a round of H-O-R-S-E on the basketball court). Mostly, Druid Gladiator Cone is a series of non-sequiturs where a shirtless Matt Farley runs wild in unsuspecting New England neighborhoods while trying on various dyed “cloaks” (bedsheets). It’s like an unusually wholesome Tom Green sketch somehow stretched to a 90min runtime.

As with all of Matt Farley’s productions, part of the joy of Druid Gladiator Clone is the accomplishment of its own completion. The college setting apartments & classrooms recall the art project ambitions most young twenty-somethings have about making full-length movies with their family & friends. What’s miraculous about Farley & crew is that they had the dedication to follow though on those ambitions and have been making backyard movies on a semi-regular schedule for over two decades running. What’s even more miraculous is that nearly all these pictures, even the ones stretching back to the Motern family’s college days, are not only watchable, but even worth enthusiasm. I wouldn’t suggest anyone begin their Matt Farley journey with Druid Gladiator Clone, but if you already have an affinity for Motern’s house style & find joy in seeing repeat players show up like old pals (this film is particularly humanizing for Kevin McGee, even though he plays a villain), it’s a surprisingly rewarding experience. The idea of a Jackass-style candid camera prank show where everyone’s in on the ruse and no one gets hurt is so weirdly wholesome & earnest, especially once applied to an unnecessarily complex supernatural mythology about “druids” (shirtless, magical boys) learning how to become better people. Structurally, Druid Gladiator Clone is barely held together in a sketch anthology style, recalling horrendous microbudget productions like the Blair Witch Project spoof Da Hip Hop Witch. The main difference is that Farley & crew are naturally, genuinely funny, something that doesn’t require much structure or budget to feel worthwhile. My enjoyment of this wholesome college prank show makes me fear that I’m too deep under the Motern Media spell to effectively watch any of Farley’s output with a critical eye. I’m so on hook for their eternally juvenile antics that I’m in awe of the commitment it took to capture the low-budget spectacle of this camcorder sketch comedy anthology, even with its defiant inattention to basic craft & exploitation of dirt cheap special effects software. Someone send help.

-Brandon Ledet

Freaky Farley (2007)

I’ve gotten to the point in my recent Matt Farley obsession where the only movies I’ve watched in the past week have been Motern Media productions. As I slip further & further into his back catalog of microbudget genre films, it’s getting difficult to remember a time where I wasn’t hanging around the kitchens, backyards, and nondescript shopping districts of New England nowhere with Farley and his recurring cast of friends & collaborators. The initial joy I found in the weirdly wholesome titles Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas and Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! did drop slightly when I got to Farley’s “first” signature film, however. Freaky Farley is often reported to be the very first Matt Farley production, but it’s the third title listed in his IMDb credits and Farley himself includes links to two full-length features on YouTube that predate even those (and YouTube) on his own website. It does in some ways feel like an Official Debut, though, one where Farley & friends graduate from staging prankish, small-scale comedies on MiniDV camcorder footage to making a “real,” film fest-ready movie. It also feels like the debut of a since-solidified formula that Farley hadn’t quite yet perfected, just barely missing the sweet-spot of what makes his later works so idiosyncratically enjoyable. Manchvegas & Riverbeast are “horror” movies that do not care about delivering horror, instead functioning as absurdly wholesome hangout films that are occasionally interrupted by monsters & crazed killers. That’s what make them so fun & distinct in comparison with other no-budget “backyard” horror movies, which tend to lean into nastiness & gore in an attempt to transcend their limited means. In that tradition, Freaky Farley is closer to a true horror film, one that does not skimp on blood or kills, which exactly what makes it notably less special than the Motern Media productions that immediately followed.

That’s not to say that Freaky Farley is any less silly than a standard Matt Farley picture. This is a deeply silly movie. Farley stars as the titular killer (duh), a peeping tom who gradually graduates to murderous mayhem. Imprisoned in a mental institution, Farley teases an interviewer (and the audience) with his full backstory, sneering, “You want to figure out how my sick mind works.” The details are absurd, as you might expect, painting a picture of a child driven mad by his overbearing father (Kevin McGee, perhaps Farley’s most committed recurring player; certainly his most muscly), who forces him to pointlessly dig & refill the same backyard hole in perpetuity as punishment for various slights. The repetition of this . . . abuse? drives Farley mad until he becomes widely recognized as a laughable kook, on par with the local witch, the local ninja, and the local “bearded hobo.” His unseemly behavior begins with spying on women through their uncurtained windows as they undress, typical peeping tom behavior. It then graduates to full-on murder spree once his weirdly muscly father pushes him over the edge, devolving the back half of the film into stage blood mayhem that feels jarringly incongruous with Farley’s larger catalog. A series of violent stabbings with a pumpkin carving tool does seem totally at home with the microbudget slasher genre Farley & co. are parodying (or paying homage to, depending on how their tone hits you). However, it feels entirely foreign to the wholesome hangout pictures that would immediately follow in the Farley oeuvre, where murders are a genre inconvenience that get in the way of his oeuvre’s true joys: flatly delivered, overwritten dialogue & novelty song dance parties. What interrupts these murders does feel in-line with Farley’s later works, though; moss-covered woodland monsters called Trogs. Just like the Gospercaps & Riverbeasts that followed in the next two pictures, the Trogs are cheaply costumed beasts that tie the whole picture together in a delightfully inane spectacle, saving Freaky Farley from its own nastier impulses.

The one major advancement Freaky Farley introduced to the Motern Media filmography was a jump from DV camcorder technology to actual 16mm film. The grime & grain of late 70s microbudget slashers is more convincingly staged in this format, especially in sunlit natural environments, pushing Freaky Farley visually closer to the Sleepaway Camp & Friday the 13th sequels territory it reflects in its atypically violent tone. That 16mm visual aesthetic was later put to much better use in Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, however, where its 70s slasher grime was tempered with the tone of a summer camp slideshow depicting good natured, harmless pranks. It’s that exact good-natured harmlessness that’s missing from Freaky Farley. Without it, the movie feels a little too close in tone with the microbudget horror genre it’s spoofing/lauding. There are still plenty of Farley-specific touches to enjoy here despite that more familiar tone, however. Flatly delivered lines like “I’m suddenly quite ashamed of my nakedness” & “All guys are suckers for a girl in a witch costume” hang in the air with pitch-perfect awkwardness. Similarly, the final cut of each scene drags on just a beat or two longer than it should, subtly affording the film a kind of Tim & Eric anti-humor without fully tipping its hand. Although Farley’s signature novelty songs are sadly infrequent here, there’s an excellent plot-summarizing ballad played over the end credits that make up for some of that lost time. Farley also seems to be genuinely wrestling with condescending parental sentiments like “It’s okay to have dreams, but better to have a regular paycheck” in the film, which offers an interesting self-reflection on his life’s work of making backyard movies about witches, ninjas, and trogs with consistently underwhelming success. I just don’t see much here that wasn’t substantially improved in his next production, Manchvegas, making Freaky Farley one for the Motern Media die-hards only. If you’re new to the Motern catalog, it’s better to instead watch the sweeter, more distinct picture from his two-film 16mm era, the one that immediately followed.

-Brandon Ledet

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009)

One of the most endearing aspects of Matt Farley’s backyard film productions is how aggressively wholesome they can be. When paying homage to Roger Corman creature features in Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, Farley is far less concerned with gruesome monster mayhem than he is with what is a considerate amount of potato casserole to eat at a backyard wedding and how disputes can be settled with dance parties instead of fisticuffs. His summertime slasher send-up Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, the Motern Media production that directly precedes Riverbeast, similarly shows very little interest in the violent mayhem promised in its title. The movie doubles the murderous threats presented in Riverbeast, terrorizing its small New England community with both a serial killer who only targets fiancées and a woodland species of yeti-like monsters called Gospercaps. Neither threat is treated with any kind of tonal severity, nor are they allowed to eat up much of Manchvegas’s runtime. The horror genre background setting is a selling point to get eyes on the screen, so that Farley can pursue his true passion with his friends & family (who populate his cast & crew): summertime fun. The slayings are so sparse & delayed that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a microbudget horror film at all. Instead, a weirdly wholesome, D.I.Y. comedy about “good natured, harmless pranks” guide the tone of the film as it gleefully distracts itself with “teen” romances, impromptu basketball games, and frequent visits to the lemonade stand. On the summertime horror spectrum, Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is much closer to an irreverently spooky episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete than it is to the nasty violence of a Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th sequel. It stubbornly withholds the genre goods, choosing instead to excel as a weirdly wholesome frivolity.

Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas starts with a slideshow of summertime antics befitting of a carefree preteen, but enjoyed instead by three revelers who appear to be in their mid-30s. This juvenile trio is a “gang” known as the Manchvegas Outlaw Society, a small crew of jovial pranksters who have as much fun as they can in the summertime heat before they must deal with the inconvenience of nearby serial killers & woodland monsters (who are essentially 6 foot-tall Ewoks). M.O.S. gleefully operate outside the mechanisms of the film’s true plot, in which an entirely unconnected summertime romance is threatened by both a killer who only targets recently engaged women and the entirely superfluous Gospercap monsters who stalk the woods nearby. Eventually, M.O.S. has to get involved before the killings get out of hand and they save the day through a series of weaponized pranks. For the most part, though, they just live out the slobs vs. snobs routine of a classic 1980s comedy with their most grotesque local nemesis (even going as far as attempting to recruit his butler into their “gang”). It’s very telling that once the crises of widespread deaths wrap up, the harmless pranks & romantic flings continue to their own resolutions, as they were always the film’s main priority anyway. Like with individual entries into the MCU or isolated episodes of a soap opera or pro wrestling show, it’s difficult to assess the value of a specific Matt Farley picture on its own without considering the larger impact of his catalog as a whole. If you have no prior knowledge of Matt Farley’s oeuvre it’s entirely possible that the absurdly wholesome frivolity of Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas will leave you frustrated, especially if you enter it looking for the traditional genre thrills of a microbudget horror film. If you’ve at least seen Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! before, if not any of his other films, it’ll feel like reuniting with old friends you only see once a year at summer camp. It’s just a camp that happens to occasionally be invaded by monsters & murderers.

While Manchvegas isn’t quite the crowning achievement Farley later reached with Riverbeast, it does best that film in a couple notable ways. Most immediately apparent, its visual aesthetic is much more distinct. In the early slideshow montage, I assumed a digital filter was added to afford the film a grainy 1970s look, but Manchvegas was actually shot on 16mm film. It was a choice that played beautifully into both the film’s late-70s slasher influence and its general home movies vibe, but it’s also an absurdly labor-intensive, cost-prohibitive choice I respect Farley & co-conspirator Charles Roxburgh for foolishly undertaking. Besides its more distinctive look, Manchvegas also packs its runtime with far more of Farley’s novelty pop songs (which pay his real-life bills through tens of thousands of Spotify streams). Major examples like a plot-summarizing rap song that plays over the end credits (perhaps my all-time favorite movie trope) and a montage set to a chorus of “I’m catching a killer by faking an engagement, yeah!” stick out as notable examples. What I really love, though, is the way Farley scores entirely inconsequential scenes of him playing basketball with his M.O.S. friends with a song that repeats the phrase “basketball fun, basketball fun” for full, carefree redundancy. Manchvegas also leans into Farley’s regionally specific sensibilities even in its title, which is a local, ironic joke about the glitz & glamor of Manchester, New Hampshire. The entire point of including that joke in the title is likely to grab the attention of New England locals who would be delighted that it was a term that somehow made its way into a movie. It’s the same tactic Farley uses when he adopts a creature feature or slasher genre hook to lure horror audiences into watching a backyard movie about harmless summertime pranks, or when he titles his Motern Media pop songs with search-optimized meme terms that will lead you directly to him even if you’ve never heard of him (and you likely haven’t). If you spend too much time with Farley once he has you on the hook, whether it’s with Manchvegas, Riverbeast, or a forty-second song about diarrhea, you might even sink far enough under his Motern Media spell to be convinced that he’s a certifiable genius. Two films into his catalog, I’m already a goner.

-Brandon Ledet

Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012)

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.

-Brandon Ledet