I always heard that fame doesn’t change who you are, it just makes you more of who you already were. But having watched the transformation undergone by Jimmy McMillan, the New York gubernatorial candidate who became an overnight celebrity last fall thanks to his amazing facial hair, inexplicable gloves, and incessant chants of “The rent is too damn high!” I’m not so sure anymore. When the documentary “Damn!” first meets Jimmy in 2005, he genuinely seems to care that the rent is too damn high for a lot of people. Cut to 2010, and that infamous debate. Millions of YouTube hits later, McMillan has all but forgotten about the campaign in order to focus on cashing in on his newfound stardom. In his defense, the rent is too damn high and he’s got to pay it somehow.
“Damn!” by filmmaker Aaron Fisher-Cohen, gives us 75 minutes inside the viral candidate’s 15 minutes of fame. It is a surreal and depressing place to be. Just as quickly as his successful debate appearance lands him a campaign team of managers and lawyers, McMillan’s shoving them aside for questioning his tactics and moving too slowly to land him lucrative endorsement deals. With the election days away, he refuses to do interviews because he’s too busy trying on $1200 suits or making appearances on Funny or Die. He walks around the streets of New York, desperately hoping someone will recognize him. Sometimes people ask him for pictures. Other times, he’s the one asking if they want to take one.
In other words, the portrait painted by Fischer-Cohen is a sad and unflattering one. You might expect the media to be the most direct target of a film like this, and it’s not like they’re completely innocent of building up and also making fun of this sincere if offbeat individual. But really the film points the finger most squarely at McMillan himself, a funny, charming guy who loses sight of himself at the center of his own media circus. If he ever had any sort of convictions, they all vanish the moment someone offers him a paycheck: in an effort to prove his viability as a commercial pitchman he takes some photographs on spec with a Coke in one hand and a Pepsi in the other. That’s right: McMillan is another politician guilty of flip-flopping. Soda flip-flopping.
Aside from a few fleeting glimpses early in the film, “Damn!” gives us no insights into who McMillan is outside his bubble of Internet celebrity. How’d he become this guy with the weird hair and the gloves and the catchphrase? What did he do for a living? Where is the disabled son he mentions occasionally? The movie doesn’t say. Perhaps that was a choice by Fischer-Cohen made to echo their subject’s own uncertainty about his identity; as evidenced by his Coke/Pepsi photo shoot, McMillan’s sense of self is highly malleable. But it would have been nice if Fischer-Cohen had asked a few tough questions, or gotten to the bottom of the debate over whether The Rent is Too Damn High candidate even pays rent himself.
It would have been nice to learn a little about the real Fischer-Cohen too. How did he find this guy, for example, back in 2005 when he was a total unknown, and why did he start filming him? The lack of answers to all of these questions about filmmaker and subject are what keep “Damn!” from equalling a documentary like “Winnebago Man” as an expose of our viral video infected culture. Still, as a cautionary tale about too much too soon, “Damn!” works reasonably well. The rent may be too damn high, but in this film the price of fame looks even higher.
“Damn!” opens today at New York’s Cinema Village and will be available on DVD next Tuesday, August 16. If you see it, we want to know what you think. Tell us in the comments below, or on Facebook and Twitter.