Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams chronicles the trials and tribulations Werner Herzog faced when attempting to mold his masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo, without once wavering from his daunting personal vision. Outside of the filmmaking process, what Blank’s documentary captures best is the way that dreams can consume us if we’re not careful. Herzog was an artist driven by his own unique brand of madness and, in the end, triumphed over adversity (not to mention a deranged Klaus Kinski) to deliver what might be the defining narrative picture of his career. With Kung Fu Elliot, “non-fiction” filmmakers Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau explore a similar consumption by artistic fascination. Only instead of resulting in a masterwork of idiosyncratic expression, their profile of “Canadian action star”, Elliot “White Lightning” Scott is nothing less than a cataloguing of pathological lies, culminating in a deeply disturbing portrait of partner abuse.
Upon first glance, Elliot Scott seems like a well-meaning goon. He loves action movies. He wears Chuck Norris t-shirts. He finds Asian women more attractive than their Caucasian counterparts. He even married one — a kind-hearted but stern well of patience named Linda, who directs his backyard bits of filmmaking that make David “The Rock” Nelson look like Steven Spielberg. But Elliot seems to be aware that his movies are bullshit, content with telling everyone they won a few awards at local film fests while coveting his status as a “Canadian kickboxing champion”. He’d be charming if he had even the smallest semblance of a spine — an uber-Canadian Chris O’Dowd clone who keeps hinting at wanting a deeper commitment to Linda (she won’t marry him without a ring) and maybe, possibly, getting his acupuncture license so that he can contribute some actual income to their household. His storytelling escapades have even allowed him to connect with another man who lost someone in his past, just like Elliot claims to have at one point.
Then things get weird. Like — really weird. It all starts with a trip to China, where Elliot meets a girl in a local hair salon. She seems nice and slightly taken by Elliot’s self-proclaimed superstardom. His classmates even say that Elliot told them he was going to shoot a movie with Jackie Chan soon (yet they can’t even find a trace of his black belts earned back home). It seems like the biggest fiction being invented is Elliot’s own life; a self-immersive lie he can’t stop telling. Yes, he’s got balls big enough to jump through a fireworks-lined window and wants to set himself on fire in a suit made of styrofoam, but it seems like the small circle of “fans” he’s cultivated selling tapes outside of local video stores in Nova Scotia aren’t enough for him. He needs to be famous. He needs to be recognized. And, most importantly, he needs to fuck.
Comparisons to Jody Hill (of which there are bound to be many) are apt, as Elliot is almost like a walking sampler platter of the North Carolina filmmaker’s most deranged characters. You have Fred Simmons’ wanton affection for the Far East and martial arts (The Foot Fist Way). Kenny Powers (Eastbound & Down) rears his ugly head in the form of Elliot’s unrepentant selfishness (the continued discussion regarding Elliot buying Linda a ring will be infuriating to anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship). Though unlike both of those Danny McBride creations, Elliot Scott possesses none of the charm that somewhat balances out the arrogance and buffoonery. He’s a starry-eyed waif, his aloofness giving way to a borderline predatory nature in the film’s back half.
But if I had to pick one of Hill’s deranged champions that Elliot resembles the most, it’d be security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen in Observe & Report), whose bi-polar delusions of grandeur threaten to crumble his humdrum reality entirely. Elliot is no doubt unbalanced, lying to nearly everyone he meets about his accomplishments in both the film and martial arts worlds. One of the most cringe-worthy moments in the entire picture is when Elliot somehow talks a monk into observing his kung fu. After being snickered at like the pink-faced goon that he is, Elliot walks away and simply states that he “found out some things he’s good at, some things he’s terrible at, and some things he’s just bad at.” What starts at the beginning of the film as a strange streak of unwavering self-confidence ends in borderline psychosis.
However, I couldn’t help but wonder — once it’s all said and done — how much of Kung Fu Elliot is real. After all, the man invited a documentary crew into his home, knowing full well that they’d eventually catch on to his lies…didn’t he? Or is Elliot so far gone that he thinks these filmmakers (who are obviously laughing at him at certain points) won’t actually catch him? Near the end, when things between Elliot and Linda finally reach their boiling point, there’s a moment of self-insertion the documentarians pull that is all but an announcement of the movie being a complete work of fiction, followed by an ending that raises many more questions about the film’s validity than it provides answers. On one hand, this purposeful ambiguity regarding the picture’s realism almost comes off tacky — a gimmick that allows the story to slip into levels of depravity and downright meanness that are positively shocking. On the other, it may very well be the point; a comment on how reality can be molded by those telling the story, to the point that the line between fiction and reality are near indistinguishable.
If Kung Fu Elliot truly is a work of complete non-fiction, then kudos have to be dumped by a garbage truck load on Bauckman & Belliveau’s front lawns, as they’ve discovered a whopper of a subject to study with their camera. But if the entire affair truly is an invention (as I suspect it may be) that doesn’t discredit how skillfully constructed it is. The way their film morphs into something as twisted, slimy and uncomfortable as the liar they’ve chosen to expose to the world is a feat of perfect pacing. Much like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, it might not matter how much of what we’re seeing is real. Cinema is truly a tool used to capture dreams and present them to the world. And sometimes, those dreams lie to us.