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The Cinéma Vérité of Trailer Park Boys

Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay as Ricky and Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube.

Trailer Park Boys calls to mind that old saying the camera doesn’t lie. The familiar phrase has origins going back to 1895 when the following exchange appeared in The Sandusky Register,

“He looked up from the proof at me and said:

‘Good Lord! Do I look like that?’

‘The camera doesn’t lie about such things’, I replied.”

The ugly truth about people and the absurdity of existence is part of the comedic appeal of this 1999 film. Produced and directed by Mike Clattenburg, Trailer Park Boys is a golden example of cinéma vérité. Low budget in an inspiring way, it shows that a film with a clever concept, quality cast, and smart stylization can be a solid cinematic experience.

John Paul Tremblay as Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Julian sitting in his '87 Corvette drinking a rum and coke.
John Paul Tremblay as Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube.

The movie is a mockumentary following around a pair of petty criminals named Julian and Ricky. Best friends since childhood, the pair sell drugs, grow weed, and frequently work as hitmen for hire assassinating annoying pets. Recently, Julian heard from a phone psychic that he’ll be dead in five days, so he hires a documentary crew to record his life in hopes the film will dissuade others from following a similar path.

It’s the odd nobility of that intention that makes the two strangely redeemable. Despite being walking macho ids; the pair have understandable motives for their various crimes. Ricky wants to provide for his family while Julian sees no other avenue available.

Throughout Trailer Park Boys, the duo come across as a mix of comedic contrasts. For instance, they have a casual immorality which seems like a necessity for subsistence criminals utilizing illegal enterprises as their only source of income. Yet, they could just as easily be described as overgrown teenage delinquents with an almost intentional lack of impulse control.

Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay as Ricky and Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Ricky and Julian on a back porch about to break into an apartment.
Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay as Ricky and Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube.

Between boorish exchanges, they can be surprisingly silver tongued when the need arises. Ricky in particular seems like a living embodiment of notions found in philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s book “On Bullshit.” That’s to say he’s capable of proceeding with, in his own way, loquacious misrepresentations, sometimes short of lying, that hide his intentions or culpability. Frankfurt might say Ricky “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” In one hilarious scene, while attempting to murder a dog, Ricky is confronted by police but not only talks his way out, he gets the dog owner arrested in the process.

In many ways, the two embody the sunny nihilist described by Wendy Syfret. She wrote that embracing the meaninglessness of everything allows one to “take pleasure in the random existence we were wildly lucky to be gifted at all.” And no one finds the world more pointless than a pair of recidivist dirtbags who keep aiming for the bottom in an effort to “turn up the good, turn down the suck.”

The whole thing came into being because of Mike Clattenburg. In 1998, he shot a short film called One Last Shot that reunited his high-school buddies Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay as Ricky and Julian, versions of characters they’d play again in a 67-minute black-and-white feature called Trailer Park Boys.” When it came time to film the latter, a new idea was swimming around the Nova Scotian’s head.

Lucy DeCoutere and Jeanna Harrison as Lucy and Trinity in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Lucy and her young daughter Trinity sitting on the couch.
Lucy DeCoutere, Jeanna Harrison, and Robb Wells as Lucy, Trinity, and Ricky Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube.

Clattenburg said, “I was watching a lot of documentaries, including Salesmen by the Maysles brothers. But it was COPS that really caught my eye and inspired me. It was true cinéma vérité. I loved how it was shot.”

Cinéma vérité or “truthful cinema” evolved in several countries largely independently. Changes in documentary conventions influenced fictional filmmakers to pioneer new techniques. This fed the French New Wave where the term cinéma verité was coined while the United States developed Direct Cinema and Britain explored Free Cinema.

Meanwhile, the intensity of combat footage from World War II combined with the rise of Italian neorealism influencing films like The Naked City (1948), On the Waterfront (1954), and Faces (1968) to use actual locations. The Kino-Pravda series by Dziga Vertov provided 23 issues of a “screen newspaper” that showed real life in Russia from 1922-25 without overly elaborate stylization or cinematic flare. The images spoke for themselves plainly, occasionally displaying a truth no artistry could mimic but the camera could capture. This helped inspire an intent to record events as honestly as possible without artistry overly influencing perception.

Cory Bowles and Michael Jackson as Cory and Trevor in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Cory and Trevor sitting on the hood of a car and drinking beers.
Cory Bowles and Michael Jackson as Cory and Trevor in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube.

Robert Drew, a godfather of cinéma vérité, once observed:

“It would be a theatre without actors; it would be plays without playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times, from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten by personal experience.”

Robert Drew put together the 1960 documentary Primary, which followed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. It’s widely considered a groundbreaking film. Primary helped shift the documentary from being a lecture composed of talking heads into a moment in time captured with all the energy and authenticity of that instant. Similarly, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin examined how much sincerity can be captured by a camera in their 1961 film Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer).

Technological advancements also helped fuel the rise in new film techniques. For instance, 35mm cameras simplified shooting on location. Then 16mm combined with synchronous sound equipment made portability not only easier but more financially accessible. Robert Drew and Richard Leacock went so far as to design their own variation on the 16mm camera in order to improve their ability to interact with their subjects while filming Primary.

Robb Wells as Ricky Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Ricky sits in a bar drinking beer.
Robb Wells as Ricky Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Ricky sits in prison in his convict uniform.

Lower budgets meant more people could make movies and making those outside the studio system allowed for increased creative freedom. In addition, portable gear changed the way movies could be shot. And what started as a documentary innovation crept into fictional films. French New Wave features such as Agnes Varda’s 1962 Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7) employed cinéma verité techniques as did John Waters when he composed the 1970 black comedy Multiple Maniacs. There’s the 1975 coming-of-age comedy drama Cooley High which cast actual gang members pointed out by police. Horror films have certainly benefited from a creepy sense of authenticity utilizing cinéma vérité stylization. Consider movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). Arguably, the entire found footage subgenre owes itself to direct cinema influences.

With Trailer Park Boys, Mike Clattenburg saw a way to convey the emotional authenticity of the main characters’ situation while capturing moments in a way that made the whole story seem more genuine. The same thought process can be seen in other mockumentaries such as This is Spinal Tap (1984). It didn’t hurt that as far as production costs Trailer Park Boys only needed a camera and sound equipment.

There’s no effort to make Ricky and Julian or anyone else in the movie look good. The frequent bickering between characters would make mumblecore moviemakers envious. Not simply because of its smooth flow, but its comprehensible nature. It didn’t hurt that Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay are friends in real life, but that chemistry comes across so casually it only takes a small scene to see these two are playing lifelong buddies. Their familiarity also aids any improvisation since they know how to riff and flow with one another.

Michael Jackson, Cory Bowles, and John Paul Tremblay as Trevor, Cory, and Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Trevor and Cory sit in Julian's living room while he ominously stares off into the distance telling a grim story.
Michael Jackson, Cory Bowles, and John Paul Tremblay as Trevor, Cory, and Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube.

Furthermore, events unfold with a terrible plainness that is all too close to real life. Unlike the excessive stylization of drug use in other films, where needles fill with artful blood trails and closeups display pupils dilating, Trailer Park Boys simply shows Julian snorting coke. It’s closer to reporting than a melodramatic presentation, especially since director Clattenburg rarely draws attention to it — pour bump, sniff, done. With so little attention focused on the frequent occurrence, the act quietly becomes a character tic.

Everything in Trailer Park Boys unfolds with a bizarre, albeit absurd, natural quality. There’s little sense of a performance. For worse or worst, these seem like real people. As such, much of the comedy comes from the brazen ways in which people conduct themselves. Drug deals occur as casually as grocery purchases, shooting guns in public is just another way of self-expression, and there’s an oddly enviable aspect to the duo’s bold disregard for social norms. Ricky and Julian are unashamed to be who they are regardless of the negative perception it engenders.

Part of that is because neither aspires to anything greater. As far as they’re concerned, they’re living life to the fullest. This isn’t the story of a pretentious convenience store clerk realizing he needs to pull himself out of a wasted existence; Trailer Park Boys is two grown men on the hunt for enough cash to stay wasted. Ironically, it’s the very act of trying to do something noble — the cautionary documentary which is the movie — that ends up being their downfall.

John Paul Tremblay as Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Julian in prison wearing the usual convict uniform.
John Paul Tremblay as Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube.

Though this 67-minute film wouldn’t garner much attention on its own, Mike Clattenburg managed to use it as a kind of pilot to pitch the concept as a possible television show. After several rejections, Laura Michalchyshyn, a programmer for Showcase, decided to give Trailer Park Boys a shot. The black and white film with its crass characters and documentary style struck her as an interesting concept. With a greenlight, the television version was soon born. They smoothed some of the rougher edges down, wisely nixed the pet assassin angle as well as the coke, then introduced characters to keep Ricky and Julian chaotically good. The successful show would eventually lead to twelve seasons and three films.

Cinéma vérité is often heralded as a means to capture spontaneity, increase authenticity, and every other thesaural term for realism. When it comes to making independent movies, there is no better method for cutting costs. Granted, artistes rarely care to discuss the bourgeois concept of money, but the pragmatic aspect of filmmaking requires some consideration for cash. And cinéma vérité is an excellent way to keep budgets low without sacrificing a story’s truth. Look no further than Trailer Park Boys.

It’s basically just a camera, sound rig, and a quality cast. That last aspect may be harder to find than cheap equipment, yet the cinéma verité style allows room for flawed performances. After all, the goal isn’t perfection, it’s honesty. Having that is more important and far too rare. To paraphrase Robert Drew, Trailer Park Boys looks in on the lives of sunny nihilists at a crucial moment, reporting without a moralizing opinion, allowing the audience to deduce a kind of truth only accessible through personal experience. In other words, the camera doesn’t lie, and the ugly it shows is so absurd we laugh.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog www.honestyisnotcontagious.com and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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