Aaron Fisher-Cohen’s documentary about 2010 New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan, DAMN!, is a depressing character study of the supercharged rise and fall of an eccentric personality turned internet superstar. At times the film is frustratingly on the surface of the things; who is Jimmy McMillan? Why should we care? This would be a greater fault of the film if McMillan’s intarweb and novelty stardom wasn’t even less inspected by the very news agencies, talk shows and internet personalities that embrace the latest fad. Juxtaposed, the lack of detail in the documentary becomes a statement about the lack of detail that lead to McMillan’s briefly realized, and just as quickly discarded, celebrity.
But I’m a bit ahead of myself. For those who are unaware, Jimmy McMillan was a 2010 candidate for governor of New York whose campaign platform of “The Rent is Too Damn High” became a media sensation when video of his gubernatorial debate made its way to YouTube. Within a couple days, McMillan was the celeb-of-the-hour, being trumpeted and paraded on the cable news networks, talk shows and various other media outlets. A charismatic character, McMillan barely looked the part of the standard politician, standing up for a very simple problem of rent being too damn high, and was a willing participant in the circus that was about to ensue around him. People stopped him on the street, he got an agent and a manager, action figures were created in his honor… and it hadn’t even been two weeks.
The story of Jimmy McMillan is a lifelong one, but the tale of his rise and fall was seemingly less than a month. Sure, he may have exceeded his 15 minutes of fame (getting roughly 15 days worth in the lead-up to the election, as chronicled by this film), but as quickly as he was placed on the pedestal, he found himself embittered as the world of celebrity wooed, screwed and left him alone. His intentions in the beginning may have been noble (though you’d could argue otherwise, if you believe he only wanted the attention in the first place), but he gets caught up in stardom fast, eventually alienating everyone around him (including the documentary crew).
As simply a story of Jimmy McMillan, the documentary leaves a lot to be desired. We get nuggets about his life here and there, but he, and even his campaign platform, beyond his oft-repeated motto, is left ambiguous. For example, whenever he’s asked about what he pays for rent, or even if he does, his answers are cryptic. He never wants to talk about it, and for a guy running with his campaign platform, it’s a pretty obvious question for want of a straightforward answer. Beyond that, he seems to answer every situation or question with, “the rent is too damn high,” becoming an extension of the cartoon that is being made of him by society at large. Why is your coffee cold? Because the rent is too damn high!
All that said, as an examination of a media culture, and society, that is quick to lionize and then victimize people at an ever increasing speed, DAMN! is depressingly on-point. In this way, as mentioned before, the ambiguity works because at least this documentary is seemingly paying attention, while everyone else seems content to make, essentially, a circus freak of Jimmy McMillan. I don’t know where McMillan may have stood on any other issue in the race beyond the rent, but neither did anyone else including, arguably, the 40K that actually voted for him. Does that number equate to voters who really believed in what Jimmy McMillan had to say, or is it on par with the number of people who would write-in Mickey Mouse on a ballot?
Much like Winnebago Man, DAMN! gives a front row look at the humanity that exists beyond the viral sensation, and shows the true fallout of our consume and discard culture. We see videos online, we share them, the participants become heroes and villains but, for the most part, seem to only exist within the bubble-context of that video. For society at large, these people exist only as this momentary snapshot in their life… but reality doesn’t work that way. No one seems to ask whether such a sudden celebrity or showcase has any effect on the people in question, or if they do ask, they don’t really look into how extensive that effect can be. Why? Because the answer is usually hardly glamorous and, in many cases, is just too damn heartbreaking.