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Pitch (1997)

by on 2010/07/28

For a brief golden age in the mid-Nineties, I was fortunate enough to attend Toronto’s Ryerson University.  During that time I even-more-briefly considered the possibility of a career in scriptwriting.  Which is why, when I saw the posted bills for Pitch on some local construction boards, I felt inspired to take a closer look at this documentary.

As it happens my attending the film worked out just about as well as that career in scriptwriting.

All these years later, I’ve matured enough to stay a safe distance from the industry in question . . . which is to say I’ve experienced enough to scare me off.

Well Pitch brings it all back, chronicling the trials and tribulations of two aspiring Toronto filmmakers, Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice.  The film divides into three general sections:  cold calling from their makeshift office, ambushing attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival, and visiting agents and other advisors in Hollywood.  The three sections are decorated with various amusing bits, like the patter of a faux huckster, recipes for hummus, and various intertitles.

While its ad hoc structure might suggest progression, Pitch feels like it’s missing a beginning and an ending.  And not only an ending, but an endgame.  It reminds me of another Canadian documentary I saw recently, Don’t You Forget About Me, which follows a small crew in search of (the now-deceased) writer/director John Hughes.  Both pieces move aimlessly and snag some interesting tidbits along the way but never really achieve much of consequence.  An early comment by festival ambushee Roger Ebert sums it up neatly:  “This whole documentary is a way of pitching your script . . . isn’t it?”  In fact Hotz and Rice are not (necessarily) making a documentary at all.  They need a vehicle to cover the promotion of their script, entitled The Dawn (about a mob boss who is accidentally given a sex change operation).

Watching Pitch was an uneven experience, not because of the guerrilla filmmaking, but because of our protagonists’ randomness.  For example, as I began watching I expected Kenny to adopt one particular personality — abrasive, brash, and motivated — and Spencer to take on another:  thoughtful, polite, and somewhat neurotic.  However these early impressions did not bear out over time, and the inconsistency, while probably an accurate reflection of reality, made it difficult to find an entry point or surrogate to identify with.

Beyond the personality issues, I had trouble understanding their approach, strategies and tactics.  Every time they thought things through, making careful moves, they’d undercut that sniping with a sudden flurry of shotgunning.  Whether one approach works better than the other is less an issue than the fact that using either arbitrarily trips them up time and again.  They’ll even work cross purposes, devolving into argument.  These setbacks are frustrating because — while it’s easy to sympathize with their quest — how can they conquer the showbiz goliath if they can’t unify themselves?  Insofar as Pitch is concerned, the message seems to be, “They can’t . . . because they can’t.”

Another source of frustration was the unanswered “elephant in the room” question:  If they had access to a film crew for a cover documentary, why not simply use their existing resources to produce The Dawn independently?  Other would-be filmmakers have found success in exactly this way, by just doing it:  Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and Kevin Smith (Clerks), to name a few.

Though the documentary seems on balance to be an exercise in frustration and futility, it did hold its share of interest.  Most participants had interesting things to say.  Some were genuinely thoughtful, and some were entertaining.  Unfortunately, in the end, very few were helpful.  What works for some may not work for all.

If I had actually seen it as a student I might have been discouraged, but clearly the experiences in Pitch did nothing to quell the voices of Hotz and Rice.  In the years since its release, they’ve found success with their ongoing show Kenny vs Spenny.  I’d be interested — and certainly more inspired — to see how they eventually triumphed.  Obviously things worked out somehow but in a twisted way I imagine the documentary now serves a valuable new function for them:  it frustrates would-be competitors into giving up the game.

* * *

Unrated, with coarse language

81 minutes

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