Reconciling with America’s strangeness
The United States through the eyes of Louis Theroux
‘I really think you’re going to enjoy this experience. We are a good group of people.’ An elderly lady with grey hair and pink earrings puts her hand on Louis’ chest. He seems calm, especially after her reassuring gesture. In the documentary Love Without Limits, Louis Theroux covered non-traditional forms of relationships. In this particular case, he had travelled to Portland (Oregon), where he joined a session of ‘sensual eating’. A gathering where couples and singles enjoy the pleasure of feeding one another, this time hosted by Cliff.
Louis decided to join in, so he could truly connect with the participants and experience what it was really like. Not long after his arrival, he was fed strawberries - naked and blindfolded - in Cliff’s basement. Once again, he became overinvolved. ‘It was all quite embarrassing, but at the same time a little bit liberating,’ Louis later admits. He had driven himself to do something rather weird for the cause of ‘good’ journalism.
This is what Louis Theroux is all about. Not sexual adventures, but his willingness to engage with the topic. The British documentary maker is capable of making connections with unconventional people, unlike anyone else. His coverage of American subcultures has made him one of the most popular journalists in Britain, maybe the world. Now that we are confined to our rooms and unable to explore life ourselves, it’s the perfect time to soak up the lives of others. To leave our comfort zone. Louis’ work can take us beyond the conventional - into the world of American weirdness. Some might have lost their affection for the United States after recent presidential events. However, you can reconcile with the States, in all its strangeness, through the eyes of Louis Theroux.
But who is that 6’’2, skinny guy with messy hair, a tacky brown shirt, outmoded glasses and a thoroughly concerned facial expression? Who is that reporter that seems alien in almost every American surrounding? Louis was born in London, went to Westminster School and graduated from Magdalen College in Oxford. As a teenager he read a great deal of books and participated regularly in school plays. More significantly, he was always afraid to talk to girls. Everything about him was British. Arguably posh. However, soon after his graduation he felt the need to leave the UK. He wanted to escape the academic jargon and medieval atmosphere of Oxford and Westminster.
What started as a three month getaway to Boston, ended up being the beginning of his career. Those who think that Louis’ road to success was well planned and thought through are mistaken. It was rather a combination of some luck, a consistent feeling of self-doubt, a keen interest in not becoming a failure, many lonely nights in a New York apartment and hard work. In the end, however, the BCC offered Louis a contract for his first series called Weird Weekends, and justly so.
Louis has something special: his persona. He is seemingly awkward and a little bit of a geek, but that works to his advantage. It is disarming. Louis is able to fade away any tension that exists between the mainstream world and alternative off-beat figures. He doesn’t have much regard for his dignity or self-importance and can easily leave his comfort zone. As a result, he allows interviewees to feel at ease around him. ‘I have a certain willingness to get embarrassed’, he admits.
When he met DeWayne ‘Sarge’ Bruce (a renowned professional wrestler) for Weird Weekends, the documentary maker questioned the sincerity of the wrestling sport. The ‘Sarge’ was furious. As a way to make it up, Louis joined one of DeWayne's training sessions. A group of well trained wrestlers embarrassingly destroyed Louis ‘the dying cockroach’ Theroux. In the end, however, he regained their trust. A similar gesture was made when Louis interviewed pornstars about the porn industry. In order to make them more at ease and less nervous, he signed up with a talent agent himself. Together they created a profile, including a naked polaroid, which he later showed the actors. ‘’Suddenly I was one of them, which had a beguiling effect... They relaxed,’’ Louis later admits.
Some might argue that he plays a character, and in the beginning of his career that might have been true. When Louis still worked for TV Nation in the early nineties, he took a satirical approach to interviewing, aiming for absurdity. However, throughout his career, Louis interviewed not only cult members, but also people suffering from dementia, eating disorders and addiction. He soon realised that he was captivated by an underlying theme in his documentaries: connecting with his interviewees on a personal level. A level that transcended differences and prejudices. He decided to take us to the heart of what it meant to be human, in a raw existential way.
So, how does Louis’ work show us what lies at the heart of being human? And can we use that to reconcile with the United States? At the heart of being human lies Mike Cain, a survivalist and right wing patriot. When Louis interviewed him in Almost Heaven (Idaho), Mike was preparing for war with the Government. According to Mike, the state was ready to attack his home. So, Louis was warned: Mike is dangerous. However, he was rather welcoming. Louis found himself guilty of growing to like him and mutual friendship grew. Mike had a fatherlike concern about his children. No matter what, he wanted to protect his family. It was a drive that Louis could relate to.
At the heart of being human lies Thor Templar, the leader of the Alien Resistance Movement, who claimed to have killed more than 10 aliens. But most importantly, who wanted to belong. The ARM (Alien Resistance Movement) had social utility. After years of loneliness, Thor Templar suddenly mattered. How ridiculous it may look, we have all done something rather weird to become part of a group.
At the heart of being human lies Cliff, who wants to connect sexually through the art of sensual eating. With or without strawberries, sexual connection is something we all seek. At the heart of being human lies DeWayne Bruce, one of the strongest wrestlers of the WCW, who is offended by Louis’ misjudgment of the wrestling sport. And who wouldn’t be upset?
Ultimately, at the heart of being human lie our deep emotions, drives and fears. The love for our children, the fear of loneliness and the desire to connect. Something that the documentary maker emphasizes. On the surface we may radically differ on political, religious, cultural or sexual matters, but there’s more to a person. Humans are complicated. Underneath the sometimes weird forms of expression lie motives and emotions that drive us all.
Sometimes, though, connecting is almost impossible, even for Louis Theroux. Conflict arose when he met the homophobic leader of the Westboro Baptist Church or key personalities of the American anti-semetic Neo-Nazi movement. Lous’ humanistic worldview wasn’t compatible with their resentful understanding of life. The most triking example was when Louis clashed with Skip, a skinhead Neo-Nazi who accused the documantary maker of being Jewish. ‘Do you mind if I don’t go into that?’ Louis responded. ‘I am not a racist. And by telling you what I am, I acknowledge the premise that it matters, while it doesn’t.’ Not much later, the skinhead angrily kicked him out. Admittedly, some individuals are so abhorrent that they are even beyond Louis's ability to humanize them. Very often, however, when we look closely, we are able to recognize ourselves in the American strangeness. In the fringes of life.
Louis, that beloved British weirdo, is the perfect bridge between the conventional and the unconventional world. Between what we do and don’t understand about America. With his disarming personality, he can really get to the heart of the story, to the heart of what it means to be human. After watching Louis’ documentaries, you might find a renewed fascination for the United States. And, perhaps, reconcile with its strangeness. In a sense, we’re all as crazy as Cliff. In a sense, Cliff is as normal as us.
➤ You can watch Louis Theroux’s recently launched documentary series Life on the Edge on Dailymotion for free. In this series, Louis looks back on his most remarkable encounters. These include Cliff, Skip and Thor Templar.
➤ More of his work can be found on BBC iPlayer (UK only), NPO Plus (Dutch streaming service; 7,95,- / month) or www.watchdocumentaries.com.