In New York City, proximity breeds philosophy. And a fair amount of cultural anthropology. Jamming so many people on top of one another means that everyone's got a unified field theory, and most times it doesn't take much prompting for them to air it. Or for someone else to chronicle it. Think of Jane Jacobs' work or Joseph Mitchell's stories. New Yorkers find themselves, and their neighbors, endlessly fascinating. What choice do they have?
More recently, a microgenre has spawned, owing in no small part to the ongoing evolution of digital video cameras: film documentaries that celebrate verbose local eccentrics. That's right, I'm looking at you, Timothy "Speed" Levitch. And you, too, Roberta. Hell, even the Soup Nazi had his 15 minutes. And now you can add to this august assemblage Kenny Shopsin, subject of Matt Mahurin's new documentary, I Like Killing Flies.
The cinetrix caught this flick as part of the slate at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Introducing it, director Mahurin announced that he was thisclose to signing a distribution deal with Think Films, the folks who brought us Spellbound. This is very good news, indeed, because I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie. Much less at a movie from which the director says he has already cut 30 minutes of his favorite material.
Kenny Shopsin runs a restaurant with no name outside and 900 items on the menu. These are dishes that have developed over the years as the restaurant evolved from its humble origins as a nondescript corner store. Calvin Trillin wrote about the place more than once in the New Yorker, but he identified it--in "Don't Mention It," collected in Feeding a Yen--only after new landlords had offered the publicity-averse Kenny a one-year lease for the spot he'd been in for 32.
It's at this same time that director Matt Mahurin entered the frame, originally only to take some still photographs that would capture Shopsin's distinctive decor for posterity before it moved to a new location. Eventually, he introduced a mini DV camera to the mix and began shooting footage--of the regulars; of Kenny's long-suffering, hippie wife Eve; of their six mouthy children; of the real-life Pagoda, grillman Jose; and, of course, of Kenny the philosopher king, who in all the time Mahurin was shooting never repeated himself. OK, he says "fuck" a fucking lot, but always in new contexts.
The movie is shot with palpable affection, and you can feel the director's empathy and conflict when capturing, say, Kenny chewing out his son for getting a parking ticket. The slapdash effect of seeing Mahurin's hand in the shot holding the mic [because Kenny refused to wear a laveliere] makes you feel like a regular, not someone who has to prove to Kenny that they're OK to feed, but also perhaps not someone willing to flash for food, as customer Mara does to get Kenny to fire the grill back up one day.
Kenny explains, "It's not that we have high standards [for the food], but they're gonna put it in their mouth." To that end, he and Eve have even been known to taste food left on a plate when they're clearing a table, to see what was wrong with the dish. Kenny explains his approach to fusion cooking, which has given the world Burmese Hummus [Trillin: "it is not hummus and would not cause pangs of nostalgia in the most homesick Burmese"], Hanoi Hoppin John with Shrimp, and Bombay Turkey Cloud Sandwich, in terms of sexual friction: "It's almost like putting your dick in the wrong hole. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
As a feature-length documentary film, I Like Killing Flies mostly works. The imposed exterior narrative of the run-out lease and the search for and subsequent move into a new space provides a carapace that houses Kenny's pronouncements, theories, and rants handily. But there were several beats toward the end that could each have easily been the final shot of the film. But that's a problem endemic to the documentary genre. [I'm looking at you, Bowling for Columbine.]
Ultimately, I didn't care. I wanted more Kenny. You see, any movie profiling a foul-mouthed, 300-lb., Jewish, motorcycle-riding chef and shopkeeper that captures its subject describing his life by giving a synopsis of Woman in the Dunes [really] has won my heart forever. Keep shoveling, Kenny.