We of a certain age are either condemned or privileged (take your pick) to live out our days with one foot each in the entirely separate worlds of pre- and post-Internet existence. Digital immigrants, for sure, but arriving on the beaches young enough to speak the native tongue with only a slight accent.
“Weird” Paul Petroskey, a Pittsburgh multi-media institution for three decades and counting, both anticipated present-day, social media me-TV and manages to reach back into the halcyon low-tech ’80s and ’90s in his current work. Paul is old enough to have begun recording on cassette tape and VHS video, but now obsesses over his YouTube subscriber count and FaceBook reactions.
The themes of a relentless, driven creator, desperate to make a living from an unconventional lifestyle and build a future from an awkward, videotaped past, are explored in the excellent new documentary Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul. The film debuts with a world premier this Saturday at Harris Theater.Way before YouTube, FaceBook, or Instagram, teenage Paul Petroskey was recording his life and arranging music videos and sketches along with an extremely cooperative cast and crew of parents and young siblings. The crudely-shot VHS bits had a limited audience in 1980s suburban Pittsburgh, but have since been given new life on the Internet.
Today, Will Work for Views argues, these hours of videotape form a sort-of Dead Sea Scrolls for the Media Age, linking the ancient with the modern in an audio-visual archive that predicts YouTube-style “vlogging,” tributes, parodies, and “unboxing” videos. The film may suffer from one too many talking heads restating some version of “this guy was doing this stuff before anyone else,” but it’s an important point.
Weird Paul’s teenage to middle age audio-visual continuum forms the backbone of the documentary’s dual narratives. In one, we ride along with Petroskey’s life commitment to a certain kind of low-rent/high-reward entertainment through quick-cut video bits past and present. Paul was a cute, precocious kid with a lot of goofy ideas and an inexhaustible ambition to execute on them. The adult version is still mining the same deep vein, but now it’s intertwined with nostalgia and a mortgage payment.
The other theme is more existential. Paul has the life goal of turning…something–sight gags, joke songs, thrift shop picking–into a career, or at least the occasional paycheck. What does the day-to-day reality of continuing to pursue this unlikely dream actually look like? In a social media landscape where everyone with a FaceBook account is turned into some combination of content provider, public figure, and narcissist, is The Internet the carrot or the horse? The gold mine or the shaft?“We were looking for a subject for a documentary when we came across [Weird Paul’s] videos on YouTube,” says Joseph Litzinger, executive producer and co-director of Will Work for Views. The film is the first feature for his production company Interesting Human Media. “Our first thought was, ‘This is a great actor,’ but then it became clear Paul isn’t acting at all–this is who he really is. We were attracted by what a genuine, unique, and passionate person he is.”
That YouTube was the filmmakers’ entry point to the world of Weird Paul is evident as Petroskey’s vast musical catalog (some 700+ recorded songs over several dozen album-sized releases) and regular live performances are given a backseat to the video clips. If there’s a criticism of Will Work for Views, it’s that the Weird Paul Rock Band–his steady, hard-rocking, shenanigans-ready bass/keytar/drums backing group for the last decade–only appear in the film as (uncredited) talking heads and never seen, you know, full-on rocking.It’s a minor quibble, as the movie is really about Weird Paul. Or it’s Paul as surrogate for anyone who’s ever pursued his or her passion–however unlikely–way past the point where every voice of reason has tried to talk sense into them. The line between obsession and sticktoitiveness can be perilously thin, but Petroskey has walked it long enough to not look back.
“I’ve been in a mindset for a good part of my life where I’m ready to share everything with everyone,” Paul says of the filmmaking process. “From a young age I felt like being famous was important for me and that’s what people want from celebrities–people want to see bits of their life…Going into a project like this–you either give it your all, or don’t bother. Give your best–that’s how I look at it.”
The portrait painted in Will Work for Views is supportive and respectful, but also honest in its portrayal of Weird Paul. The filmmakers are clearly rooting for this ultimate underdog of the underground–still struggling with the hassles of working a day job, trying to make enough money to fix his equipment, and fantasizing about having someone to mow his lawn.
It’s unspoken, but the story begs the obvious question: Is there really a (commercial) market for Paul’s brand of low-brow humor and lo-fi goof rock? Personally, I don’t know how any artist makes a living, but the movie has us all hoping Paul figures out the magic combination and is able to realize his dreams–or at least get the grass cut.
Full disclosure: This blogger has known Paul, his band members, and entourage long enough that no opinion on a feature-length film about the guy could be legitimately objective–I’m a Weird Paul fan. That said, even if The Orbit didn’t have a personal connection to the subject–even if it wasn’t (largely) set in Pittsburgh–we’d recommend Will Work for Views for the simple reason that it’s a terrific documentary.
Co-directors Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader know what they’re doing. The two have reality TV series producer/editor credits on American Chainsaw, Bachelorette Party: Las Vegas, and Swamp Loggers–so we know they can film timber sports and Jell-o shots. The filmmakers have weaved the archival teenage Paul’s antics into his present-day realities with engaging dexterity and an improvised narrative arc that may or may not actually exist in real life, but plays great on the big screen.
We’ll be there on Saturday, cheering on Paul and the gang. We hope we see you there, too.
See also: “Recording Existence: Life-logging with Weird Paul,” Pittsburgh Orbit, June 28, 2015.
 This may, of course, have as much to do with the technical challenges of filming in dark, noisy bars vs. the unlimited buffet of already-extant video content available.