Will View for Work: Reviewing The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul

musician Weird Paul performing in front of an American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

A real American hero: Weird Paul performing live at the North Side Elks, 2017

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.

video still of teenage Weird Paul from the 1980s

The “Original Vlogger”, a teenage Weird Paul on video, sometime in the 1980s [photo: Weird Paul]

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.

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton as patient

Still from Weird Paul’s “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

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?

photo collage of Weird Paul Petroskey aping for the camera

Bowling for donors: the many faces of Weird Paul Petroskey today [photos courtesy of Interesting Human Media]

“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[1].

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band [l-r: Pam Hamlin, Jon Dowling, Weird Paul, Ben Blanchard] in the last days of the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, 2017

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.”

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton choking him

Still from “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

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.

promo poster for documentary film "Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul"

“Will Work for Views” promo poster

Epilogue

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 ChainsawBachelorette 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.

Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul premiers with a screening this Saturday, June 23 at Harris Theater.
Showtime is 7:00 p.m., tickets are $15, and the event includes a Q&A panel with Weird Paul and the filmmakers.

See also: “Recording Existence: Life-logging with Weird Paul,” Pittsburgh Orbit, June 28, 2015.


[1] 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.

Heroine Epidemic: Overdosing On The Ass-Kicking Lady Heroes of Heroineburgh

Heroine Vendetta attacks the bad guy with her escrima staves

Heroine Vendetta (Cat Orlando) attacks the bad guy with her escrima staves [From Episode 4: “Trans-Adriatic Express”]

Public health warning: a highly-addictive opiate cocktail of science, camp, Lycra, estrogen, and ass-kicking is about to drop on metro Pittsburgh bigly. The special effects of this drug are not entirely understood–heck, they may not even be fully rendered in the final cut yet! In a strange turnabout, the pushers are law enforcement, their justice meted out in killer vines, laser beams, and escrima staves.

Heroineburgh [note the important extra “e“] is a new, live-action, original character superhero series set in (real) Pittsburgh. The Orbit sat down with series writer/producer/director Manny Theiner to discuss the world he and his team have created, roots of his fandom, and where the stories are headed. Heroineburgh is set to make its debut with pair of big-screen showings on April 30 (details below).

Heroineburgh comic book graphic art by Jason Wright, the current colorist on DC's Green Lantern

Heroineburgh comic book graphic art by Jason Wright, the current colorist on DC’s Green Lantern

Theiner, a lifelong fan of superheroes and graphic storytelling, describes himself as a “second-wave or classic liberal feminist”. He was inspired to initiate the series after experiencing Pittsburgh Batman–another locally-produced superhero play/video. While he enjoyed the production, it featured almost no female characters and some of the jerks deserved a kick in the keister.

Each episode of the anthology-style series features unique superheroines, evil-doers, and dressed-to-kill costumed villains. We’re told the first [planned twelve-episode] series will end with the characters uniting in a Pittsburgh Heroine League.

Becky Bloom becomes heroine Gardenia in her house

Becky Bloom becomes heroine Gardenia (Laurie Kudis) in her house [From Episode 3: “Everything’s Gone Green”]

Ultimately, Heroineburgh‘s greatest strength is Theiner’s inventive characters and concise, bite-sized storytelling. The standard-issue costumed hero/quasi-science tropes are deployed like exclamation points in Batman‘s fight scenes, but there are also references to the screenwriter’s arsenal of deep-read science, philosophy, and re-envisioned mythology that give the stories an exciting and welcome depth.

Cinematographer/sets designer J. Wayne, editor Frank Farnsaglio, and color correction/effects artists Latent Imagery make up the rest of the technical team. These guys know what they’re doing: the final product looks good, manages to slyly gloss over the improvised studio’s many challenges, and packs more than a few punches.

Heroine Devana fights two thugs from the Serbian mob

Heroine Devana (Mary Bielich) fights two thugs from the Serbian mob [From Episode 4: “Trans-Adriatic Express”]

But let’s cut the crap: you’re not going to shell out five clams for Color-Correctionsburgh. Who are these ladies with the funny names, freaky powers, high style and kicks to match? Who will we turn to when the Serbian mob pops out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel? What hero will deal justice to the villainess Devorra, who “gains the power to emit pollen from her hand, turning anyone who breathes it into her slave drone” or the evil Dr. Shvitz and his global warming earth sauna?

man in lab coat with evil scowl on his face

Evil Dr. Shvitz (Mike Shanley)

Meet Gardenia–the earth mother–who draws energy from the soil and uses the plant kingdom as both arsenal and army. Put under extreme stress, Gardenia’s appendages morph en bois with the invocation of Ironwood fist.

There’s Cybrina, a blue-haired “genius computer programmer” who takes big data to a new dimension. She “gains the powers of electricity and cybernavigation–the ability to transform herself into data and enter any computer system”. In Cybrina’s story (Episode 1: “Anger is an Energy”), she’ll team with fellow technologist Red Gina to battle prejudice and harassment in new Pittsburgh’s tech sector.

Helena Brent transforms into heroine Hellfyra in the Brillobox bathroom

Helena Brent transforms into heroine Hellfyra (Courtney Elizabeth) in the Brillobox bathroom [From Episode 2: “I Bring You Fire”]

Hellfyra [just try to get the Oak Ridge Boys tune out of your head now!] may be a “Satanist superheroine with demonic powers”, but even Lucifer’s goat draws the line at theft…if it involves a heavy metal band’s touring gear. When Hellfyra locks devil horns with Mesmera, mistress of hypnotism, look out.

As the “Italian spirit of vengeance”, Vendetta has a family story complex enough to make Mario Puzo grab a note pad with his cannoli. Suffice to say it involves a mafia princess, a capo and his consigliere; tragedy, intrigue, deception, and revenge; Sicily and Bloomfield. Essere Vendetta sicuro, Pittsburgh ha bisogno di te!

Villainess Red Gina and computer-savvy heroine Cybrina

Villainess Red Gina (Jessica Renae) and computer-savvy heroine Cybrina (Nicole Palmer) [From Episode 1: “Anger Is An Energy”]

Devana is the Slavic goddess of the hunt, whose old-world Eastern European past will chase her down in present-day Pittsburgh. It will be touch-and-go when the heroine crosses paths and trades blows with “superhuman mercenaries” Clockcleaner and Earthmover in a Bloomfield warehouse. Get the large popcorn as you won’t want to miss a second of Episode 4: “Trans-Adriatic Express” to see how this plays out.

Let’s get something straight: The Dark Knight or Guardians of the Galaxy this ain’t. Theiner and crew filmed these first four episodes on a minimal budget, using borrowed sets, with “casting by proximity” kismet.

Full disclosure: this blogger was booked for extra work after running into Manny on the street and spent a cold February evening on-set and in-lab-coat working as a hard hat-wearing knowledge worker at the fictional Cybertech. There, he had the privilege of getting beaten up by the rampaging Red Gina multiple times–one of which involved a plate of Chinese food tossed in the air from an upended break room table.

From that experience, I can tell you that on the Heroineburgh set, preparation is handed-out on a need-to-know basis and third takes are considered bourgeois time-wasters. Regardless, watching preview clips from the not-quite-final versions reveals the filmmakers know how to do a lot with a little, effectively turning the grab-the-camera/let’s-put-on-a-show harried scramble into a quick-paced enjoyable campy romp. Be there at the premier or miss out on a good time.

man in lab coat and hard hat in employee restroom

The author, on set as Cybertech employee in Episode 1 [photo: Pittsburgh Orbit]

 Heroineburgh episodes 1-4 are now available for download from heroineburgh.com.


Production photos and graphic art provided by Heroineburgh, except where noted.