Beer! Pornos! Wrestling! Down's Syndrome!
Jeff is 38 years old.
He lives with his elderly, disabled foster mother who is at least 94.
She has not left the house in decades and can barely care for him.
Jeff hates his mother.
Every day, Jeff gets up, gets dressed, and goes down to the local mall. There, he visits with the employees of the Campus Cinema movie theater, pretends to be an usher, and basically just hangs out.
Jeff loves Star Trek, William Shatner, wrestling, Hulk Hogan, pornographic magazines, and a nice cold beer.
One time, Jeff attended a Star Trek convention and was so excited to see Captain Kirk "Bill" Shatner in person that he broke through security to hug and shake hands with his hero.
Jeff is a true ladies man…well, at least in his mind. He has several "girlfriends," but lavishes the most affection on Kristi, an usher at the Campus. He gives her special gifts, which usually consist of homemade filthy drawings and typewritten pages filled with oddly spaced captions he's copied out of his dirty magazines.
Jeff has a grossly infected and diseased foot that gives him problems.
Jeff has had almost all of his teeth removed.
Jeff watches lots of TV. He loves the Three Stooges and writes the time their antics air on a calendar on his wall.
Jeff has many friends. He also has an enemy or two.
Jeff has Down's Syndrome.
Jeff is the star of this 1996 student documentary.
Jefftowne will be a polarizing movie for some people. They will immediately be turned off by the very "exploitative" notion of so-called friends and family using a poor individual's malady for their own personal amusement, ridicule, and (apparently) financial gain. They will misread the cues scattered all around this documentary and see it as one long torturous putdown of a handi-"capable" person. Still others will wince at the very image and idea of Jeff: puffy, cockeyed face; overblown bowling pin body; a foul foot on the verge of gangrene and a vocabulary that consists of primal, primitive blasts of immediate needs ("Cake!" "Kristi!"). To them, any attention lavished on this human load pan would be a millisecond too much. Unfortunately, both camps would be acting out of their own prejudices and agendas and not in reaction to what is actually on the screen. Jefftowne is a remarkable celebration of one man and his desire to live life in a way that both utilizes and frees him of his condition. Lost between a mother no longer able to care for him (let alone herself) and a surrogate family as peer group of movie theater employees, Jeff is a little boy lost, trapped in the failing body of a man and forced by social circumstances to play the fool for those around him. Thinking of him as an imbecile or invalid makes life easier: it renders his mother's smothering necessary and categorizes his friends as either incredibly crass or sweetly compassionate. As a simpleton, he is easier to understand, control, and forgive. But Jeff is more complicated than this and so is the film about his crazy, disorganized life.
Though amateurish, heavy handed, and flawed, Jefftowne is still a very effective and emotional documentary. It manages on a microscopic budget to do what all good factual filmmaking does: it deposits us into a world we are completely unfamiliar with and lets us immediately connect with and recognize the people who live there. Jeff may have been born with a cruel disability, but he has a regular routine, a group of acquaintances who seem to honestly care about him, and a positive, indulgent attitude. Jeff has often been described as a human being stuck between the best and worst possible circumstances simultaneously. On the negative side is the horrendous home life, with a sick, elderly mother and a basic lack of necessary care. But from a positive perspective, he is mentally grounded in that pre-teen age of immediate gratification and his "special" nature provides him with almost instantaneous gluttony of those needs. Bartenders pour him free beer. Retailers readily give him stacks of porno magazines. The movie theater where he hangs out allows him to indulge in his love of film and bottomless popcorn. Some even argue that Jeff is aware that he gets such specialized treatment and trades on that fact to get away with what he does. Such a complex, intricate portrait of a human "being" is a rarity in film, documentary or not. The biggest triumph of Jefftowne is that we get to see the whole picture, the bad and the good, the innocent and the profane, without much bias or politicizing of the subject. Jeff Towne is a person, no matter how he may look or act on the outside, and Jefftowne the movie portrays this wonderfully.
Troma should be thanked for being brave and bold enough to champion this film. It is easy to see how your average arthouse label or fancy mid-major studio would simply balk at the warts-and-all invasion into Jeff's life. But Lloyd Kaufman's crew does this DVD proud by giving us updates, added insight, and bonus content to round out the entire tale of this merry, manipulative man-boy. Visually, Jefftowne is a no-budget student film all the way: the picture is grainy, dirty, and filled with focus and editing issues. The use of color and black & white stock is interesting. It adds a nice artistic element to the movie. Sonically, Jefftowne suffers from the same learning curve recording concerns. Sometimes everything is bright and clear; other times it's muddled and far away. But this homemade quality actuality helps Jefftowne. It adds a real aura of authenticity to the work.
As for those extras, they are truly spectacular. Of particular interest is Jefftowne 2, a mini-sequel of sorts to the documentary made in 2000. Filmed on video, it picks up Jeff's story four years after the original footage was shot. Not to spoil the reveal, let's just say that some things are very different about Jeff's life…and a lot is, sadly, still the same. A featurette called Jeff Explains the Classics is a sick joke in which Jeff tried to explain such movies as Star Wars and Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan in his own inimitable style. Jeffy Unleashed is a wonderful look at the director's trip to Slamdance and the whole insider/outside vibe that Park City Utah creates between the snobbish Sundance and those festivals purposely off the beaten path. Along with the excellent commentary track by director Daniel Kraus and crewmember Mark Murray (it is packed with details and explanations), we get a very complete picture of life as a student filmmaker. There is another commentary featuring Jeff (along with Kraus), but it's really kind of stupid. Jeff grunts. Kraus reads something into it. Repeat. Add in some deleted scenes, which show the kind of misguided movie Jefftowne could have really turned into (skits and staged shenanigans were dropped for a straightforward approach…thank God) and you've got a complete overview of the film: everything from its participants to its particulars.
Though it may sound like some sad gag, or even play like one some of the time, Jefftowne is really just a simple story, a tale of how one man struggles to overcome his handicap to try and live a life as happy and free as possible. Far from exploiting this special person, it allows him to be as normal as possible. And in these days of political correct meddling, simply letting someone be who they are, is refreshing and revisionist. Jeff Towne is an unforgettable person and Jefftowne is an equally enthralling movie.
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• Commentary with Director Daniel Kraus and Crewmember Mark Murray
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