I salute you, Louis Theroux

I’ve come to love this guy’s shows. We’ve seen 4 of late, where Louis innocuously attempts to probe into the weirder, slightly controversial or dark sides of man’s psyches.

First he started with plastic surgery in California, visiting 3 doctors and their patients. The doctors are all pure professional, deeply interested and impressed by themselves. The patients fell into 2 categories; the addicted and the troubled. Most placed their unsteady feet in both camps. All the patients had the surgery to feel better by looking better. One German guy later told of his stepfather who he clearly had issues with; one woman feared ageing; and one final patient had just broken up with her longtime boyfriend and consistently broke down as she went through the process. It was pretty saddening.

The process was merely commercial. Little attention is paid into why the patients wanted surgery. This was a commercial make over, not a psychological save. The doctors openly admitted as much, some gloomily, others with matter-of-fact. Louis probed inoffensively but always aiming at a certain truth. He even underwent some liposuction on his stomach, to try to understand further. But he confessed to feel guilty over it, for taking the easy option rather than exercising or just smiling with a little belly.

A second program was fairly shocking. Entitled ‘The Most Hated Family in America’, for two weeks Louis followed and interviewed the WestBoro Baptist Church in Kansas, headed by Fred Phelps and consisting of mainly his family. Phelps was an ageing, debarred lawyer who became a pastor and used his Church to preach what seemed like pure negative hate. His twisted logic led his church into confrontation with just about every group. He believed the world was controlled by non-believers, other religions and especially homosexuals. Almost every famous person who didn’t hate gays were fag enablers, allowing gays to fester and ruin God’s world. US soldiers in Iraq were fighting for a pagan America and were drawn in by God to die. The preacher sends his church followers to picket funerals of soldiers, informing the victim’s families that they deserve such grief.

Louis talks with the family, the followers which includes a former documentary filmmaker who originally met the family to expose them and the kids of the family. While as individuals and a family, he finds them pleasant and even normal, preacher Fred Phelps exhibits no such charm. His hate is clear and logic skewed. Clearly an intelligent man, he calls Louis, Screwy Louis for his interview style, a claim which is just. But it’s Phelps who has messed with his family the most, so much so that 4 of his children have left or as the Church says, ‘fallen away’. It’s a program that leaves you openly amazed and awkward.

The third show involved Louis visiting the private national parks in South Africa where animals are bred to be hunted as trophies, mainly by American tourists who wax illiterately over their deeds. Animals from giraffe to hippos and even lions are lured and then hunted with high powered rifles. Truckers, mechanics clothed in combat camouflage and baseball caps tell Louis how their heart was pounding as they take the shot through the shoulder bladders, punctuating the lungs and killing the animals within seconds. Their obliviousness of the brutality of the act when questioned is fascinating. It almost seems an illogical question to these working class men.

It’s not lost on the South Africans breeders and game wardens. With the South African economy struggling and the Rand so weak, the South Africans are ruefully trying to make a living. They fail to enjoy the hunts themselves, trying to protect certain species for compassionate rather than ecological reasons. One game park owner won’t allow giraffes shot, for he likes them. For these men, growing up in the bush was a challenge and hunting season maybe meant one kill a season. Now as payment is per animal killed, the hunt is deliberately eased for these tourist hunters to kill as much game as possible. Now multiple animals can be shot by these tourists a day, a fact that saddens the locals. Like in the plastic surgery episode, Louis attempts a shot on a warthog grazing a waterhole deliberately created to give easy access. But he couldn’t do it. It just wouldn’t be a positive action.

The last show I saw recently involved Louis spending two weeks in San Quentin Federal Prison in California. He didn’t live there but went down all the wings and talked fairly openly with the prisoners who ranged from the scary to the bizarre but always insecure and saddening. The prisoners were locked up for up to 23hrs a day and locked in single cells. only about to socialise during meal breaks and gym breaks when they immediately move into prison gangs denominated by colours; be it White, Blacks or Hispanic.

Theroux interviewed many different group and hilariously the homosexuals. As
prisons are single sex, gay men were at a premium and considered a rare treat. Homosexuals found it was easier to be more feminine inside the walls. They were treated better and were threatened less. Louis interviewed ….., a tranny who had been in and out of jail for 20 years. She was basically a hooker and so was fairly used to the system. While he portrayed female mannerisms naturally and had made some cosmetic changes, his aura felt desperately vulnerable. He was due out a few weeks but had no illusions he could be back in. We met his boyfriend of the last few weeks, a bare chested rocker of the 70s variety who wanted them to stay together despite the fact he was awaiting sentencing for multiple crimes.

That was a consistent fact in the show. There was a gentle denial of the facts of their existence. These guys weren’t getting out soon and if they were, at least 40% would be back in in a few months according to a prison guard. Because of that reason, there was an affair of familiarity between the guards and the prisoners. While there was a strict hierarchy, the guards and prisoners held conversations and laughed together. Another homosexual couple involved a former white supremacist gang member and a Jewish tranny who had just got together but had yet to make any noise. When Louis pointed out their curious relationship, the former white supremacist informed Louis he had a wife and two kids outside. What was striking was how clearly they spoke. These weren’t rednecks but people who had crossed a few lines and found it more comfortable to stay on that side.

And the intelligence streak continued with a prisoner called David, sent down for over 500 years for a series of home invasions involving torture. He ate, lived and exercised alone. Louis asked about his crimes and why he had done them. He answered thoughtfully and honestly, stating at the time he felt he needed to act that way to commit his crimes. Louis asked if he thought he made had some psychological problems but David negated. He knew what he was doing was wrong and immoral. He was no animal and was sorry for the torture imposing on his victims. He fully acknowledged they may never recover from his actions and for that he was sorry. When talking about how he’ll survive in prison, he believed you just have to change your mindset. It would no longer be about seeking love or appreciating the sunsets but changing your goals to get something extra from everyday.

Like many Louis interviews, it left you astonished. Louis has specialised in the weird, the other sides of life but he always finds the human; average joes living in tough circumstances, simply trying to get by.

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