Published in Cipher in November 2017
You have probably heard of the 2007 Pixar hit “Ratatouille.” However, you have probably not heard of its Brazilian rip-off, “Ratatoing.” It features terrifyingly awful CGI, ear-grating voice acting, repeated footage just to eat up time, and the kind of dialogue you’d only expect to hear in a beginning fiction workshop. Being the kind of person I am, I have not only heard of this movie, but I have seen it twice.
I discovered it in early 2015 and was fascinated by its poor quality. I attempted to watch it on my own, but despite its ironic appeal, I couldn’t stand it. I knew this was something that required perseverance, so I tried to pitch viewing parties to various friends over the next few years. They all refused my invitations. Finally, in June, 2017, I roped in my particularly masochistic friend, Mindy. We watched it on a laptop in my mom’s office.
The verdict: “Ratatoing” is the longest 45 minutes you could possibly live through. Afterward, we took deep breaths, drank plenty of fluids, and browsed the Internet for reviews. We found a gem of a review on the website Rate Your Music: “Here’s a confession: I’ve seen this movie around 5-8 separate times,” the reviewer wrote. “Two of my friends are (or were, at least) considering watching it 36 times in a row to fit it into a full 24 hours.”
I had originally set out to write an article about the horrors of “Ratatoing.” Thinking I could spice the article up with some interviews with fellow enthusiasts, I found myself in long email chains with the author of the review, Will, as well as his friends, Matt and James. After talking to them for some time, I realized that they were far more interesting than this movie we had all seen. The three of them, plus a fourth friend, had all known each other for a long time and had built a remarkable private culture.
Matt Lippman, James Werick, Will Green, and Stephen Valeri have spent years bonding over the worst movies they can find. “There are also many other people we care about and watch bad movies with, but none of them are as committed to hurting themselves,” Will told me.
They never did the 24-hour screening, but they have other stories that are almost as good. Like me, James found “Ratatoing” while browsing the bowels of YouTube. The group has a tradition of giving each other disappointing gifts (1), so he ordered the DVD for $1 on eBay and gave it to Stephen for either his birthday or Christmas (he can’t remember which). They watched the English dub, then watched the original in Portuguese, then immediately watched the English version again.
1. Unsurprisingly, most of their disappointing gifts for one another involve bad movies. They have given one another DVDs of Spider’s Web: A Pig’s Tale (a bad CGI rip-off of Charlotte’s Web), Baby Geniuses 2 (a universally hated movie about talking superhero babies), Battlefield Earth (a sci-fi movie based on a book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, starring John Travolta), a compilation of all 16 installments of the Little Cars series (a rip-off of Cars by the same people who brought us Ratatoing), and a thrift store film featuring a CGI baby dancing to covers of Beatles songs.
Stephen began bringing the DVD around wherever he went. He began sneaking it onto DVD players during parties and get-togethers, an act that Matt described as “kamikaze.” Later, the group watched “Ratatoing” on two separate devices at the same time—in Portuguese on a DVD player, and in English on a laptop. Matt fled the room within ten minutes, along with Will’s then-girlfriend, who had never understood any of this. Despite this initial resistance, as of October, 2017, everyone in the group has seen “Ratatoing” at least 10 times.
The group is from northern Buffalo, NY, which Will calls “a sleepy, quietly grimy suburban neighborhood with lots of drinking and pizza.” Matt and James met in preschool and kindled an immediate artistic partnership that has continued ever since. Matt listed all their endeavors: “VHS films that we made when we were three, plays when we were six, comics when we were nine and 10, a rap group when we were 13, a ‘TV show’ when we were 14, etc.” Matt also sung “All Star” at multiple elementary school talent shows and rapped on top of lunch tables as “Matt Dogg.”
“Both of us always had an obsessive interest with watching and making movies,” said James. “Matt’s childhood favorite was ‘Rat Race.’ You would have to ask him for the exact number, but I believe he watched it over 100 times.” (Matt confirmed that the exact number is 107.) James’s favorite movie was “Daddy Day Care,” he said, adding,“I inexplicably decided it was my favorite movie after seeing it in the theater with Matt. We revisited it in high school and, unsurprisingly, it did not hold up at all.”
Stephen joined the group sometime in elementary school. Will, one year older than all the others, didn’t join until they were all in middle school. “He was on the same bus with us,” said Matt. “We thought it would be funny to pretend we thought his name was Kevin. Probably subconsciously cribbed that from the ‘SpongeBob’ episode ‘I’m Your Biggest Fanatic,’ where SpongeBob is obsessed with the sea cucumber, Kevin.” Matt paused before clarifying, “Will hated us.” By high school, they had become a tight-knit group.
Once they went off to college, they took advantage of the little time they had together to watch as many terrible movies as possible. One winter break, the group watched “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.” This 2012 film was (unsuccessfully) styled after classics like “Barney & Friends” and “Teletubbies.” It was billed as an “interactive film,” encouraging children to sing and dance along to the onscreen music. It currently holds the record for the biggest box office bomb of all time for a movie released in at least 2,000 theaters, earning a mere $206 on its opening weekend. While watching it, the group drank a lot and then forced themselves to obey every song-and-dance command the movie ordered. Will told me: “One of the most frightening things I’ve ever heard is five drunk college students chanting ‘Goofy Toofie, pick up your pants!’”
On another evening, they watched “God’s Not Dead,” a popular Christian film about a brave Christian student who matches wits with a cruel atheist philosophy professor. At the end of the movie, viewers are told to text “God’s Not Dead” to ten people. A drunk Will took this to heart. “When I woke up the next morning, I found that I had texted fifty separate contacts ‘God’s not dead,’ and the list was incredible—it included my former therapist, an ex-girlfriend, 20 to 25 classmates I hadn’t talked to in years, my grandmother’s ex-husband (so, my ex-step-grandpa?), my mom, two former high school teachers, and all my siblings.”
The group has gone so far as to “lightly stalk” cast members of their favorite bad movies. “Alan Bagh of ‘Birdemic’ still wishes me a happy birthday every year,” Matt told me.
Along with watching terrible movies, the group is very musically active, aside from Stephen, who is known to utter statements like, “I don’t believe music exists.” Matt makes some of the most serious music; he’s been in several bands and currently records and performs music under the name “Matthew Danger Lippman.” James has worked on a half-serious synthpop project called JNBJ. Most of the group’s other projects are jokes, though, recorded in James’s parents’ computer room. One of their most “successful” endeavors is Naked Luigi, a vile postmodern rap project constructed from a myriad of pop culture references and samples. Many of the lyrics depict a romantic relationship with Luigi (from Mario). Their album “Nake!” samples Luigi’s timeless saying, “Ima back,” well over 100 times. Naked Luigi also name-drops “Ratatoing” characters Marcel Toing and Greg in multiple songs. One song contains the lines “Cute face, chubby waist / Greg Toing in your face.” (Greg is not specified in the movie to have the last name “Toing,” but this did not matter to Naked Luigi). Another notable line is “Gettin’ faded with Marcel Toing in Rio de Janeiro.”
Despite the fact that it sounds just as bad and obscure as the movies that the group watches, Naked Luigi has received critical attention. The website factmag.com named “Nake!” as one of June 2015’s best free downloads. “You know, each month I really try to reserve an honorary spot for the most baffling, bizarre, and memorably fucked-up release of the month,” wrote the author. “This is the first time I really worried whether I was going too far.” The Needle Drop blog highlighted “Nake!” negatively on their feature “It Came from Bandcamp,” which collects the worst music that Bandcamp has to offer. It simply said, “Luigi was a mistake.”
The group has also released music as Minnyunz, inspired by the popular Minions franchise, a spin-off of “Despicable Me.” The album is a fake commercial, filled with songs with titles like “Nymphominionac,” quickly interrupted by advertisements directing listeners to a Kickstarter campaign. Track 5 explains it all:
“I know what you’re thinking. Why do they need three million dollars? Well, here’s the exciting thing. We’re gonna have guest verses from the one, the only, Pierre Coffin, voice and creator of the Minions [applause from a few people]. The bulk of this three million dollars is going to our surgery. Now, I know you’re thinking, why do the Minnyunz need a surgery to complete their album? Well, we’ve got a state-of-the-art surgery coming up that we have developed with Swedish scientists that is going to change the rap game forever. We are getting our vocal chords replaced with those of an actual minion.” Then they demonstrate what this would sound like, with help from a pitch-shifting effect.
The Kickstarter is a non-active “draft,” which may be for the best. The exclusive offer for “Pledge $500 or more” reads: “Thank you so much for donating to the cause! You will get to fly out to Cancun to work on a song with the Minnyuns.”
I have never been part of a friend group. Over the years, I’ve found my way into the fringes of a few established groups, usually drifting away when I realize I’m never getting any closer to the center. Sometimes I gather my friends up and put on a movie (often a terrible one) to glue us all together, only to quickly realize that my friends don’t particularly like one another. I do have my dear friend Mindy. As I mentioned before, Mindy and I suffered through “Ratatoing” together. We have also watched oddities such as a “Lion King” rip-off called “Leo the Lion” and something called “Dream Come True: a Mule Mom’s Story.” I love Mindy. But she is not a friend group. She’s just one person.
Part of me wonders if being part of a group is really worth it, if it’s not just a bunch of subtle competition under the pretense of friendship. But there is something tempting about community. Talking to this Buffalo friend group is the closest I have ever gotten to this dream. Everything I’d like to know, these people will tell me.
Today, Matt lives in Brooklyn, working as a personal assistant for TV and movie productions. “Twelve-plus hour shifts, all freelance, not great pay (around $12 an hour, give or take), but it’s fun to hang around sets and catch celebrities.” Matt’s presence is easily felt through the Internet: his Instagram is filled with photos of himself, flaunting his bleached chin-length hair and porn ‘stache. He often wears a leopard-print button-down and ripped black pants while striking immodest poses. He slinks around the streets of New York with different people in each photo. He seems like the kind of person who everyone uncontrollably likes.
James works at a library in Buffalo and spends his time with personal creative projects, which include Matt’s music video for his song “F*CKIN PINK.” He has eight photos related to 7-11 on his Instagram (22% of his total content), including one of a 7-11 SmartCar. “So excited to announce that I just bought my first car!!” he captioned it.
For Will, being separated from the group in college was bearable, since his school was only 400 miles away from their hometown. But today he lives 2,200 miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, where he took an unexpected job. He works at a high school, teaching European history and Greek classics to teenagers. This is fitting, as he attended St. John’s College, where every student is forced to read “Don Quixote,” the Bible, “Paradise Lost,” and “War and Peace.” Will actually enjoys all these books.
Will wakes up at four a.m. and gets home by six. Then he smokes a lot of weed, reads, and listens to music. “I just have the normal lifestyle of a working white collar employee in America—I even have a salary! It’s fucked, truly fucked. I hate Phoenix.” He misses his friends and five siblings deeply, talking to them as much as possible. He wants to move back to Buffalo as soon as he can. That’s the thing about a friend group, I’m realizing. They become your family, and at some point, you have to leave them.
Matt tells me that my fascination with their group has rekindled their interest in a 24-hour “Ratatoing” screening. Once they all come back together for winter break, they’ll do it, he promises. They’ll watch “Ratatoing” 36 times to fit into a full 24 hours. It will be beautiful, and it will all be because of me. I am still definitely not in this friend group, but it’s okay. Because of me, multiple people will be staring at that blocky CGI, taking in that nails-on-a-chalkboard voice acting, and they won’t be able to stop for a full day. It will hurt, but they’re used to it. Hurting themselves in this way is exactly what keeps them together.