Traverse City Film Festival: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

I’d have to say, in general, the Q&A with filmmakers following the movies at Traverse City Film Festival add at least 50% of the value to the experience.  A significant portion of the audience tends to stay for these discussions, the questions are generally thought-provoking, and the filmmakers’ responses add much to my appreciation of the films.  At last night’s Closing Night Party TCFF Co-Founder John Robert Williams told me that the festival drew two times more filmmakers accompanying their films than last year’s fest.  (And, while we’re quoting statistics, TCFF hosted 20,000 more filmgoing attendees including 200 people a day who passed through the children’s castle at KidsFest!) The most rewarding part of the TCFF screening of “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” was the Q&A after with the film’s Director, Rodman Flender.


My husband and two other couples (close friends of ours) made attending Conan O’Brien night our designated dinner and a movie date night.  We started with an outstanding dinner at Red Ginger, (is there anything not outstanding about Red Ginger?) then scooted on to our movie. Following the screening, our group was divided about whether or not we could bear to watch Conan O’Brien on TV anymore after seeing this documentary about him.  Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop follows O’Brien’s stage tour following being replaced on The Tonight Show by Jay Leno.  During that period of time he was legally prohibited from appearing on television for six months. So, to work out his anger and exercise his need to perform (aka his insatiable craving for constant attention), he took his show on the road.


You know how they say “any publicity is good publicity”? After watching this movie I wasn’t so sure that was true.  I went into it wanting to learn something about Conan O’Brien that made me appreciate him even more.  After seeing the documentary all I could think was, “What an off-putting egomaniac. I feel exhausted for his entire staff having to deal with him everyday.” But then the director appeared on stage for the Q&A and put a spin on the presentation that made me revise that point-of-view. He explained that we were watching a depressed person acting out during a very specific low point in his career and that Conan was to be commended for signing off on the film even though it wasn’t a glowing advertisement of his good character. Ok. Fair enough.  But what if the director can’t hop up on stage to put a positive spin on things after every screening across the country and beyond?  Why wasn’t the director’s perspective actually communicated IN the movie? This was a case in which I actually liked the documentary less after the director spoke than I did before. At first I was ready to accept the film as an excellent documentary about a man who was utterly annoying.  But after the Flender put his positive spin on what we saw, I raised my opinion about O’Brien a little, but I could see how the movie had failed to communicate what the director wanted us to understand about that time in O’Brien’s life. 


I am a big fan of the filmmaker’s Q&As after the screenings.  I always look at those discussions as little mini filmmaking lessons.  Each one brings a different nugget of understanding about how to make film.  Sometimes I pick up a little how-to tidbit. Sometimes a how-to-not.  All of them are enlightening and give us, the filmgoing audience, an opportunity to thank the filmmaker for their creation. Thank you also to the TCFF for courting so many filmmakers to be part of our festival.



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2 thoughts on “Traverse City Film Festival: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”

  1. Thanks so much for coming to my movie at the TCFF and making a “date night” out of it with your friends. Even though the Q & A after the screening notched your opinion of my film down a few pegs, I nevertheless take your comments as a compliment.  As I stated during the q & a, I wanted to present a portrait of Conan as a full human being — someone who can be generous, considerate, funny, but also tired, impatient and cranky, just like the rest of us. I didn’t want to editorialize and in fact made an effort to remove my presence as much as possible. I wanted viewers to form their own opinions. A festival Q & A allows an audience into a filmmaker’s process and thoughts. It was the appropriate forum to express my personal feelings and I never intended to do that in the film.  The fact that you formed an opinion that may be different from my own speaks, I think, to the complexity of the human character and the complexity of Conan O’Brien in particular.  Your column leads me to believe that my effort to “become invisible” — keep myself out of the picture and allow the audience to make their own minds — was successful.  Thanks again for coming!

    Rodman Flender

  2. Thank you, Mr. Flender. I understand what you are saying and you are absolutely right. (I still voted your film a 5 out of 5 for the audiece award.) I thought it was an oustanding documentary. Thank you for it. And, yes, it topped off a thoroughly enjoyable “date night”.

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