Clean Freak

I just had a chance to watch Chris Hansen’s documentary short, Clean Freak, a follow-up to his feature-length mockumentary, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah. Equal parts Morgan Spurlock and Caveh Zahedi, with a twist of Alan Berliner, Clean Freak documents Chris’s somewhat obsessive need for a clean house. The film opens with Chris scolding one of his daughters about her messy room before cutting to shots of Chris’s wife and three daughters gently teasing him about his cleaning habits (one daughter’s drawing of Chris cleaning the kitchen floor underscores this point almost too neatly, pardon the pun), but the personal, almost confessional, style echoes Zahedi’s own exploration of personal psychology in I Am a Sex Addict and sets up Chris’s attempts to find the source of his clean freak tendencies.

Through interviews with his parents and his older brother Jim, Chris isolates a “primal scene” that he surmises might have triggered his behavior. The incident from childhood, which involved the spilling of a drink concoction Jim and Chris were making that included lots of sugar, lots of water, and eventually lots of soap. The soapy, sugary mess on the kitchen floor set off Chris’s mother’s own “clean freak” tendencies and eventually shaped Chris’s own habits. The incident is told in proper mock epic style, but it’s clear from the scene that the need for a clean house is an inherited trait. In some ways, this segment of the film was, for me, the most illuminating. During college and grad school, I lived with Jim and Chris at various points and as a mild slob, I can now see how living with me might have set their “clean freak” tendencies on edge.

Chris later experiments with various “cures,” a support group, a hypnotherapist, and an herbal remedy (St. John’s Wort), but in all three cases, finds the solution inadequate. Chris’s encounter with the hypnotherapist–and particularly his unwillingness to cede control–is particularly effective here. That many of these scenes appear to be (or could be) staged is certainly of interest here. Like his mockdoc, American Messiah, Clean Freak explores the limits of documentary as a medium for representing reality, or in many cases, shaping reality. Documentaries are full of those moments where the presence of the camera informs–or even shapes–what happens in front of it, an observation that Zahedi has used to great effect in many of his films.

To be fair, Chris does acknowledge that he has a relatively mild form of OCD, but the film’s sharpest move is his connection between his need to tidy things up in real life and his desire for narrative completion; in essence, filmmaking becomes a means of cleaning up the messes of everyday life. Chris allows this point to come through in a video chat with his brother Jim, a literature professor, who cites Frank Kermode’s groundbreaking book, The Sense of an Ending. In the book, Kermode essentially argues that endings function to make sense of what came before and can, in many cases, allow us to completely reinterpret “their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.” In fact, this is where Chris’s playful engagement with the limits of documentary becomes especially crucial. Documentary becomes a means for Chris to make sense of his experiences, of putting his “clean freak” tendencies into a narrative form. Filmmaking, whether narrative or documentary filmmaking, can be a way of tidying things up, and Clean Freak provides a new–and humorous–way of reminding us of that.


  1. The Chutry Experiment » Tuesday Movie Links Said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    […] whose previous directing credits include The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and Clean Freak, is providing a first look at his latest film, Endings, on Vimeo.  The clip is rough–Chris […]

  2. The Chutry Experiment » Crowdfunding “An Affair” Said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    […] of mine (and a talented filmmaker), Chris Hansen (here are my reactions to his previous two films, Clean Freak and American Messiah), is currently planning his third feature-length film, An Affair, a drama that […]

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