Self-proclaimed "information spy" Benjamin Pell, the subject of Iain Jones' raucous docu "Thank You for the Rubbish," travels by night, stealthily spiriting away waste from London's top entertainment law firms, MI-5 agents and Prime Minister Tony Blair, selling the gossipy scoops therein to an eager client list of the U.K.'s top newspapers and tabloids.
Self-proclaimed “information spy” Benjamin Pell, the subject of Iain Jones’ raucous docu “Thank You for the Rubbish,” travels by night, stealthily spiriting away waste from London’s top entertainment law firms, MI-5 agents and Prime Minister Tony Blair, selling the gossipy scoops therein to an eager client list of the U.K.’s top newspapers and tabloids. Literally and figuratively, it’s a dirty job, but one that Pell relishes and which has netted him more than £1,000,000 ($1,425,000). This highly entertaining piece, which follows Pell around the clock (a mighty feat given that he sleeps only two hours a night), isn’t quite theatrical material, but should enjoy a healthy life on the docu and video circuits.
Though his own casting choice for a film based on his life would be Dustin Hoffman, the manic, shifty Pell looks more like a scruffy, hopped-up Rowan Atkinson; with his bulging eyes and stuttering, jitterbug jive (his lips can barely keep up with the flow of words from his mouth), he’s Mr. Bean on speed.
To call Pell eccentric would be an understatement. The middle son of conservative Jewish parents (who refuse to appear in the film), Pell has lived at home his entire life, been under on-again off-again psychiatric care since a teen, and has now immersed himself in a sea of others’ refuse. He’s a fascinating, train wreck of human potential, and you can’t take your eyes off him.
What makes Benji run? For starters, there’s his obsessive disgust at what he deems the “negligence” of society. If, Pell reasons, the individuals and corporations whose waste he pilfers are careless enough to discard potentially incendiary documents in the first place, they deserve the ensuing shame when those materials are leaked to the press. Beyond that, there’s Pell’s own obsessive yearning for fame and recognition, no matter that very desire is at odds with the secrecy under which he must perform his “work.”
It’s the ownership of several corporate cleaning services, under an assumed name, that provides Pell both with a legitimate income source and a collection of “safe houses” in which to stash his most precious finds. The cloak-and-dagger feel continues as Jones accompanies Pell on his evening collection rounds, with the outwardly neurotic Pell slithering slyly amidst Soho streets, evading with balletic grace dustmen (his “enemy”) and security cameras.
Pell’s efforts have produced all sorts of gossipy stories, involving the likes of Elton John, the Spice Girls and Tom Cruise. When the real story isn’t juicy enough, he embellishes. (In one of pic’s best sequences, he discusses transforming a document about Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall seeking a dyslexia counselor for their daughter into a news item about the couple seeking sex therapy.)
Over time, he has gone from being the source of stories to the story itself. Everyone seems to know Benji Pell, but despite a couple of arrests, several searches of his home and the odd fine here and there, he’s retained a stupefying ability to go about his work undeterred. Pell is incredibly prodigious at his rubbish business, and the strength of Jones’ film is the detail with which it depicts Pell’s Cheshire-cat craftiness.
Pell is onscreen in nearly every shot, and docu, often hitting the same notes, suffers from the narrow focus. Still, the real disappointment is that, despite the unprecedented access to his life that Pell has allowed (other docu crews, including one from the BBC, were previously turned away), he always seems “on,” playing up his mile-a-minute zaniness, his shrill voice screeching, Jones never manages to reveal the real person beneath. There are a few confessional moments in which Pell discusses his troubled past (including the impact of his brother’s death), but not as many as we would like, and not enough for Jones to determine whether his subject is menace, latter-day Robin Hood or seriously ill sociopath.
Due to the covert circumstances in making the pic (Jones, only, was allowed to witness Pell’s rubbish runs), image quality is inconsistent, even by docu standards, with many scenes dark and fuzzy to the point of indecipherability.