By Liz Cole
Some smug satisfaction can be found in telling another person's story, finding laughs, whether cheap or subtle, at the expense of someone else's efforts and failure. This is what has made modern mockumentaries - faked documentaries - into arguments against art, and against the hubris needed to make works of art. While some of these films have poked fun of easy targets - psychotic stage mothers and Midwestern beauty pageants (Drop Dead Gorgeous), hair metal bands (This is Spinal Tap) and right-wing politicians (Bob Roberts) - sometimes deception is essential to the seduction of good storytelling (Blair Witch Project, Dark Side of the Moon/Opération lune). Put simply, it's fun to unravel the authority of documentaries.
Precursors to the false documentary approach date back to radio days, with Orson Welles version of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1938), which sent thousands in New York and New Jersey fleeing their homes from "death rays" and a "gas attack from Mars." A piece on "The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest" aired on the British television program Panorama on April 1st, 1957 and drew torrents of calls from baffled viewers to the BBC. Did spaghetti really grow on trees? How can I grow my own spaghetti tree? (The BBC replied that one should "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.")
Perhaps the first "official" mockumentary - so real it fooled many an intellectual - is Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary, which was added to the National Film Registry in 1991. An amusing, cutting satire of the cinéma vérité filmmakers of the 1960s, Diary pretends to be the actual, day-to-day life of the titular young filmmaker.
The principal goal of the short film No Lies, (Mitchell Block, 1972) was to dupe the audience, and it succeeded and even enraged viewers with its central deception. A conversation between a young female rape victim and an interviewer whose probing questions strip her defenses offers an intimate view of the trauma suffered by the young woman as she confronts the police, her doctor, her friends, and her conscience. The first and only clue that it's fake are given in the end credits.
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978; followed by a sequel) paralleled to the letter the music and career highlights of the Beatles. Written and narrated by Monty Python's Eric Idle (who shrewdly sends up the quintessential journalistic narrator, armed with trench coat, British accent and microphone), it's naturally hilarious. Drugs (Bob Dylan introduces the Rutles to tea and biscuits), managers, scandal (a hard-of-hearing reporter misquotes Nasty - he said the Rutles were bigger than Rod... Stewart), fame (the Prefab Four plays a sell-out concert at New York's Ché Stadium - named after Cuban guerrilla leader Ché Stadium, arriving a day early in order to get away before the audience arrived), girlfriends (the Yoko Ono figure is repackaged here as a Nazi, while she and the Lennon-ish character announcing their engagement in the shower) are all covered.
Alan Abel, the straight-faced hoaxer who really did fool quite a lot of people with media hoaxes like Omar the Beggar's School for Begging and SINA (the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals) co-directed (with his wife, Jeanne Abel) Is There Sex After Death? (1971), a sleazily enjoyable spoof of porno movies and American puritanism, starring Alan as an itinerant sex specialist mining man-on-the-street opinions on post-mortem cohabitation. Made In Secret: The Story of the East Vancouver Porn Collective (2005, dir. One Tiny Whale) is the story of a sweet group of polite high-minded pervs, who make porn by the people, for the people, and do just great - until someone turns a camera on them.
Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run (1969), full of crime/prison/gangster satire and silly one-liners, chronicled the life of a bungling petty thief. Highlights include the talking head interviews with his parents (wearing Groucho Marx eyeglass-nose-mustache disguises to hide their embarrassment) and other figures in his life who have absolutely nothing good to say about him, a handmade soap gun that fails him in his prison break when it melts in a rainstorm, and his final punishment - being locked up with an insurance salesman. Allen's later Zelig (1983) expertly simulated the look of a cut-together newsreel of the life of Leonard Zelig, a Chameleon Man of the 1920's who so desperately wanted to fit in he would assume the characteristics of whomever he came into contact with.
Bookmark/Search this post with: