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.
Orson Welles brought his career full circle from War of the Worlds to the trickery of F for Fake (1973), a funny and bizarre meditation on the artist as charlatan-magician, with enough layers for a whole semester on postmodernism. Portraits of art forger Elmyr de Hory, whose "masterpieces" are believed to hang in the most famous museums, a woman who claims to have posed for 200 Picasso paintings no one has ever seen, and Clifford Irving (who wrote a fake Howard Hughes autobiography) intermingle with Welles' own connection to "fakes." Meanwhile, taking its cue from the famous PBS series of the 1970s, An American Family, Real Life stars Albert Brooks as Albert Brooks, a self-centered comedian who attempts to live with and film a dysfunctional family for one full year. He's incapable of being unobtrusive, and infuriates the production's team of experts and psychiatrists by trying to find ways to make the family's life more interesting.
Mention should be given, too, to Forgotten Silver, Peter Jackson's well-crafted little mock-doc, that fooled quite a few people, too, on a long neglected silent filmmaker whose work is in serious need of a revival. All fabricated, of course, but show it to someone who doesn't know that beforehand and see if they aren't fooled.
Spinal Tap and progeny
It's impossible to discuss modern mockumentaries without featuring director/writer Christopher Guest and director Rob Reiner, who did so much to make the genre hot in the late 1990s, no doubt helped along by postmodern pop culture and the dearth of new ideas that comes with it.
Spinal Tap, the early years
First they gave us This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which a fictional director follows England's legendary hair metal band as they vainly cling to some glint of their lost glory and embark on an accident-plagued tour across America in an attempt to promote their new album "Smell the Glove," culminating in the infamous affair of the eighteen-inch-high Stonehenge stage prop. Yes, hair metal is an easy target, but one with a wealth of comic potential that Reiner and Guest gleefully mine - as in the now frequently quoted scene in which guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest) proudly displays the band's instruments and equipment, including a guitar so special it can never be looked at, let alone played and an amplifier that "...goes to 11." And who can forget the scene of the band circling the bowels of the Cleveland Ampitheatre's boiler room after losing their way to the stage, as well as trashy metal hooks like "Hellhole," "Sex Farm" and "Big Bottom." It also pokes fun at the hubris needed to be a performer. Fame is fickle and fleeting, and hair metal bands today aren't remembered by anyone under 20, but Spinal Tap, the band, refuses to accept that the camera has already trained its eye on someone else.
The success of Spinal Tap spawned its own subgenre of rip-offs like the Canadian film Hard Core Logo (1996), in which defunct punk band Hard Core Logo reunites for a benefit concert for their aging punk mentor. Fear of a Black Hat (1994, dir. Rusty Cundieff), concerns NWH (Niggas With Hats), a hip hop group that uses jaw-dropping logic to justify the deeper meanings behind songs like "Booty Juice" and "Come and Pet the P.U.S.S.Y," their dress (band members Ice Cold, Tasty-Taste and Tone Def sport outrageous headwear, symbols for resistance and revolution since their slave ancestors were forced to work bare headed in the fields and were thus "too hot to revolt"), and their actions (beating people up behind closed doors). The parodies of hip-hop's obsession with materialism, street credibility, sex and violence are too numerous to mention, as are the mishmashes of real musicians and artists (supporting characters include Jike Spingleton, MC Slammer, Yo Highness and Ice Tray). It shares certain plot lines with Spinal Tap, like a succession of Jewish managers dying mysterious deaths (akin to Spinal Tap's spontaneously combusting, vomit-choking drummers), a girlfriend corrupting the band, and rivalry with another hip-hop group, but focuses more on racism and pseudo-political issues.
Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show are both sophisticated and subtle pieces with Guest's seasoned all-star cast (Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, etc.) in a mix of comically poignant roles. In Guffman, Corky St. Claire (Guest) is an off-off-off-off-off Broadway producer in the town of Blaine, Missouri (and creator of a stage musical version of Backdraft that led to the unfortunate destruction of the community theater). Corky earnestly puts together a musical about Blaine's noble history, starring the town's aspiring thespians who substitute enthusiasm for talent, and may or may not have convinced a major theater producer from NYC (Guffman) to check out the performance. It's a heartfelt homage to small town America that points to the universal ache for greatness, excellence and escape.
Best in Show (2000) turned the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia, with its vanity and competition, into a setting ripe for humorous exploitation and dramatic tension, with brilliantly observed characters - a charmingly talentless and beleaguered husband (a double-left-footed Levy) whose new marriage to his vibrant wife (O'Hara) is strained as she continually encounters men who'd once slept with her, a ripe Anna Nicole Smith-esque trophy wife (nobody does ditziness like Jennifer Coolidge) in a surreptitious lesbian relationship with her champ dog trainer, and disturbingly dysfunctional yuppie lawyers who project all their disappointments and faults onto their fragile Wiemeraner.
A Mighty Wind (2003) showcases a reunion of once-famous folk acts from the 60s. The characters are nailed (especially Eugene Levy's Mitch, who almost makes it okay to laugh at mental illness), but the end result feels flat, perhaps because it only lampoons the safe, sane and sanitized tones of folk. There's no parallel for Dylan and Baez-esque protest singers. Guest and company will next bring us to the world of Academy Award shilling in the upcoming For Your Consideration.
Like Guffman, Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) also takes place in a Midwestern small town, showcases amateur singers and dancers, and tries to lampoon love of God and country. However, despite the winning presence of Kirsten Dunst, the film is ultimately fairly graceless and passé, because it fails to aim its barbs at larger human concerns, instead expecting us to laugh at cheap shots taken at anorexics, the mentally disabled, farmers and poor people who wear polyester and live in trailers.
On that note, it's worth mentioning Hands on a Hardbody and The Dancing Outlaw, two docs which capture real and unusual subjects so candidly they leave room for confusion to mockumentary-savvy audiences. In Hands, 24 contestants from rural Texas compete in a contest of wills, endurance and sleep deprivation to win a brand new Nissan Hardbody truck. When you lose your mind, you lose the contest - and the last person standing with a hand planted on the truck wins. The contestants are real, so real that cosmopolitan viewers tend to take the thick accents and the trappings of rural poverty, including a couple with matching sets of missing teeth, for a put-on. The Dancing Outlaw's trashed-out trailers, dingy laundry blowing on the clotheslines, abandoned washing machines and wrecked cars dot the landscape and life of charismatic, self-possessed and seriously off-kilter clog dancer Jesco White, aka Elvis, aka Jesse, aka The Devil - hilarious yet respectful.
And now onto Part Two and Liz Cole's 10 Favorite Mockumentaries.