By Liz Cole
Continued from Part One.
Fake horror films docs feed our appetite for blood and screams with a vanity-stroking insider's view of the murder process. Most famously, The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez), ostensibly patched together from abandoned footage, presented three missing student documentarians who entered the woods in hopes of finding the Blair Witch and instead found themselves hopelessly lost and at the mercy of an unseen tormentor. The most interesting facet was the film's brilliant viral marketing campaign, which included clandestinely dropping unmarked scratchy videotapes in offices on the NYU campus and chalking sidewalks with cryptic symbols. It wasn't fully convincing, except to a few audiences who didn't consider the lack of at large news coverage on three dead filmmakers. Preceding Blair Witch by a couple of years, Lance Weiler's The Last Broadcast is narrated by a psychotic and overzealous wannabe documentarian hustling on camera to solve the high-profile murders of two cable access hosts who entered the New Jersey woods in search of "the Jersey Devil" with a crew and a psychic, next seen as bone chips and bloodstains in an evidence bag.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980), also an undeniable predecessor to Blair Witch, centered on footage "found" in the Amazon and was believed upon its release to be an actual snuff film. Director Ruggero Deodato and one of the film's producers were arrested and the film seized a week after the premiere. The Belgian shocker Man Bites Dog (1992) mixes voyeurism and brutality into a cult classic. In Remy Belvaux's film, a camera crew follows a charismatic and volatile serial killer/thief/rapist as he offs mailmen and pensioners while expounding on art, music, nature, society, and life.
The response to Peter Watkins's Punishment Park (1971) showed just how unwelcome an indictment of American political consciousness is, especially when coming from a British director. PBS refused to air it and the film closed after screening for only four days in Manhattan. Perhaps in light of Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act and the recent polarization of political viewpoints in the US, the world just got nasty enough for this portrayal of concentration camps on American soil and the brutal hunting of activists, dissidents and persons declared a "risk to national security" to return to UK cinema screens 35 years later.
Then, for comic relief, you can watch the lovely made-for-the-internet short The Presidential Speechalist, featuring the strategist behind Bush's speeches (played by Andy Dick). "You have to understand one thing about the American people. They are not interested in a politician that speaks smoothly or insists on using 'real words.'"
The spotty A Day Without a Mexican (Sergio Arau, son of Alfonso) became more relevant with the "Day Without an Immigrant" marches of 2006; in the film, the state of California wakes up one day to find a third of its population has mysteriously disappeared, and economic and domestic chaos ensues. Dark Side of the Moon (Opération lune) (directed by William Karel, it aired on French TV in 2002) reveals that the Apollo 11 Moon landing was faked via NASA's collaborations with Hollywood and the CIA with help from director Stanley Kubrick (who was actually killed by the CIA in a cover-up). It features some surprisingly "real" testimony from Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Buzz Aldrin and Kubrick's widow.
The satire Bob Roberts (1992), directed by and starring Tim Robbins as a radical right-wing folksinger turned senatorial candidate, blends songs about lazy poor people, the evils of drug use, and the triumph of family values with the hedonism of the 60s ("The Times They Are a Changin' Back"), conspiracy and foiled assassination attempts on the campaign trail. Although the candidate Roberts is compared to the Bush family and the film certainly pokes fun at his beliefs, the intentions for the film seem aimed more at the political process in general.
Robert Altman's Tanner '88, scripted by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, was concocted for HBO during the 1988 primary season and features a fictional presidential candidate (former Michigan congressman Jack Tanner, played by Michael Murphy). Tanner tries to sort out his messy professional and personal life and mingles (often improvising) amongst real-life candidates on the campaign trail. The original series was smart and sometimes mind-bending. The 2004 TV sequel Tanner on Tanner wasn't as funny as the original, perhaps because it focused more on lampooning the documentary-making process than on politics. Similarly, Zak Penn's fairly boring spoof on the nature of filmmaking, Incident at Loch Ness (2005), failed in part because the main draw, the very real filmmaker Werner Herzog, wasn't featured as much as he should have been.
Where the genre heads next is unclear. Critical flops such as Loch Ness and Drop Dead Gorgeous and the disappointment of A Mighty Wind indicate that audiences can indeed have too many bad films about the making of bad films, and it's harder to deceive savvy audiences used to myriad levels of fabrication. On the other hand, it could be argued that the mockumentary has evolved and migrated to the medium best suited for it: television, where it thrives in the "fake news" formats of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. In 2004, while Senator John Kerry faced off against George W. Bush, "the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news," as CNN reported that year. Few mockumentaries have come up with a better punchline.
Liz Cole's 10 Favorite Mockumentaries:
- Bob Roberts: Tim Robbins's satire suggests that shady deals, hypocrisy and deceit are mainstays of U.S. politics as it follows the rise of a right-wing Pennsylvania candidate for the United States Senate. The main character is based on a skit of the same name and character that Robbins created for Saturday Night Live in 1986.
- CSA: The Confederate States of America (2005): Kevin Willmott's bitterly satirical mockumentary in the form of a BBC doc about the Confederate States of America, a country that remains the top world power despite pressures to eliminate the slavery that is the economic backbone of the country, a long "cold war" with Canada, and the ongoing conflict with the Muslim Menace. The film received an enthusiastic reception at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
- Creature Comforts (1989): Nick Park, the creator of the Wallace and Gromit series, created this claymated mockdoc which centers around interviews with zoo critters, all of whom have distinct and completely recognizable English accents and mannerisms, expressing different viewpoints about security, confinement, care, and unnatural environments. Also spawned a subsequent series.
- Made in Secret: The Story of the East Vancouver Porn Collective: The titular collective, a group of perverted Vancouver visionaries, sets out to create a grassroots porn revolution by producing sexy indie flicks that appeal to their own desires and sensibilities. And they almost do, as we watch them create the low-budget BikeSexual. The viewer gets a few tantalizing glances of the salacious production process, and lots of behind-the-scenes drama within the collective.
- Man Bites Dog: Presumably the fictitious film crew's goal is to gain insight into evil, but their footage prompts the question of why a reasonable person would watch this and do nothing. Eventually the crew runs out of money and accepts Ben as a patron/director/actor of sorts.
- Punishment Park: Most of the actors were political activists against the war and had already been arrested and served prison time because of their beliefs. Likewise, some of the actors playing police officers had been police officers in real life. Many people were outraged that a British director would make a film about American political problems in a time of crisis. The film was heavily attacked at the 1971 New York Film Festival and Hollywood studios refused to distribute it.
- The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash: Eric Idle and Neil Innes's satire of the Beatles, which parallels their career highlights to the letter.
- Series 7: The Contenders: Six contestants are set loose in the same Connecticut community, with orders to hunt each other down for the benefit of TV cameras; the last person standing is to be declared the winner. As The Contenders goes into its seventh season, Dawn, a two-time champion is hoping to hold on to her title, despite the fact that she's due to have a baby in a month. Startling stuff.
- Sweet and Lowdown: The kind of fanciful period piece on a compelling fictitious subject that Woody Allen does well (see Zelig, et. al). Sean Penn (incredible here) plays an arrogant, obnoxious, irresponsible, rat-shooting alcoholic named Emmet Ray who just might have been the best jazz guitarist in the world, second only to Django Reinhardt. The film is loosely based on Fellini's masterpiece La Strada. Samantha Morton was nominated for best supporting actress, which is admirable since her endearing Hattie (Emmet's girlfriend) doesn't speak a single word in the film.
- This is Spinal Tap: This seminal mockumentary popularized the genre with its brilliantly realized stabs at fleeting fame, hubris and the masculine and misogynistic aspects of hair metal, as it chronicles the waning popularity of heavy metal legends Spinal Tap. Director Rob Reiner allegedly introduced the term "mockumentary" in an interview while describing the film.