Category Archives: Mockumentary

Blu-ray reissue: True Stories ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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True Stories – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

Finally, “Someone” (in this case, Criterion) has done justice to Lachman’s lovely cinematography by giving this film a properly matted 1:85:1 transfer (for years, the only version available on home video was a dismal “pan and scan” DVD). The newly restored 4K transfer was supervised by Byrne and Lachman, and it’s gorgeous.

The 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio also lends a crucial upgrade to the soundtrack quality (all those great Talking Heads songs really pop now!). Extras include a CD of the complete music soundtrack, deleted scenes, written essays, and documentary shorts (new and archival).

SIFF 2015: Challat of Tunis ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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While this qualifies as a “mockumentary”, there’s nothing “ha-ha” funny about it. That is, unless you consider sexual violence an amusing subject… which it decidedly is not, although (sadly) it is a global scourge that knows no borders.

This is precisely the point that writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania is (bravely) making in her film, which is a scathing feminist send-up of the systemic sexism that permeates not only her native Tunisia, but Arab culture (and the Earth).

The “Challat” refers to a motorbike-borne, self-anointed crusader who slashes the buttocks of women who dress “immodestly”. As the film opens, a decade has passed since this twisted customer has victimized anyone. An investigative journalist (played by the director) is trying to track him down, so she can get inside his head to see what makes such an odious individual tick. A young man comes forth, who may or may not be the elusive “Challat”. She calls his bluff, and things get interesting.

Thought-provoking, yet also disheartening when you contemplate the distressing universality of the misogynist credo: “She was asking for it.”

The electric Kool-Aid Turing test: Computer Chess ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 27, 2013)

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One of my guilty pleasures from the 1980s is an endearingly dated romantic comedy, Electric Dreams. It’s an age-old story…you know, the one where the nerdy protagonist buys himself one of those newfangled home computers and promptly shorts it out by spilling a drink on the keyboard, which unexpectedly transmogrifies the unit into an ersatz HAL-9000, which then becomes his rival for the affections of the cute upstairs neighbor babe (oh, how many times have we heard that one?). If you’re like me (isn’t everyone?), and would like to believe “that totally could happen” you have the perfect mindset for Andrew Bujalski’s off-kilter 80s retro-style mockumentary, Computer Chess.

Conjuring verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), Bujalski “documents” a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess.

Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski mixes up a bevy of idiosyncratic characters, like the boorish independent programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who wanders the hotel halls at night like a Flying Dutchman, knocking on random doors to see if anyone would let him crash on their floor. He seems particularly fixated on getting into the room occupied by shy Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the only female programmer (about whom the conference chairman gushes to the crowd: “M.I.T. has a lady on their team this year!”). Shelly wisely spurns his creepy advances, preferring to hang with kindred spirit Peter (Patrick Reister), who works for a rival team headed by the enigmatic Professor Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann).

It’s a particularly busy weekend at the hotel; they are also hosting a couples retreat, led by “a real African” therapist, who puts his clients through some classic New Age exercises (further accentuating the vibe of 80s nostalgia). In one of the film’s most amusing scenes, the ever-wandering Papageorge gets roped into a “rebirthing” session (“He’s crowning! He’s crowning!” ecstatic group members joyously exclaim as they “deliver” the spiritually reconstituted Papageorge, who later gloats to himself about getting his “catharsis for free”).

Another highlight borne of this oil and water mix: The painfully shy (and, we assume, virginal) Peter nearly gets sweet-talked into a ménage a trois with one of the couples after the wife gently admonishes him to metaphorically break free of the chessboard’s 64 squares and open himself to Life’s infinite possibilities.

However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things really start to get weird. And then they get even weirder. In fact, the final third (and Bujalski’s overall deadpan sensibility) stirred up memories of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult curio, Liquid Sky.

While this marks the director’s fourth effort, it’s only the second Bujalski film I have seen other than his 2002 debut, Funny Ha Ha, a hit and miss affair which holds the dubious distinction as the prototype for the “mumblecore” genre (I remember when it was called “actors with bad elocution”). So based on the two I have seen, this is my favorite. I could watch it again; there’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye (pay close attention to the Blade Runner-inspired final shot!). There’s nothing else quite like it in theaters right now.