By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 1, 2017)
Since this is April Fool’s Day, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some filmmakers who have made it their mission to yank on our lanyards (does that hurt?). So, in no particular ranking order, here are my selections for the Top 10 Mockumentaries:
Best in Show – Actor-writer-director Christopher Guest’s oeuvre has become synonymous with “mockumentary”, and for good reason. He and his repertory of actors and co-writers have delivered some of the best of the genre over the last few decades (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, et.al.) This gentle poke at dog lovers represents his own “best in show” so far. Guest delivers a network narrative-style study of various participants who are converging (with pooches in tow) to compete at a national dog show.
Perhaps it is unfair to single anyone out with such a tight comic ensemble in play, but Fred Willard is a definite highlight as a witless TV commentator (is that redundant?) and Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock chew major scenery as an obnoxious yuppie couple. More standouts: Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Larry Miller and Eugene Levy (who co-scripted).
The Blair Witch Project – Love it or hate it, there is no denying the impact that this cleverly marketed horror flick has had on modern film making. In the event that you spent 1999 in a coma, this is the one where a crew of amateur actors were turned loose in dark and scary woods, armed with camping gear, video cameras and a plot point or two provided by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who then proceeded to play creepy, “gotcha” mind games with their young troupe.
The result was surprisingly effective, because after all, it’s the idea that “something” in the woods is out to get you that serves as nightmare fuel-not some guy in a rubber monster suit lurching about in front of the camera. There are still some debates raging whether the similar low budget fright, The Last Broadcast (1998) or the more obscure 1980 cult item Cannibal Holocaust deserves the kudos (or the blame) for kick-starting the “found footage” genre.
Computer Chess-In his off-kilter 2013 “80s retro” mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski achieves verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it appear you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and “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 throws a bevy of idiosyncratic characters together, shakes the jar, and then steps back to watch what happens. However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things start to get weird…then weirder. The most original sci-fi movie I’ve seen in a while. (My full review),
Drop Dead Gorgeous– Mocking beauty contests is almost too easy, but as far as guilty pleasures go, Michael Patrick Jann’s faux backstage documentary from 1999 about a Minnesota pageant that goes horribly wrong is a winner. Star Kirsten Dunst plays it straight, and is flanked by a hammy Ellen Barkin (an absolute riot as her trailer-trash mom) and an over-the-top Kirstie Alley as the Stage Mother From Hell. Denise Richards shows a real flair for comedy with a show-stopping performance number dedicated to the “special fella in her life”, a Mr. J. Christ. Also with Alison Janey, Brittany Murphy and Amy Adams. The film is reminiscent of the (more low-key) 1975 pageant spoof Smile.
F for Fake – “This is a promise,” Orson Welles intones, looking directly into the camera, “For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” Ay, but here’s the rub: This playful ‘documentary’ about Elmyr de Hory (“the world’s greatest art forger”) and his biographer Clifford Irving (infamous for his own fakery) runs for 85 minutes. Ever feel like someone’s having you on?
That’s the subject of Welles’ 1974 rumination on the meaning of art, and the art of the con. A musical score from the great Michel Legrand is a nice bonus. Not for all tastes; some may find it too scattershot, but there is a method to the madness, and attentive viewers will be rewarded. Even toward the end of a checkered career, with his prowess as a filmmaker arguably on the wane, any completed project by the great Welles demands your attention.
Hard Core Logo – Frequently compared with This is Spinal Tap, this film from iconoclastic Canadian director Bruce McDonald does Reiner’s film one better-it’s got real substance. Now, obviously I love Spinal Tap (otherwise it wouldn’t have been included on this “Top 10” list), but McDonald’s film mixes humor with genuine drama and poignancy, particularly in its portrayal of the complex, mercurial relationship between the two main characters, Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) and Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie.)
Joe and Billy front a “legendary” punk band called Hard Core Logo, who hit the road for a belated reunion tour. McDonald plays himself, a director who is documenting what could turn out to be the band’s final hurrah. The film is full of great throwaway lines (“I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m eating corn chips and masturbating. Please leave a message.”). There are also obscure references in Noel S. Baker’s screenplay that rock geeks (guilty!) will delight in. This is part of a trilogy (of sorts) by McDonald that includes Roadkill and Highway 61.
Real Life – This underrated 1979 gem from writer-director Albert Brooks presaged Christopher Guest & company’s mockumentary franchise by at least a decade. There actually is a direct tie-in; the screenplay was co-written by future Guest collaborator Harry Shearer (along with Brooks’ own long-time creative collaborator, Monica Mcgowan Johnson).
Real Life is a brilliant take-off on the 1973 PBS series, An American Family (which can now be tagged as the original “reality TV” show). Brooks basically plays himself: a neurotic, narcissistic comedian who decides to do a documentary depicting the daily life of a “perfect” American family. After vetting several candidates (represented via a montage of hilarious “tests” conducted at a behavioral studies institute), he decides on the Yeager family of Phoenix, Arizona (headed by ever-wry Charles Grodin, absolutely born for this role).
The film gets exponentially funnier as it becomes more about the self-absorbed filmmaker himself (and his ego) rather than his subjects. Brooks takes jabs at Hollywood, and at studio execs in particular. If you’ve never seen this one, you’re in for a real treat.
Take the Money and Run – This is one of Woody Allen’s “earlier, funny films”. It’s also one of the seminal mockumentaries, and riotously funny from start to finish. Woody casts himself as bumbling career criminal Virgil Starkwell, who is the subject of this faux biopic.
Narrated with tongue-in-cheek gravitas by veteran voice-over maestro Jackson Beck, the film traces Starkwell’s trajectory from his early days as a petty criminal (knocking over gumball machines) to his career apex as a “notorious” bank robber. In one of the most singularly hilarious gags Allen has ever conceived, Virgil blows a heist by arguing with a bank manager over his penmanship on a scribbled stickup note that he has handed to a teller, who is very confused by the sentence that appears to read; “I have a gub.”
A comedy classic, not to be missed. BTW-if you ever plan to break out of jail by wielding a fake revolver carved from a bar of soap…always be sure to check the weather report first!
This is Spinal Tap – Director Rob Reiner co-wrote this 1984 gem with his three stars-Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, who play Spinal Tap founders Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls and David St. Hubbins, respectively.
Reiner is “rockumentary” filmmaker Marti Dibergi, who is tagging along with the hard rocking British outfit on a grueling tour of the states. By the time the film’s relatively brief 84 minutes have expired, no one (and I mean, no one) involved in the business of rock’n’roll has been spared the knife-the musicians, roadies, girlfriends, groupies, fans, band managers, rock journalists, concert promoters, record company execs, A & R reps, even record store clerks…you name it, they all get bagged and tagged.
A lot of the gags are of an “inside” nature; I’ve noticed people who tend to dismiss this film also tend to not be rock music aficionados (or perhaps even more tellingly, have never played in a band!). Nonetheless, a must-see classic of its kind.
True Stories– 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.