Friday Night Seitz

Mockumentaries that go to 11

As 11/11/11 nears -- Nigel Tufnel Day for Spinal Tap obsessives -- we look at 11 classic faux-documentaries

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    A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

    Directed by Richard Lester

    Richard Lester’s amazing musical comedy is mainly thought of as the Beatles’ first big-screen effort, but it’s framed as a “documentary” — a supposedly spontaneous account of the band’s adventures as world famous musicians and private citizens, and the impossibility of balancing those two identities. Some of the footage has that rough hand-held look that was characteristic of the era’s nonfiction films; it would fit nicely on a double bill with D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary, “Don’t Look Back” (1967), even though the dialogue and situations have more in common with the Marx Brothers than with any actual cinéma vérité being made at the time.

    The “day in the life” effect is ultimately just a playful ruse, though; Lester’s irrepressible visual energy manifests itself in jump-cut music montages and conversations so clever that they had to have been scripted by somebody. But the charming lies of production get at a deeper truth. As San Jose Metro critic Richard von Busack writes, “The band is on the run, and the camera flies along to keep up with them. Here the Beatles give you a chance to be in their shoes, to see the onslaught as they see it. That all-important reverse angle is what makes ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ different from all rock films before it.”

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    David Holzman’s Diary (1967)

    Directed by Jim McBride

    There were other mockumentaries — or films with mockumentary elements — before “David Holzman’s Diary” (1967), but this thoroughly original independent film deserves to be considered the first modern example. A collaboration between director Jim McBride (“Breathless”) and actor-screenwriter L.M. “Kit” Carson (“Running on Empty”), it’s a feature-length portrait of the title character (Carson), a filmmaker who ruminates on his life and politics of the late 1960s via autobiographical monologues and experimental segments that he shot with his own 16mm camera.

    Although the movie was at least partly intended as a satire of counterculture-era “Song of Myself”-style filmmaking, the net result is a lot more introspective, funny and formally daring, chronicling Holzman’s descent into voyeurism, alienation and self-involvement. The hero’s figuratively masturbatory lifestyle become literal when his girlfriend gets sick of his obsession and leaves him. “I don’t quite get her sense of privacy,” he deadpans. Check out my colleague Kevin Lee’s excellent video essay about the movie, which shows how “David Holzman’s Diary” influenced everything from Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries to latter-day YouTube confessionals. “What is real behind the images we’re watching? How does the camera affect the outcome of the reality it’s capturing?” Lee asks. “These are questions that will never go away, and in fact are worth asking more than ever, even though most film and video makers have stopped asking them.”

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    Take the Money and Run (1969)

    Directed by Woody Allen

    In his great book “When the Shooting Stops,” “Take the Money and Run” editor Ralph Rosenblum said that Woody Allen’s breakthrough feature was originally intended as a somewhat straightforward, linear parody of gangster pictures, starring Allen as Virgil Starkwell, a hapless yutz who fantasizes being No. 1 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. It even had a bloody, “Bonnie and Clyde”-style ending. The mockumentary format was an attempt to impose shape on a shapeless collection of gags, but it turned out to be just what the movie needed. Every then-current cliché of late ’60s moviemaking is gleefully skewered here, from the talking head interviews with Virgil’s parents (wearing Groucho Marx nose-mustache-glasses to hide their identities) to the soft-focus, super-close-up sex scene between Starkwell and his wife-to-be Louise (Janet Margolin), which becomes a surreal tangle of limbs.

    The gags are almost all keepers: a young Virgil trying to play cello in a marching band; Virgil assembling a team of bank robbers that includes a man imprisoned for “arson, robbery, assault with intent to kill, and marrying a horse”; the deadpan narration by Jackson Beck (“Food on a chain gang is scarce and not very nourishing; the men get one hot meal a day, a bowl of steam”); and the immortal scene in which Virgil tries to rob a bank with a threatening note, only to be undone by his terrible handwriting. (Teller: “But what does “abt” mean?” Virgil: “It’s ‘act.’ A-C-T. Act natural.”) “He’d have the gang over for a meeting and I’d put out a little tray of pretzels and bullets,” Louise tells the filmmakers. “I had to. He’s my husband.”

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    The Rutles, aka All You Need Is Cash (1978)

    Directed by Eric Idle and Gary Weis

    One of Chris Rock’s favorite films — and a huge influence on subsequent mockumentaries, including “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Fear of a Black Hat” — this made-for-British-TV movie recounts the career of Dirk, Stig, Nasty and Barry, aka the Rutles, a pop group obviously inspired by you-know-who. A hilarious companion piece to “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Rutles” advances the form by incorporating other modes that had crept into documentary film since the late 1960s, including P.R. puffery and rise-and-fall moralizing. “Monty Python” member Eric Idle co-directed with Gary Weis, wrote the script, and co-stars as narrator Dirk McQuickly. The original songs — by Neil Innes — brilliantly mirror the film’s shifting array of filmmaking styles, costumes and textures; it all adds up to an inadvertent but eerily accurate portrait of how pop evolved in that era. The film might also have the final word on inside-showbiz squabbling, reimagining the Beatles’ litigiousness as pure farce. “In 1970, Dirk sued Stig, Nasty and Barry,” the narrator informs us. “Barry sued Dirk, Nasty and Stig; Nasty sued Barry, Dirk and Stig, and Stig sued himself accidentally.”

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    Zelig (1983)

    Directed by Woody Allen

    The technical and aesthetic peak of Woody Allen’s 1980s phase — maybe his whole career — this 1983 mockumentary demonstrates how ambitious and assured the director had become in the 14 years since “Take the Money and Run” (see third slide). It’s one of the greatest examples of form following function in cinema history — a film about a human chameleon that is itself chameleonic, deftly recapturing the syntax of laid-back, analytical 1980s public TV documentaries while simultaneously re-creating the texture of Hollywood features, newsreels, still photography, newspapers, handbills and other historical documents from the Jazz Age through the late 1940s. (A case could be made that “Zelig” is the “News on the March” opening of “Citizen Kane” reinvented as a feature, with an equally enigmatic though far more retiring hero.) The movie also boasts nearly as many memorable scenes and lines as any of Allen’s early, silly features. “I have an interesting case,” says Zelig, who has become a psychiatrist after falling in love with his psychiatrist. “I’m treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I’m getting paid by eight people.”

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    This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

    Directed by Rob Reiner

    One of the most quotable movies ever made, “This Is Spinal Tap” made Rob Reiner’s career as a director. It also set costar/co-writer Christopher Guest down the road toward his own filmmaking career, supplying him with a template that he’d refine over the next two decades in such films as “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration” (films that might have been represented on this list if it didn’t stop at 11). If you’re reading this slide show, there’s probably no point in my summarizing the movie’s plot, so let’s skip ahead to keywords and quotes: “Stonehenge.” “Shark Sandwich.” “We’re anything but racists.” “Armadillos in our trousers.” “The patron saint of quality footwear.” “This goes to 11.” “None more black.”

    Often imitated — most notably by the 1993 hip-hop variant “Fear of a Black Hat” — but never equaled, “Spinal Tap” is catnip to metal-heads, and to anyone who enjoys watching self-involved musicians make asses of themselves. “We’re very lucky in the band in that we have two visionaries, David and Nigel,” says the band’s bassist, Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). “They’re like poets, like Shelley and Byron. They’re two distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.”

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    Tanner ’88 (1988)

    Directed by Robert Altman

    One of the more notable works to emerge from Robert Altman’s supposed “lost” decade — during which Altman actually made a number of terrific, though generally very small, films — “Tanner ’88″ was one of the most influential TV shows that almost no one saw. Handsome character actor Michael Murphy stars as Jack Tanner, a Democratic congressman who has a bit of the old Kennedy charisma, coupled with a deep distrust of modern packaging that keeps him disengaged from American politics. He’s convinced to run anyway, but once he hits the campaign trail, the series becomes a hall of mirrors, with fiction reflecting reality reflecting fiction, and the tyranny of public relations and advertising looming over everything.

    Altman and co-writer Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”) realized that Hollywood and Washington had blurred together long before Graydon Carter, Tina Brown and John F. Kennedy Jr. tried to cash in on the phenomenon. The show’s fictional main characters — including Tanner, his daughter (22-year-old Cynthia Nixon!), his campaign manager (Pamela Reed) and his famous general dad (E.G. Marshall) — interact with real-life politicians, journalists and performers, including Jesse Jackson, Rebecca De Mornay, Chris Matthews, Michael Kinsley, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem and Waylon Jennings. But Altman and Trudeau don’t make the mistake of simply decrying the lack of authenticity in politics and calling it a day; they show how modern media have co-opted the very idea of authenticity and turned it into something false — just another mode in which to make films, TV programs and campaign ads. The show’s most brilliant moment might be the scene where Tanner gives a rousing speech to his campaign workers, and a cameraman secretly tapes it by shooting up through a cluttered glass tabletop, showcasing the “real” Tanner in a stylish, even mannered way. Advertising, the show seems to be saying, makes even true moments ring false. Altman and Trudeau’s 2004 follow-up, “Tanner on Tanner,” is also worth seeing.

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    The Office (2001)

    Directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant

    No, not the American version of “The Office,” the original, British version — a razor-sharp mockumentary about white-collar drudgery that ran for just 14 episodes (not including a Christmas-themed follow-up movie), yet made a deep and lasting impression on everyone who saw it. Co-writer-star Ricky Gervais’ comic persona derives almost entirely from his lead performance as fatuous chowderhead David Brent, who lords over an office full of people who hate his guts but have to laugh at his stupid jokes and endure his taunts because they don’t want to get fired. “People see me, and they see the suit, and they go, ‘You’re not fooling anyone,’” Brent preens. “They know I’m rock and roll through-and-through.” Retch.

    Gervais and his director and co-producer, Stephen Merchant, use the mockumentary format to capture the petty tyrannies of everyday life, and the “Spinal Tap”-level narcissism that overwhelms certain people whenever a camera is pointed at them. The show borrows a lot from “Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman” and other post-1980 mockumentaries, including the faux-confessional “interviews” that break up extended “fly on the wall” sequences. But the spry camerawork and editing create a distinctive rhythm; the style of this series influenced countless other sitcoms, including the U.S. version of “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family.” And the withering tone is distinctively British. During the confessional sequences, especially, we’re torn between gaping in awe at the characters’ cluelessness and looking away in embarrassment.

    “A philosopher once wrote you need three things to have a good life,” Brent says. “One, a meaningful relationship, two, a decent job of work, and three, to make a difference. And it was always that third one that stressed me, to make a difference. And I realize that I do. Every day, we all do. It’s how we interact, with our fellow man.” He has no idea how right he is.

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    The Confederate States of America (2004)

    Directed by Kevin Willmott

    Very possibly the densest and most formally daring of all mockumentaries, this film by Kevin Willmott purports to be a British nonfiction film about the history of the United States as it evolved in an alternate universe in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, broadcast to America via a pirate TV station. As I wrote in a New York Press review, the film’s historical pivot point is “a great Civil War battle that is won by the Confederacy rather than the Union. Ulysses S. Grant surrenders to Robert E. Lee rather than the other way around. Lee ends up in the White House trying to rebuild the shattered North without ticking off the victors, and Abraham Lincoln goes on the lam disguised in blackface. The latter is chronicled in snippets of a scratchy, tinted, black-and-white silent movie titled ‘The Hunt for Dishonest Abe,’ presented as the film D.W. Griffith would have made instead of ‘Birth of a Nation.’ Part of the fun is in seeing which phenomena, events and people Willmott thinks would have occurred anyway, no matter who won the Civil War. For instance, in the ‘CSA’ version of history, John F. Kennedy still would have existed, but he would have been a Republican. Richard Wright and James Baldwin would have written their signature works from their adoptive country, Canada, and Elvis Presley would have been a pop-culture martyr, arrested and exiled for daring to imitate black performers.” Catnip to history geeks as well as pop culture junkies, this magnificently unhinged movie suggests an “In Living Color” episode guest-directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

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    Cloverfield (2008)

    Directed by Matt Reeves

    I wanted to be sure to represent horror mockumentaries on this list, and there were so many to choose from that I could have filled all 11 slots with that subgenre alone. Why cite “Cloverfield” instead of “Paranormal Activity” or “REC” or George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” or 1999′s influential “The Blair Witch Project”? Because where those other movies were structurally (and in some cases commercially) clever, “Cloverfield” is, I believe, a bona fide work of pop art, with a much more sophisticated sense of what it means to see and be seen — or record and be recorded. The sequence in which the unseen cameraman hero videotapes New Yorkers watching coverage of the monster attack on a wall of TV screens in an electronics store has a down-the-rabbit-hole feeling; we’re watching someone watch people watching something that’s happening live just a couple of miles away. And that image of the fiery, horseless carriage rolling down a dark street like a land-bound Flying Dutchman has seared itself onto my imagination; it’s as primordially powerful as the image of the church facade falling away in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 “War of the Worlds.”

    Drew Goddard wrote the movie; Matt Reeves (“Let Me In”) directed. Seeing it on a big screen on opening weekend was a transporting experience. The grainy video imagery and nausea-inducing hand-held photography were widely criticized as visual gimmicks (or a means of camouflaging what might otherwise be unconvincing special effects), but they’re all of a piece with the picture’s deeper agenda, a reimagining of the 9/11 attacks as a pulpy, 21st century B-picture. “Cloverfield” is an incantatory visual poem about knowing that something vast and horrendous is happening in your city and being powerless to understand it, let alone stop it. This movie, not that disappointing 1998 Roland Emmerich flick, is the true American “Godzilla” — a thriller that reimagines real-world trauma as fairy tale nightmare. Some of the imagery has a Jungian purity, especially the scene with the spider parasites in the sewer tunnels, and that astounding sequence set in the ruins of the Time-Warner Center — the heroes clambering over wreckage with the Central Park-area skyline splayed out behind them. The first 15 minutes — recounting a romantic back story that was “interrupted” by the monster attack — are thin and tedious, and the characters and performances are as weak as anything that Toho Studios ever came up with. But the conceit of having video evidence of lost love peek through the present-tense footage is brilliant. The images of an idyllic, clueless past are poignant and haunting; they reminded me a bit of reading the New York Times the morning after the attacks, and thinking how weird it was to see a cobbled-together news section about the worst terrorist assault in U.S. history wrapped around lifestyle, business and sports sections describing the lost world of 9/10.

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    Woodpecker (2008)

    Directed by Alex Karpovsky

    How convincing a mockumentary is Alex Karpovsky’s “Woodpecker”? So convincing that even though I was on a 2006 film festival panel with the director and had seen and loved his first film, “The Hole Story” — a mockumentary! — it momentarily fooled me into thinking that it wasn’t what it was. Karpovsky himself starred in “The Hole Story”, an autobiographical mockumentary about a nonfiction filmmaker who loses his subject, his funding and his girlfriend, then ends up recording his own emotional disintegration on tape because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. The actor-filmmaker does not appear in “Woodpecker”, a mockumentary that chronicles what happens to a small Arkansas town when a birdwatcher sights an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird that has been listed as extinct since the 1940s. The movie’s tone captures a particular kind of low-fi backwoods Americana documentary so expertly that if you happened upon it while channel-surfing, you might think it was a recent Sundance documentary by a young director working in the style of the Maysles brothers. It’s about the fanatically insular culture of bird-watching — its lead character, Jonny (co-screenwriter Jon E. Hyrns), is a hyper-intense oddball worthy of a Christopher Guest film — but it’s also about the conflicts between rationality and faith, idealism and skepticism. The surrounding community divides into factions, some of whom decide to believe in the woodpecker’s reemergence (because it’s helping to reinvigorate a dying community, or just because it makes them feel good and special) and others demanding proof and denouncing the hero as a manipulating liar when he can’t produce it. The film eventually tips its hand and reveals its true nature. But for two-thirds of its running time, “Woodpecker” is almost indistinguishable from a “real” documentary, expertly mingling scripted scenes and interviews with real people who thought Karpovsky was making a film about, well, a bird.