The mockumentary cometh

Documentaries are huge. Their perverse cousins are nipping at their heels.

Published July 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In "The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash," a mockumentary of a Beatles-like rock group's rise to fame, Eric Idle plays a quintessential journalistic narrator -- trench coat, British accent, microphone. One of his scenes is the shrewdest sendup of the documentary impulse. Plopped in front of a hotel with his microphone in hand he over-seriously intones, "I'm actually standing outside the actual hotel in which the Rutles actually stayed in 1964. Actually, in this room here." He points to a window. "And it's inside this actual room that I actually spoke with the actual Paul Simon."

Idle's hilarious repetition apes the cult of in situ that is at the center of any documentary. And not only that, it has echoes of the lingo radio and television reporters use to describe tape from live events, called "actualities." A word, by the way, those in the business have shortened to "acts," as in "of the Apostles." Actualities are the gospel of truth. And in the 20th century, every time someone comes out with a new gospel it only takes the smart alecks of the world about five minutes to start parodying it, which is to say ripping it down.

Now that "Dateline NBC" is on TV eight-and-a-half days a week, as the Rutles might say, and Ken Burns is a household name and A&E's "Biography" was last year's new crack, the documentary form has finally taken off -- and the mockumentary is nipping at its heels. Two fake documentary films have opened in July, "The Blair Witch Project" and "Drop Dead Gorgeous," the former as intriguing as the latter is insidious. The two films follow different strains of the mockumentary form. "Drop Dead Gorgeous," which ridicules a local Minnesota beauty pageant, is the illegitimate child of "This Is Spinal Tap" -- a weak link in the people-are-stupid tradition. In that it portrays a group of film students making a documentary about a local witch legend, "The Blair Witch Project" is not unlike those "the making of" movie documentaries with which subscribers to HBO and Showtime are all too familiar. It's more about the filmmakers than the film. And since the making of their film gets them lost in the woods and stalked by a mysterious something, it requires them to endure hunger, apathy, exhaustion, despair and, most of all, fear.

"Blair Witch" reminded me more than anything of Eleanor Coppola's brilliant documentary, "Hearts of Darkness," which chronicles the making of her husband Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." In "The Blair Witch Project," Heather, the director of the student film, would be Francis Ford Coppola Jr. Her two cohorts are sick of their trek through the woods, sick of being lost and scared and tired, sick especially of making a film. They want to go home, just as Eleanor Coppola's documentary makes clear that everyone involved with "Apocalypse Now" wanted to evacuate that filmic Vietnam. Everyone but director Francis Coppola. While Heather's collaborators Josh and Mike care more about their lives than about Heather's film, Heather herself cannot stop filming, even in the darkest, scariest moments -- especially in the darkest, scariest moments. Her cohorts point out that she's literally hiding behind her camera, that the freaky shit they're all going through feels less freaky if she can put the camera between herself and whoever or whatever is terrorizing her.

Heather's addiction to her camera lays bare the nonfictioner's secret. Namely, that journalists, historians, filmmakers and producers involved with writing, editing, recording or presenting true stories are attracted to the power and control that is the byproduct of shaping something as out-of-control as life. Creators of fiction are pegged with God complexes because they create new worlds. But there's something so clean and pure about looking down from the sky and commanding, "Let there be light." Nonfiction is down and dirty, of this world. Nonfiction requires the kind of egomaniac who will stand in the mud for the sole purpose of describing its squishyness.

You have to believe in yourself to have the guts to tell other people's stories. But that kind of self-esteem often turns into smugness. That's why mockumentaries most often fail. Looking down on others can be too facile, too pointless, especially when those others are easy targets -- like people in the film industry, heavy metal, right-wing politics and small-town beauty pageants as seen in "Burn, Hollywood, Burn," "This Is Spinal Tap," "Bob Roberts" and "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

Unfortunately for the dismal "Drop Dead Gorgeous," the film closely approximates the setting, plot and structure of Christopher Guest's astonishing "Waiting for Guffman." Both mockumentaries take place in Midwestern small towns, showcase amateur singers and dancers, lampoon patriotic displays and tackle the subject of hubris. Where "Waiting for Guffman" was sophisticated and subtle, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is obvious and mean, gleaning cheap laughs by making fun of retarded people, boiling love of country down to beauty pageants with themes like "Amer-I-Can" and idiotically posing an anorexic girl in a wig and a wheelchair to lip synch to Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud."

"Guffman," which tells the story of a civic pageant in Blaine, Mo., called "Red, White and Blaine," works because it opens its jabs up to larger human concerns. Fred Willard's amateur thespian isn't a self-centered blowhard because he lives in a small town; he's a self-centered blowhard who happens to live in a small town. When he finishes his pageant audition and he needs to move a stool out of the way, he asks the judges, "Strike it?" adding that he and his wife have worked with the director before "so we know all the terms already going in." And then there's the heart-breaking Eugene Levy as the town dentist. Charmingly talentless, he aspires to entertain, telling the camera, "People ask me, 'You must have been the class clown.' And I say, 'No, I wasn't. But I sat beside the class clown and I studied him.'" And in that moment, Levy hints at a world where people imagine who they could be. Where "Drop Dead Gorgeous" reduces its satire to ridiculing a town full of simps, "Waiting for Guffman" hints at larger human dreams -- pinpointing the inherent sadness of yearning for talent, excellence and escape. And that isn't mockery. That is actuality.

I had been watching all the aforementioned mockumentaries when I happened to come across one of my favorite documentaries -- the Maysles Brothers' classic account of the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour, "Gimme Shelter" -- while flipping through cable channels. For days I'd been watching fictional student filmmakers get killed, a bad beauty pageant talent competition, Bob Roberts turn lefty folk tunes into right-wing anthems ("The Times Are Changin' Back"), suffering Spinal Tap lyrics that seemed funnier when I was 17 and listening to Eugene Levy sing. The whole week was an argument against art. In those films, art kills, maims, lies and disappoints. But "Gimme Shelter," even with the Altamont ugliness in the film's second half, is an argument for art, not to mention the hubris it takes to make works of art. If mockumentaries are about cutting egos down, a documentary like "Gimme Shelter" is meant to showcase them. For who is more egomaniacal than Mick Jagger, and what could be more egomaniacal than a tape of Mick Jagger watching footage of himself onstage? In one mesmerizing scene, the Stones sit around a recording studio listening to a tape of "Wild Horses." As Mick listens to his own singing, so soft and sure and slow, the camera hangs on his face to the point that it seems impossible, not to mention unfair, that any one human being could be that beautiful and that talented. Watching it, the only thing I could think of was I believe in this. Beyond mocking, beyond ridicule or jest. When the song ends, Mick claps -- for himself. And why shouldn't he? He's a pretty man singing a pretty song. And that's the documentary truth.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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