I’ve already stated my lack of affection for the mockumentary as a genre, but as I poured through some of the films that directly inspired From the Gut, I started to realize that it wasn’t necessarily the mockumentary itself but rather the bland, TV-sitcom aesthetic that it’s spawned. It’s difficult to get through an evening of broadcast television without having to withstand the usual cardboard-cutout stereotypes that the medium has always perpetuated, but now accompanied by knowing glances at the camera and snippets of ersatz interview. There’s nothing that makes an already boring medium more insufferable than self-consciousness. It’s like having dinner with your uncle after he’s just discovered The Strokes.
It’s entirely likely that Orson Welles got this whole mockumentary thing started when he directed a radio play of War of the Worlds on Oct. 30, 1938. Clearly a fan of misinformation and ideas of authenticity, as evidenced in his final film, F is for Fake, Welles literally generated a national panic with his Mercury Radio broadcast. It’s a testament to the sophistication of the modern audience, and more importantly, the cynicism that pervades contemporary culture, that widespread hoaxes like Welles’ are few and far between. Below are ten of my favorite (in no particular order) mockumentaries. The noticeable absence of Christopher Guest and/or Spinal Tap is probably pretty glaring. Rob Reiner’s movie is brilliant and hilarious and much of what it morphed into, in the filmography of Guest, has distinctly funny moments, but it’s that self-congratulatory, pseudo-improvised schtick that has become so stale as to make it perfectly palatable for the aforementioned sitcoms, online webisodic banalities, and Sonic commercials. I decided to leave it all out completely.
- Punishment Park – Shot during the Kent State riots, a scathing account of a Nixonian dissent-suppression program where political prisoners compete in a deadly game of Capture the Flag in a dry lake bed somewhere in the Mojave. Paranoid and hysterical until you realize things like this are done all the time. By our own government.
- Forgotten Silver – Peter Jackson’s made-for-TV biography of unknown silent film genius and Kiwi Colin McKenzie and his costly, heartbreaking attempts to mount an epic production of Salome deep in the mountains of New Zealand. Features a great performance by Leonard Maltin… as Leonard Maltin.
- Zelig – One of Woody Allen’s best, if most unappreciated, films. In a pastiche of black-and-white newsreels and historical re-enactments, it tells the story of human chameleon Leonard Zelig, an odd, little man who possesses the ability to take on the characteristics of any personality that surrounds him.
- Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America – A crazed, fever dream as satire. Craig Baldwin’s rapid-fire epic digs deep into the forcible intervention of the CIA into developing Latin American countries even as it critiques conspiracy theories and crackpot paranoia. This is what Alex Jones sounds like after he’s smoked a bowl.
- Hard Core Logo – Bruce McDonald gets a pair of brilliant performances from Callum Keith Rennie as Billy Tallent and Hugh Dillon as Joe Dick in this ultimately sad, always angry ode to the early days of punk. McDonald completed a sequel in 2010 in which Joe Dick is reincarnated as the lead singer of Die Mannequin. Oops, spoiler alert.
- David Holzman’s Diary – Pretty remarkable that in 1967, Jim McBride could perfectly foreshadow our current vainglorious love of reality TV, iPhone video, and selfies. His film is a meandering, autobiographical intrusion into the life of an exhibitionist and those closest to the exhibitionist, which calls into question both the “auto” and the “biographical” parts of that word.
- Real Life – Albert Brooks had directed several shorts for Saturday Night Live in the 70’s, all focused on his self-absorbed persona. This is exactly where Real Life, a direct sendup of PBS’s An American Family, picks up. Brooks plays himself as a hopelessly out-of-his-depth narcissist, saddled with an increasingly complicated documentary project.
- The Rutles: All You Need is Cash – The omission of This is Spinal Tap is softened by the inclusion of the film that clearly beget it. Created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes, The Rutles (The Prefab Four) were a specific parody of the Beatles, all the way down to their songs and albums, and the film is a “behind the music” profile of the fictional band.
- The Falls – The best thing about seeing Peter Greenaway’s The Falls—a 3-hour excerpt of entries from a directory of victims of the (unexplained) Violent Unknown Event—live in a theater is watching the weeding-out process as viewers suddenly realize what they’re in for. It takes some endurance but it’s worth it.
- Incident at Loch Ness – The film has Werner Herzog, another filmmaker fond of notions of authenticity, playing himself in a clumsy, comical search for the Loch Ness Monster. Maybe it’s because Herzog is the subject, but it’s impossible to watch without at some point thinking of Burden of Dreams, the “real” documentary Les Blank made about the making of Fitzcarraldo.
And some honorable mentions…
- Society of the Spectacle – Guy Debord’s part treatise/part pop culture mashup.
- Man Bites Dog – A fly-on-the-wall glimpse of a Belgian serial killer’s daily life.
- Stereo – Cronenberg’s first feature, which I have yet to see it in its entirety.
- My Winnipeg – More of a “docu-fantasia,” according to Guy Maddin.
- Being Michael Madsen – Was Madsen responsible for the death of an actress?
Sure to be a divisive list but what list isn’t? Also, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a shameless self-promoter if I neglected to mention that the Kickstarter campaign for From the Gut is still going strong and still needs your help. Please contribute here.