The Mockumentary: The Long and Short of It

No doubt about it, This Is Spinal Tap was one of funniest movies of the eighties. Why stop there? I’d say it’s one of the funniest movies ever! Written by and starring, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner (who also directed), This Is Spinal Tap is the story of an up-and-down rock band across two decades. Often referred to as just Spinal Tap, its actual full title is This is Spinal Tap®: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi. Although its title calls it a This Is Spinal Tap“rockumentary,” this is the first movie that I recall being referred to as a “mockumentary,” as Reiner described it in contemporary interviews. The term, which surprisingly dates to the mid-sixties, conjoins the words “mock” and “documentary” to describe a work that parodies a subject via a distinct filmic style. This is Spinal Tap parodies metal bands that take themselves too seriously, while simultaneously poking fun at the documentary process itself.

The origins of the mockumentary are unclear. The seeds of the style date back at least to the 1950s, when variety shows would often use sketch comedy to lampoon current topics and public figures.  For instance, early television innovator Steve Allen – on the appropriately titled The Steve Allen Show – staged fake interviews with members of his comedy troupe for the ongoing “Man in the Street” segments. He also created a send-up of NBC’s nightly network news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which in his hands became “The Nutley-Hinkley Report.”

The difference between parody and mockumentary is that the latter takes it a step or two further. Whereas a parody is executed with the performers giving a literal or figurative wink at the audience indicating that they’re fully in on the joke, a mockumentary is carried out with straight faces, requiring the viewer to determine where the humor is contained. Mockumentaries are also created by copying a specific filming style that, in some cases, blurs the lines between truth and fiction even more.  In fact, upon the release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, some people thought that Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was an actual documentary.

A Hard Day's NightPerhaps the first film that can be categorized as a mockumentary is director Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which seemingly records events occurring over a few days in the life of The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Four years later, satirist Pat Paulsen, a regular on TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, launched a mock presidential campaign as a running gag on the show. Paulsen, with his usual deadpan delivery, used lies, double-talk, and attacks on other candidates, to poke fun at the campaign process. It culminated in his own TV-movie, Pat Paulsen for President, which was narrated by iconic actor Henry Fonda! That mostly-forgotten program, however, provided the blueprint for the mockumentary format.

Stand-up comedian Woody Allen directed his feature-length debut in 1969 with Take the Money and Run, which documented the story of bungling bank robber Virgil Starkwell. Allen returned Real Lifeto the style twice later in his career: 1983’s Zelig and 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. In 1978, Monty Python’s Eric Idle wrote and co-directed The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a send-up of The Beatles. Idle also starred as one of the members of the imaginary rock band (fellow Python Michael Palin also had a supporting role), while much of the extended cast was made up of Saturday Night Live players. Albert Brooks, who has his own SNL connection and is sometimes called “The West Coast Woody Allen,” made his directorial debut, like Allen, with a mockumentary. In 1979’s Real Life: An American Comedy, Brooks drew direct inspiration from PBS’ pioneering 1973 documentary series An American Family.

Since helping to popularize the comedy subgenre with This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to create a cottage industry of sorts with a continuing line of mockumentaries. Guest Waiting for Guffmandirected, co-wrote (with co-star Eugene Levy), and starred in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, 2000’s Best in Show,  and 2003’s A Mighty Wind. Those films took on the subjects of small-town community theater productions, upscale dog shows, and folk music, respectively. Although they are not blockbuster hits, they have a proven audience, and all have received critical plaudits.

The biggest sleeper hit of 2006 was probably writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The story of a supposed Kazakh TV reporter who is sent to the United States to make a documentary about American life and culture, however, drew criticism from several quarters. Baron Cohen, a TV star in his native England, was able to dupe countless Americans into believing his cover story, making many of them look incredibly foolish in their filmed interviews.

The OfficeDespite the success of Guest’s films and of Baron Cohen’s film, the use of the mockumentary style has mostly shifted to TV sitcoms in recent years. The first to use it to great success was the original, British version of The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, which ran from 2001-2003. To date, it has spawned additional versions in seven other countries:  The United States, France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden. The American version of The Office debuted in March 2005 and was an immediate hit.  It ran for nine seasons, propelled several cast members to stardom, and received six nominations for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, winning once.

You might think that The Office would have become so identified with the mockumentary style that no other television show producers would dare use it again so soon. Surprisingly, that Parks & Recreationdidn’t prove to be the case, at all. In 2009, two more mockumentary sitcoms debuted – and both also found success!  NBC’s Parks and Recreation bowed in April of that year and recently began its sixth season, having been nominated once for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. ABC’s Modern Family, premiered in September 2009, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series each of its first four seasons. Apparently, the mockumentary is a comedic style that Americans just aren’t tiring of quickly.

Mockumentary, parody, straight comedy, or otherwise, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of movie and TV series titles from which to choose. DVDs rent for $2.00 apiece, checkout for one week, and no longer have a limit other than the fifty-item overall limit. Come in and checkout as many as you can carry!


Black and White Movies: A Grey Area

Sometime last fall, I took one of my sons to see director Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it was that it was in black and white. That’s striking because it’s an extremely rare occurrence for an animated film to be released that way. Frankenweenie came out one week after Hotel Transylvania, a
Frankenweeniesimilarly horror-themed cartoon. Despite Burton’s name recognition, Frankenweenie was absolutely trounced at the box office by Hotel Transylvania, which didn’t seem to receive half the pre-release publicity of the Burton film. Both films, surprisingly, receive the same exact viewer rating on at 7.1/10. So why did one do so much better than the other in drawing moviegoers? Did it matter that one of those two lacked color?

Whenever I read a demographic study of viewing habits stating that young viewers automatically surf past channels playing something in black and white, I get a little depressed. That’s because literally hundreds of big screen masterpieces and dozens of small screen classics were shot in black and white, and are no lesser for it. Anyone who dismisses everything produced in black and white out of hand is cutting her/himself off from many rewarding viewing experiences. I suppose that such viewers just assume that anything in black and white is therefore old and automatically unrelatable to their own experience. Well, that strikes me as fallacious reasoning, as great art – whatever the format – is, by definition, timeless.

So, why do many viewers entirely disregard black and white photography? Sure, there are many old movies and TV series that are just plain bad and likely not worth your time, but isn’t that also true of many new movies and TV series? I suggest that choice of film stock shouldn’t be a make or break attribute in judging the overall effectiveness The Artistof a given title any more so than aspect ratio (so-called full frame vs. widescreen, for instance), language (locally spoken, silent or foreign), editing style (languid takes vs. quick cutting), or do numerous other factors that differentiate films, one from another. A film is a complex weaving of various artistic (and, yes, financial) considerations into a unified whole. The greatest examples cohesively bind many of these choices together, even overcoming one, or more deficiencies. Personally, I don’t consider lack of color to be a deficiency, but apparently many people do.

Black and white, in the hands of a great director (let’s not forget the absolutely crucial role that the cinematographer plays here, as well) makes the screen glisten, producing a wondrous sheen not unlike a dream image. I use that comparison quite purposefully, as dream research by the psychiatric community has long stated that a portion of one’s dreams are in black and white (though the amount differs greatly from one person to the next). Additionally, it’s worth noting that in nocturnal situations without artificial lighting, we regularly see everything on a grey scale (whether it‘s a late-evening walk, or waking in one’s bed before sunrise). Many people claim that films in black and white film are lesser than those in color because they are unrealistic, unnatural. We may be living in an increasingly electrified world, but living and dreaming without color is very much part of the natural human experience. And so, making movies in black and white is another way of representing that shared human experience artistically on screen.

The Man Who Wasn't ThereBlack and white film, of course, was perfected first, but numerous attempts were made in the early years to create a lifelike color stock, but with varying results. The first film shot in a successful modern color process was Becky Sharp in 1935, which utilized three-strip Technicolor. At the start, color was a very expensive proposition, meaning that only a few films were chosen each year to receive the color treatment. In the forties, as more color processes were introduced and the cost dropped, an increasing number of films were shot in color. During the fifties, when the motion picture industry was ferociously competing with the television industry for the viewing audience, the percentage of films shot in color annually finally surpassed those made in black and white. As the decade wore on, more and more Hollywood movie studios moved into television production and the two mediums were no longer at such odds.

By the early sixties, the percentage of films made in black and white actually increased to the point that black and white nearly equaled the number of films made in color. At that point, black and white vs. color became less a financial consideration than an artistic one. Once network television went to all-color lineups in the mid-sixties, however, the silver screen was forced to follow suit. By 1970, black and white films had become a rarity, generally reserved for extremely low-budget titles.

Raging BullIt’s true that aside from rare, individual episodes, all American network television series have been shot in color for forty-five years. Thus, any black and white TV series is indeed old (relatively speaking, of course), but that’s not necessarily true of movies. Typically, there is a big-budget Hollywood movie filmed in black and white every year, as well as a few low-budget, independent ones. Some of these films include short color sequences or colored special effects, but they remain primarily black and white films. Today, it’s actually more expensive to shoot a film in black and white, as few companies produce the film stock needed, and few labs process it. Any film shot in black and white in the current era is done so purely for artistic reasons.

Since 1970, many of America’s greatest living filmmakers have shot black and white films: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Joel Coen, Darren Aronofsky, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and the aforementioned Tim Burton. Independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has made four black and white movies, but no one has worked in shades of grey more than Woody Allen, who has made seven such works. Clearly, these filmmakers believe that there is an inherent quality in black and white cinematography that’s key to putting over the subject matter of their films.

With that in mind, I now list a dozen outstanding movies made during the past forty years that were very intentionally shot to utilize the artistic value of black and white film (listed in reverse chronological order, with director), all of which are available from the Des Moines Public Library:

The Artist, 2011 – Michel Hazanavicius;

Sin City, 2005 – Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino;

The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001 – Joel Coen;

American History X, 1998 – Tony Kaye;

Ed Wood, 1994 – Tim Burton;

Schindler’s List, 1993 – Steven Spielberg;

The Elephant Man, 1980 – David Lynch;

Raging Bull, 1980 – Martin Scorsese;

Manhattan, 1979 – Woody Allen;

Lenny, 1975 – Bob Fosse;

Young Frankenstein, 1974 – Mel Brooks;

Paper Moon, 1973 – Peter Bogdanovic.