Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Clarification Post

I had always planned to write another post to straighten out that last one. The previous post was written in the heat of passion, fueled by YouTube shorts that stirred a fierce self-loathing. It may go too far in condemning all mockumentaries. But I wanted to capture the intensity of my emotions in the moment.

It all started when I received a nice comment on "American Shopper" by another YouTube user who directed me to a "Christopher Guest-style" movie of his own. This was "Galerie X," which you can probably find a link to from the "American Shopper" page. You can look if you want, but unless you have a fascination with junk videos like I do, there's no point. It's about a guy with an accent who has what he fancies an "art gallery," except it just has a bunch of random stuff in it he calls art, like magazine advertisements on the wall or a roll of tape on the floor or a bike in the corner. There is also, oddly, one actual painting, although he wildly overvalues it at millions of dollars. In a prolonged scene, he buys a bunch of wine, and in another, a woman comes to the gallery and hates everything while he tries to convince her it's great. Anyway, it's all drawn-out and witless, the dialogue is hard to hear, the long takes go on forever with no point, and his cluelessness is so heavy-handed that it's not a joke, it's just stupid. Even I only skipped through the interminable fifteen minutes of it.

Next I watched "The Mentionables," ostensibly a mockumentary about a group of health class guest speakers, but really an excuse for three different guys to channel Ben Stiller. The first guy is briefly funny as he tricks the class into believing he's missing an arm, and the second guy has a good joke when he explains that he became a ninja, but they were out of nunchucks: "So I bought this," he says, suddenly pulling a huge revolver. But otherwise, it's completely tiresome and lame, and they totally capture the Ben Stiller thing of thinking they're hilarious.

At this point I was still thinking that I had a couple of things going for me. One was that my mockumentary was not so obnoxiously smug and patronizing toward my main character. Unlike the gallery owner or the crazed health class speakers, my champion grocery shopper is not some idiot. Within the world of the movie, average shoppers all seem to admire him and his legendary status, though it's unclear why. The joke rests in the absurdity of it all, rather than in offering the audience a smug sense of superiority.

Then there was "Railrunners," about a guy who likes to run on railroad tracks. He claims to have run the Chunnel. "Isn't that dangerous?" the interviewer asks. And that was a pretty silly idea but the video lost my interest fast, while reminding me that an absurd premise doesn't necessarily make your mockumentary any better.

Besides, people who watched my video probably wouldn't even think about it as much as I did for the paragraph above. In fact, when I first showed it around, some people thought it should have more reactions from people who thought the champion shopper was weird or lame. To me, that spoils it, because the joke that he is deluded seems too easy. I preferred that he inexplicably existed in a world where being "good at shopping" meant something. But honestly I doubt if anyone else would look at it that way.

After all this and more, I found myself hating all the people who put their lazy homemade mockumentaries online, and despite my own rationalizations, in fairness I couldn't exempt myself from the hate. Hence the virulent post below.

I did find one good mockumentary: "Rory Fielding" is well-made, doesn't overstay its welcome, and freshens the format with a delightfully overcomplicated premise.

On Christopher Guest movies: Honestly, I'm not that crazy about them. I think they're okay. Obviously they're trailblazers in the mockumentary genre, so they were creating the formula long before it was hacky, and they have very talented casts. Still, they are sullied somewhat by the current wave of lazy mockumentaries, which function as sort of unintentional parodies by taking everything that's bad about decent mockumentaries and magnifying them a hundredfold, so that it will become impossible to watch a Christopher Guest movie without focusing on the simplistic condescension that lies at the heart of every joke. But really, it's probably not as bad as all that, because only people like me will actually bother to watch the shit on YouTube.

I have not seen A Mighty Wind, but my favorite Christopher Guest moment is not in any of the actual movies. It's in the deleted scenes from Waiting for Guffman. Now, the condescension in Guffman actually kind of turns me off. It's not just about deluded people, but about deluded actors who think they're very talented when they aren't. The fact that they are all played by very talented actors just makes it feel like the whole movie is successful talented people mocking unsuccessful, untalented people. It's like a mockumentary starring people with working legs making fun of people in wheelchairs (That's gold, YouTube members--run with it!).

But anyway, my favorite part is in the deleted scene where Fred Willard is re-enacting a baseball play with Catherine O'Hara, forcing her to pitch for him, and she's hung over and clearly loathing it, but he's so into telling the camera about this great play that he doesn't notice at all, and it ends with him hitting the ball way across the yard, and she trudges off to retrieve it and it's incredibly sad and uncomfortable, and really a total downer of a scene. But it's so dark and it goes so far it's hilarious. It gets past the glibness on the surface of the movie and really exposes the ugliness underneath. It reminds us that these people are not just so sad it's funny, they're so sad it's not funny. And oddly, that makes it simultaneously the meanest, funniest, and most human moment of the movie--except it wasn't in the movie.

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