Documentary Appreciation Salon Wrap-Up and Reflections “Mockumentary v. Documentary”
by Josh Glick, Yale University
On June 14, educators, filmmakers, and documentary enthusiasts gathered at the red brick Silver Spring Docs In Progress Documentary House for a lively Documentary Appreciation Salon conversation I facilitated about the origins of the “mockumentary,” its relationship to fiction, and its potential critical power.
Before launching into the screening of specific films, we began by sketching some broad definitions. “Mockumentary,” as the “mock” prefix implies, is the mischievous twin of the documentary. Drawing on mobile, hand-hand cameras, voice-over narration, interviews, and other stylistic tropes of the documentary toolbox, mockumentaries are essentially fictions, seeking to satirize the depicted event or character for an analytic or rhetorical purpose. At the same time, mockumentaries often parody the tenets of documentary form and technique, calling attention to the ways that documentaries (and films in general) are constructions involving a negotiation between filmmakers, equipment, and subject matter, rather than a technological process that offers unmediated access to “the real.”
As mockumentaries have hardly existed as a static form or for one unified purpose, what followed in the Documentary Appreciation Salon was a dialogue about different kinds of film within the broad generic framework.
Starting with This Is Spinal Tap (1984) made natural sense. It was in reviews of this film that the term “mock-documentary” and then “mockumentary” began to surface in the mainstream press, which in turn helped push the phrase into the pop culture lexicon. Spinal Tap presents itself as a “rockumentary,” offering an all-access look at an aging British rock band’s less-than-spectacular return tour in the United States. Shaky footage of roadies unloading sound gear out of trucks, interviews with the band conducted by director Rob Reiner, and shots of the group’s high-energy music performances recall “behind the scenes” cinéma vérité-style concert documentaries of years past such as Don’t Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), and Woodstock (1970). However, the exaggerated quality of the band’s on-stage antics, their circular and ridiculous testimony (which range from ruminations about the mysterious deaths of their drummers to their techno-obsessions with amplified noise) subverted any sense of penetrating insight in the lives of Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls, Mick Shrimpton, and Viv Savage. Instead, the characters’ outrageous self-presentations serve as a form of humorous evaluation of the pomposity of male rock stars during this period, their inflated personas, and the way they were so often idolized within the rock documentary itself.
Spinal Tap certainly had some immediate predecessors such as Real Life (Albert Brooks, 1979) and Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983); however, the clever re-working of documentary form had been occurring for decades. Turning back the clock for our second major clip of the evening, we took a look at Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane. The boy wonder of interwar American theater, radio, and cinema, Welles could indeed lay claim to serving as one of the great “mockumentarians” of Classical-era Hollywood.
Citizen Kane opens with a satirical newsreel that announces the death of the film’s protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, and sets the film’s plot locomotive in motion. The News on the March sequence boasts a laundry list of non-fiction characteristics that would have signaled “newsreel” to viewers at the time: powerful voice-of-God narration, short, declarative intertitles, and on-location perspectives of public gatherings. However, as the participants of Doc Salon discussed, Welles made the Kane figure into a rather grotesque caricature, in turn taking more than a slight jab at the film’s real-world referent, the dictatorial media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
The Hearst-like Kane (played by Welles himself) appears reckless, power-hungry, and buffoonish, a figure who dies entombed in his own fortress of wealth. Additionally, the tension between News On the March’s
ostensibly authoritative and cohesive account of Kane, and the rather ambiguous and contradictory nature of the Kane character— simultaneously a “communist,” “fascist,” and an “American,” points to an additional criticism of the inadequacy of the mainstream commercial newsreel. News On the March’s streamlined and bombastic qualities, like those of Time Magazine’s March of Time series and the Hearst empire’s own Hearst Metrotone, fail to rigorously engage and elucidate the complexity of the film’s subject.
Jumping into the 21st century for a radically different context for mockumentary media, our concluding example was an excerpt from the groundbreaking British comedy series The Office (2001-2003). Masterminded by Ricky Gervais, the series tracks the day-to-day interactions of employees of the fictional Wernham Hogg Paper Company through observational documentary-style cinematography and interviews. The program’s premise and techniques of representation seem appropriate for our contemporary cultural moment, where discipline-through-surveillance and reality television are pervasive and wide-reaching phenomena. But The Office is not just reflective of these phenomena, but invested in their critique; every assignment, meeting, or professional interaction on the show offers an opportunity for rebellion; characters relish in skewering the conventions of “office etiquette,” and elevate the act of “slacking off” to new artistic heights. At the same time, the show’s documentary aesthetic creates intimate stages for comedy. Interviews provide a standup-style form of address between character and viewer, and the candid camera-style shots throughout each episode capture moments of tightly framed repartee.
The Office’s nonfiction feel testifies to the broader influence of documentary on fiction formats—an influence that speaks to a range of economic, technological, and social factors. But just as documentary has seeped into the fabric of fiction filmmaking at an accelerated rate, members of the Documentary Appreciation Salon noted how the exchange also flows the other way; words such as “story,” “narrative arc,” “emotion” and “character,” appear with increasing frequency within the conceptual vocabulary of documentarians, institutional funders, and programming executives. Perhaps the relationship between contemporary documentary and the creative challenges and opportunities of narrative craft could serve as the focus of another Docs in Progress Documentary Appreciation Salon…
Some Important Mockumentaries:
Land Without Bread (Louis Buñuel, 1933)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)
Real Life (Albert Brookes, 1979)
Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983)
This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1992)
Fear of a Black Hat (Rusty Condieff, 1994)
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez,1997)
The Office (2001, Versions made around the world)
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (Kevin Willmott, 2004)
Images and clips from films used under Fair Use Guidelines.