mockumentaries and the art of the cinematic put-on

Borat isn’t quite a real fake documentary, and An Inconvenient Truthjust out on DVD — is a real documentary that some folks would prefer to think is fake, but the mockumentary — “mock” sometimes meaning merely “phony,” but almost always also “making fun of” — is alive and doing very well on the DVD shelf, even as the master of the form, Christopher Guest, has abandoned it, if perhaps only temporarily. (His new For Your Consideration is not, as you may been accidentally misled to believe, done in the documentary style.) Whether you need a dose of fake reality because you can’t deal with the sorry state of contemporary entertainment, half of which is fakeness pretending to be real (see: Survivor), or because you’re lamenting the sorrier state of contemporary reality, the real we wish was fake (see: stolen elections; Iraq quagmire), you’ll want to check these films out.
Brothers of the Head, just out on DVD in November from makers of real documentaries Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, is a fascinating if flawed “exposé” of the bitter “truths” behind that one-hit-wonder freak-show musical act from the 70s, the Howe brothers. They’re conjoined twins, and they rock hard — they just about invented punk, if you can “believe” it — but the most intriguing aspect of the film are the snippets of Ken Russell’s surrealistic unfinished film about the brothers. That’s fake, too, and it adds an additional level of real unreality to the endeavor. [buy at Amazon]

Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story takes even more chances and goes even further down a twisty self-referential rabbit hole. Actor Steve Coogan, the brilliant British comedian, describes the book on which it’s based as “a postmodern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about”… and he offers that description here in the film itself, which is half adaptation of the 18th-century novel, starring Coogan as Shandy, and half behind-the-scenes making-of Michael Winterbottom’s film version of the supposedly unadaptable novel. Between the lively discussions among the cast and crew about how best to bring the book to the screen, the attempts to demonstrate visually the witty meta-ness of the book — the idea to shove Coogan, as Shandy, into a giant womb turns into one of the film’s sly highlights — and the “actual,” hilarious dramatizations of scenes from the book, this is one of the cleverest deconstructions and modernizations of a work of classic literature cinema has ever achieved. [buy at Amazon]

Equally daring, if in a different direction, is C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, by filmmaker Kevin Willmott. This is a “British documentary,” told from a contemporary perspective, about the North American nation and its longstanding practice of black slavery, which has endured into the 21st century after the North lost the Civil War back in the 19th. Talking heads, interviews with politicians, even a bit of election-eve scandal… they’re all here. But what gives the film an extra kick of coldly chilling authenticity are the “commercials” that regularly interrupt the movie, for products like Prozac-style drugs that will keep a slaverowner’s chattel contented enough not to run away. As funny as it is provocative, this is a startling film on every level. [buy at Amazon]

Even funnier and just as confrontational is Death & Texas, a 2004 festival darling from writer/director Kevin DiNovis. This brisk and wickedly pointed mockumentary about football and American ideas of justice gets more sly as it clips along. The Mega Bowl is rapidly approaching, and one of the teams barreling right toward the big game suddenly loses a vital player to injury. The coach’s solution? Get legendary wide receiver “Barefoot” Bobby Briggs (Steve Harris) back on the squad. The snag? He’s on death row for his part in a convenience-store robbery-murder. His lawyer, capital-punishment foe Marshall Ledger (Charles Durning), sees a chance for reprieve for the condemned man — no one would want to execute the guy who defended your state’s honor on the gridiron — but could the outcome of a football game really be a matter of life and death? This is political filmmaking at its very best, an audacious indictment of the superficiality of American public discourse. [buy at Amazon]

For sheer fun done in the Christopher Guest style, skip Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story, the “true” tale a would-be paintball champion (unless you’re a big fan of The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry, who stars) and check out NBT: Never Been Thawed, from Sean Anders. You’ve heard about geeks who collect all sorts of weird things, but frozen TV dinners? Yup — all the shocking truth about these nerds is revealed here, but you’ve already guessed the obvious, right? These puppies are worth way more if they’re still in their original, pristine subzero state. [buy at Amazon]

Of course they are. That is, sometimes, the beauty of the mockumentary: it tells us things we didn’t know we already knew were true.

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