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Monday, November 5, 2007

Reel Life (originally published 8/99)

One of the rarest movie subgenres around is the faux documentary. These are films that look, sound, feel, and act like documentaries despite being based on fiction rather than on fact. It's a clever device, but bringing it off successfully is harder than it looks, which may account for the relative scarcity of such films.

This year, however, we have not one but two faux documentaries playing in theaters simultaneously. "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and "The Blair Witch Project" could hardly be more different in most respects, and yet under the skin they are cinematic first cousins in that they both present themselves as documents of actual events. If you're curious to see how earlier filmmakers have made use of this offbeat format, look for these titles on home video.

"The War Game" (1967). British filmmaker Peter Watkins was commissioned by the BBC to produce an informational film on the possible effects of nuclear warfare. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, Watkins decided to create a mock documentary showing the aftermath of an "actual" nuclear attack on Britain. The result was so disturbing that the BBC decided not to air it. Fortunately, the film was eventually released theatrically and can now be seen on video.

"All You Need Is Cash" (1978). Monty Python alumni Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Neil Innes teamed up with "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels to create the definitive spoof of The Beatles. This extremely clever film manages simultaneously to satirize the career of the Beatles and to parody the existing documentaries about them. The amazing cast includes former "Saturday Night Live" regulars Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, as well as guest appearances by Paul Simon and Mick Jagger as themselves. The film purports to document the career of a phenomenally successful British pop band called "The Rutles."

"Zelig" (1983). One of the most elaborately produced and creative faux documentaries is this Woody Allen film which looks at the (fictional) life of Leonard Zelig, a man whose craving for acceptance was so strong that he actually took on the characteristics of anyone with whom he happened to be. This phenomenon went beyond merely imitating the speech patterns and mannerisms of others. Zelig would actually begin to look like other people as he spent more time with them, thereby earning himself a reputation as "the human chameleon." Allen cleverly weaves Zelig into actual documentary footage, pioneering a technique that would later be taken to another level by "Forrest Gump" (1994).

"This Is Spinal Tap" (1984). Rob Reiner's spoof of the rock and roll documentary form is less focused than "All You Need Is Cash," in that it doesn't satirize any particular band. "Spinal Tap" is a fictional group that could be based on any or all of a dozen heavy metal bands. Knowing that he had a cast with first-rate comedic instincts - Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer - Reiner encouraged them to improvise, a technique which further added to the documentary feel of the film. Reiner appears in the film as the fictional documentary filmmaker, playing the part absolutely straight. This makes the film funnier than it would have been if he had overtly acknowledged the silliness of the people he's building his film around.

There's one other film I should recommend in this connection. Strictly speaking, it isn't a faux documentary, but it is a film about the making of a fictional documentary. It's called "Real Life" (1979), an early Albert Brooks comedy in which Brooks plays a Hollywood producer attempting to completely chronicle the life of an actual American family. His cameras follow them around day and night capturing both public and private moments. Although it may sound like a comic precursor to MTV's "The Real World," this was actually a parody of a famous PBS documentary about the Louds, a real family whose daily life was chronicled in "Real World" fashion. The subsequent breakup of the Loud family was held by some to be directly attributable to the constant scrutiny of the cameras. This power of the documentary camera to cause mischief by its very presence, so effectively satirized by Brooks, may well prove to be far scarier than any horrors the Blair Witch can perpetrate.

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