Documentaries have been around almost since the beginning of film itself (Nanook of the North being a notable example). After all, sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction, and can therefore still be entertaining. However, there are cases in which you can make fiction look an awful lot like the truth. Because the style of the documentary has been refined over the years, it comes to reason that the formula can be used in a manner befitting parody. Of course, the flip side is that the formula can be used to pretend to capture the life of someone who doesn’t really exist, because who in their right minds would actually film the life of a serial killer? The “fake documentary” (or “mockumentary” for short) is now merely a hybrid of the true documentary form used to capture the lives of people who don’t actually exist. This week’s two films highlight some mockumentaries at the top of their form.
This is Spinal Tap
Length: 82 minutes / 1.37 hours
When Rob Reiner made This is Spinal Tap, he defined the fake documentary as a form of parody. Up until this point, most people took the documentary genre at its face value, trusting that everything in it was true. This caused a bit of trouble when audiences eventually found out that Spinal Tap was not, in fact, an actual band at all, but merely a work of fiction. Even more amusing was that some of the top names in rock and roll didn’t get the joke. Many of them swore that Reiner made the film about their band, even though the entire story was fabricated. This is Spinal Tap captures the rock and roll lifestyle so well that even today many bands will inadvertently perform some action made famous by the film, at which point it is said that they are being “very Spinal Tap.”
Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) is a huge fan of British hair-metal band “Spinal Tap”, and has taken it upon himself as an amateur director to document their American tour to promote their new album. Unfortunately, since the band is not used to having a camera follow them around, it captures many mishaps. Getting lost backstage, internal strife based off a band member’s girlfriend (a la Yoko Ono and The Beatles), trouble with the promoters and label representatives, dwindling attendance at their gigs (along with some absurd locations). All of these failures show the band unraveling, not to mention the rate at which they go through drummers (one of which spontaneously combusts). And yet, when a model of Stonehenge comes back about twelve times smaller than planned, due to a mix-up between feet and inches, it almost undoubtedly spells the end of Spinal Tap. However, things always seem bigger in Japan . . .
Man Bites Dog
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours
While This is Spinal Tap coined the phrase “Turn it up to 11”, Man Bites Dog is based off of another common idiom. Newspapers would rarely print a story about a dog biting a man, but if the rare occurrence of a man biting a dog were to happen, it would make headlines. This mockumentary takes that mentality and highlights it to the extreme. Those who regularly watch the news would find that the world is filled with murders and violence, which just happens to be the “Man Bites Dog” mentality of the media. However, in this film we follow a documentary crew as they capture the life of a serial killer, thereby making these rare occurrences the majority of the plot. Fortunately, this is a mockumentary, otherwise the thought of people willingly videotaping a madman commit crimes like this would easily be a “Man Bites Dog” scenario.
Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde) is a serial killer and thief who loves to show the camera crew the finer points of his craft. While he waxes eloquent on any number of subjects, he kills old ladies and steals their life savings. As the audience gets a deeper understanding of this man’s madness, the camera crew get more and more involved with the crimes. In an abandoned building, the crew comes along another camera crew who is also documenting another serial killer. A shootout ensues, which kills their sound man (which had been steadily happening throughout the film, similar to This is Spinal Tap‘s expendable drummers). The documentary crew remains far from objective and eventually just become accessories for a deplorable man’s way of life.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 fake documentaries