Sunday, September 12, 2010

Day 157: “What does it all mean Corky?”

Enough now with the mockumentaries, let’s have some originality and be done with the mimicry.

The mockumentary is a sub-genre of the über-genre that is comedy, a sub-genre that pulls the pants down on documentary films and makes genteel, yet acerbic, fun at their expense. For my money, there are two proponents of this style of comedy that sit head and shoulders above the rest: Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais, one pioneered the mockumentary film and the other picked up the baton of cringe and carried it onto television.

Christopher Guest (Christopher Haden-Guest, 5th Baron Haden-Guest, husband of Jamie Lee Curtis) and his actors ensemble, came to the fore and delivered probably the first important popular piece of mockumentary filmmaking, in the form of This Is Spinal Tap (1984). This Is Spinal Tap satirises the lifestyles and career of the archetypal heavy metal band and it’s individual members, achieving a cult status then and historical film significance now, deemed so by the US Library of Congress.

Christopher Guest and his repertory group - Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Ed. Begley Jnr and many others - championed this comedic style, but it was over ten years later before their follow-up piece, Waiting For Guffman (1996).

“Guffman” is a legendary film, a tour-de-comedic force, that brought us the King Lear of mockumentary characters, Cork St. Clair. Set in the fictitious mid-western town of Blaine, Waiting For Guffman is a parody of the world of “am-dram” (amateur dramatics) and follows the journey of a local musical group, led by the director and impresario Corky, as they put together the show ‘Red, White and Blaine’, to celebrate the town’s 150th anniversary.

As in Christopher Guest’s other films - Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration - most of the dialogue is born out of improvisation, created by the cast of usual suspects, that in For Your Consideration, includes Ricky Gervais.

In 2002, a friend ofd mine returned from the UK clutching a gift for me, which was the dvd of the first series of The Office. The friend, who I hadn’t seen for some moments since they had been living over there, almost brushed aside catch-up conversation in her eagerness to play the dvd of this television series that she was familiar with but I was yet to experience. My memory tells me that we watched the six episodes straight through, marvelling at the Hamlet of mockumentary that is David Brent.

I think that Ricky Gervais, his writing partner Stephen Merchant, and their cast, take what Christopher Guest had pioneered and built on it. The Office is familiar territory to me, I’ve worked in places not dissimilar to Wernham Hogg, in an building not a stone’s through from Slough. I think I’ve been every male character in the show from Finchy to Tim to Neil to David Brent Himself, but I maybe draw the line at Gavin? Oh alright, I surrender, I’ve been Gavin.....but it was only for a minute. I have to watch The Office from behind the sofa, that’s how excruciatingly close to reality I find it !!

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant carried on their run of skill and satire, backing up The Office with Extras, a television series that pokes fun at the role of the film and TV extra, and, in the case of Andy Millman (Gervais), his rise and rise up from the lowly ranks.

But, back to where I started off. Everything I’ve read and sought out about both Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais tells me of the work and craft that these two men and their collaborators applied to their art in an effort to produce the seminal work that they both/all did. Now, if I see ONE MORE mockumentary that just MIMICS the stylising of the work that these guys pioneered, I’ll hold my breath until I turn purple or shoot something or someone. Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais were groundbreaking because they were original in what they did. Knocking out a film, television series or short film that is chock-a-block with furtive, knowing sideways looks to the camera by awkward characters does NOT constitute mockumentary. It’s mimicry, not originality; it’s like watching one of Corky’s ensemble do an impression of an actor playing a Shakespearian role..... only difference is that under Christopher Guest’s stewardship, that would be funny. Did that comparison hold any water?

Day #157 Tip: Be original
In his book ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’, screenwriting craftsman, William Goldman, says this: “An original screenplay? Nothing to it, really. Just come up with a new and fresh and different story that builds logically to a satisfying and surprising conclusion (because Art, as we know all know, needs to be both surprising and inevitable).”

Maybe I’m, being a little unfair here in that I’m invoking William Goldman on originality of ideas whilst criticising mockumentary makers for unoriginality of genre form? Perhaps I’m comparing apples with pears, perhaps not? It’s just that my TV here in Australia (I can’t speak for anywhere else) is awash with mockumentaries, as are the piles of short films that I look through in my judging capacity every January; and I’m just not laughing anymore. Is it because the practitioners in this field are leaning on the conventions of the sub-genre too much?

Be that as it may, maybe it’s the word “fresh” in William Goldman’s quote that is worth our consideration and contemplation at depth. We are all writing in well-trodden genres and I’m the first to espouse the use of genre conventions, but it’s how we make our Crime, Horror. Love, War, Sci-Fi, Arthouse, Western, Indie, Action film conventions fresh that matters. When the treating of a genre is fresh and the story is original, then no one is left looking at the conventions.

Worship the tea, not the teapot.

And to answer the question of “What does it all mean Corky?” “It means...we’re all going to Broadway!”

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