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Home / Articles / ∑ Archive / Arts & Entertainment /  The Art of the Cinematic Put-On
Arts & Entertainment

The Art of the Cinematic Put-On

When movies attempt to fake you up.

By MaryAnn Johanson
Posted // June 11,2007 -

Borat isn’t quite a real fake documentary, and An Inconvenient Truth 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. Whether you need a dose of fake reality because you can’t deal with the sorry state of contemporary fake entertainment pretending to be real (see: Survivor) or because you’re lamenting the sorrier state of contemporary reality we wish was fake (see: stolen elections; Iraq), you’ll want to check these films out.

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Brothers of the Head, from makers of real documentaries Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, is a fascinating if flawed “exposť” of that one-hit-wonder freak-show musical act from the 1970s, 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 elements 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.

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Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story goes even further down a twisty self-referential rabbit hole. It’s half an adaptation of the 18th-century novel, starring the brilliant British comedian Steve 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 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.

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Equally daring in a different direction is C.S.A.: Confederate States of America, by Kevin Willmott. Presented as a made-for-British television documentary told from a contemporary perspective, it addresses the North American nation’s 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 slave owner’s chattel contented enough not to run away. As funny as it is provocative, this is a startling film on every level.

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Even funnier and just as confrontational is Death & Texas, a 2004 festival darling from writer/director Kevin DiNovis. This brisk, wickedly pointed mockumentary about football and American justice gets more sly as it clips along. The Mega Bowl is rapidly approaching, and one of the teams 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. 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 best, an audacious indictment of the superficiality of American public discourse.

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For sheer fun done in the Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) style, skip Blackballed, the “true” story a would-be paintball champion (unless you’re a big fan of The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry, who stars). Instead, 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? The shocking truth about these nerds is revealed here, but you’ve already guessed the obvious'that these puppies are worth way more if they’re still in their original, pristine subzero state.

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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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