Tag Archives: Mockumentary

347. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

Addio Zio Tom; AKA Farewell Uncle Tom

“If you want to be fully convinced of the abominations of slavery, go on a southern plantation, and call yourself a negro trader. Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls.”–Harriet Ann Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian

PLOT: A helicopter flies over a cotton field being worked by slaves in the antebellum south; two unseen men enter a plantation, and the matron of the family introduces them as “Italian journalists” performing an “inquest” into slavery. The time-traveling documentarians then take their camera into a slave ship, follow a slave trader, tour various plantations and slave auctions, and encountering Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Makepeace Thackeray, among other adventures. In a flash-forward, an African-American reads “The Confessions of Nat Turner” on the beach and imagines black militants breaking into white households and killing all the inhabitants with axes.

Still from Goodbye Uncle Tom (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • In the 1960s and pioneered what came to be known as the “mondo” film (after the title of their first movie, 1962’s Mondo Cane [Dog’s World]). These “shockumentaries” documented bizarre behavior around the world, with a heavy emphasis on sex and violence: Cane contained scenes of Asians eating dogs and elderly people passing away in Singapore’s “death hotel.” Their final contribution to the genre was 1966’s Africa Addio, which chronicled turmoil in post-colonial Africa and included several scenes of political prisoners being summarily executed by paramilitary squads (along with footage of slaughtered hippos and elephants). Africa Addio was extremely controversial, and Jacopetti and Prosperi were even accused of racism for making it. Goodbye Uncle Tom, their first fictional film, was a response to those accusations: they wanted to make a movie that was clearly and unambiguously anti-racist, and chose American slavery as their subject.
  • The movie was mainly shot in Haiti, with some locations in the United States, after Brazil and several other countries refused to allow Jacopetti and Prosperi to shoot there due to their bad reputation. Production lasted for two years.
  • The film was recut several times for different markets; in its original American release, the Nat Turner-inspired coda was removed as too incendiary, fearing it might spark copycat murders or riots. (Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke agreed, theorizing that the movie was a Jewish conspiracy to incite a race war.)
  • The film was a financial and critical flop.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Your eye may be stunned by the acres upon acres of nude African flesh in the crowd scenes. We chose to focus on the final image, however; the modern black doctor squeezing the white boy’s beach ball until it pops, his fingers straining with a pent-up century’s worth of tension and rage, grinning maniacally.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plantation helicopter; virgin seductress; afro-massacre

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians, is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity. A time-traveling mockumentary full of rape, degradation, gore, and ambiguous moral outrage, Goodbye Uncle Tom is almost weirder in its conception and backstory than its execution.


An edited trailer for Goodbye Uncle Tom

COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their Continue reading 347. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

322. THE FALLS (1980)

Recommended

“I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself… I like to think of The Falls as my own personal encyclopedia Greenaway-ensis.” -Peter Greenaway

DIRECTED BY:

NARRATED BY: Colin Cantlie, Hilarie Thompson, Martin Burrows, Sheila Canfield, Adam Leys

PLOT: Some years after a “Violent Unknown Event,” the biographies of its survivors whose surnames begin with the letters “F-A-L-L” are filmed and released as one edition in an intended series of documentaries cataloging all those afflicted. The documentary presents ninety-two survivors’ stories, describing their lives in brief and detailing including the (invariably) bizarre symptoms each has suffered from since the Event. The scope of the endeavor and the unreliability of the source material results in the repeated derailment of the flow of information.

Still from The Falls (1980)

BACKGROUND:

  •  Peter Greenaway assembled The Falls over a five-year period from found footage and snippets filmed for other, mostly aborted, projects.
  • Various references to the fictional “Tulse Luper” pertain, indirectly, to Peter Greenaway himself: Luper is Greenaway’s self-made alter-ego.
  • Composer Michael Nyman provided the score for The Falls, marking his second (after the short Vertical Falls Remake) of eleven collaborations with Greenaway. They fell out over the director’s tampering with the composer’s Prospero’s Books recordings.
  • At three hours and fifteen minutes in length, Greenaway never intended the viewer to watch the film in one sitting. Many have done so nonetheless.
  • While The Falls was compiled for a number of reasons, one of its goals was to expand upon what Greenaway considered an unsatisfactory ending for Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds.
  • An early biography features, in photographic form, the twin Quay brothers, who at that time had not yet established themselves as masters of stop-motion animation.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh boy. In a three-plus hour Greenaway opus consisting of hundreds of shots, stills, interviews, and intertitles, this is tougher than usual. Still, I’m leaning toward a striking image that has stuck in my mind even months after watching The Falls. One of the victims of the V.U.E. sings forcefully at the camera to a tune familiar to those who’ve heard Michael Nyman re-working it for the bulk of his career. Among the ninety-two vignettes, she provides perhaps the most disorienting moment, with her staccato operatic performance and brazenly inscrutable expression, illuminated as if she were in a Rembrandt painting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Avian flu; Dreamers of Water, Categories 1 to 3; Sympathetic Tinnitus and other syndromes

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter Greenaway cranks up his love of lists as high as the medium of film can reasonably take him in his first feature. Posing as a documentary assembled by a governmental information bureau, the list of ninety-two “V.U.E.” victims acts both as a long series of (sometimes very short) short stories and as an insanely thought-through running gag. It turns the notion of documentary on its head, undermining the authoritative voiceover and ostensibly pertinent footage (photos, interviews, documents, etc.) through the sheer volume of absurdity, whimsy, and subversive wordplay.


Spectacle Theater’s trailer for The Falls

COMMENTS: With virtually all of his movies, Peter Greenaway Continue reading 322. THE FALLS (1980)

270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”―Henry David Thoreau

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: David Blair

FEATURING: David Blair

PLOT: A “supernatural photographer” and beekeeper searching for evidence of the afterlife buys a hive of rare, disease-resistant Mesopotamian bees. Years later, his grandson Jacob, who works as a software engineer designing flight simulators for warplanes, inherits the insects. The hive gives him visions, then drones pierce his skin and insert a crystal—which allows him to see the bees’ version of television—to direct him in his destiny as a metaphysical assassin.

Still from Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wax took six years to complete and was partially funded with grants from German Public Television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and other private and state charitable endowments.
  • Jacob’s grandfather, James “Hive” Maker, is played by (in a non-speaking role).
  • First broadcast on German television in 1991, this shot-on-video feature never received a true theatrical release, although it was blown up to 16mm film for limited screenings in 1993.
  • The New York Times reported that Wax was be the first feature-length motion picture to be broadcast on the Internet.
  • A “hypermedia” version of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is available for free viewing at a site hosted by the University of Virginia. The movie is available to watch or download for free on Vimeo under a Creative Commons license.
  • Two years ago, Blair said that he was still working on a sequel, which has been in progress for at least seven years.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, in a movie with so many digital distortions and abstract psychedelic graphics, it’s the shots of Jacob in his white beekeeping suit that stick in the mind the most—because, absurdly, he almost never takes it off, whether trudging through the steaming desert or walking past banks of supercomputers at his job at a military facility. Even when cuddling with his wife in front of the TV, he only takes off his hat. The suit becomes both a symbol of Jacob’s insular insanity, and a low budget substitute for a spacesuit a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jacob ventures into cosmic realms far beyond ordinary human conception.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Semi-intelligent missiles; the dead on the Moon; the Planet of Television

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a “documentary” about a man who is sent to the Planet of the Dead via bee television in order to kill the reincarnation of his grandfather’s brother-in-law, thereby becoming Cain, before being reincarnated in paradise. I think. The story is utterly insane, although it makes complete sense to bees.

Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees [10:00/85:00] from David Blair on Vimeo.

The first ten minutes of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

COMMENTS: When I first watched Wax, or the Discovery of Television Continue reading 270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

366 UNDERGROUND: WINNERS TAPE ALL: THE HENDERSON BROTHERS STORY (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Justin Channell

FEATURING: Zane Crosby, Joshua Lively, and Chris LaMartina

PLOT: The exploits of a hyper-low-budget ’80s horror duo are chronicled in the form of a public access television “documentary”.

Still from Winners Tape All (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Winners Tape All is a cheeky dissection of the various failings (and unlikely successes) of the straight-to-VHS horror phenomenon that gripped (?) the nation back in the 1980s. While some of the fake movies “discussed” in this mockumentary would easily be Certifiable contenders, Channell’s homage to one of the stranger pop-genres stands as a straightforward, well-made, and very funny bit of fare.

COMMENTS: Today’s big-name directors would do well to learn a lesson from some of the novices that have sprung up in recent years: your movie should only be as long as it has to be. Winners Tape All stands as a testament to the fact that a movie less than an hour and a half long isn’t less of a movie for its efforts, but can be much more. This breezy mockumentary clocks in at a sweet sixty-seven minutes. It is brief, but uses every moment well, exploring the fictional history of two crummy film-makers from West Virginia in a manner that is both hilarious and, somehow, a little touching.

Within the framework of an “Eye on the Cinema” public access TV episode, Channell tells us about the Henderson brothers. These step-brothers are a lens through which Channell explores the genre. With only two movies to their credit (Curse of Stabberman and Cannibal Swim Club), they represent what cinephiles regard as all that’s wrong with amateur auteurs. The narrative, however, makes clear that guys like these were instrumental in propping up a genre that, though lacking perhaps in quality, made up for it in mind-numbing quantity. That distributors can’t be bothered to transfer so many of those shot-on-video rental horror movies with titles like Scream Dream and Mad Mutilator to cheap-o DVDs suggests that those “50 Classics of Horror” compilations out there barely scratch the surface.

Zipping back and forth between interviews with Richard Henderson (Joshua Lively), a laid-back surfer of a movie maker, and Michael Henderson (Zane Crosby), a pony-tailed gore fan with a hick accent, we also get to see snippets of the two awful horror movies that made them “rich” (Curse of Stabberman‘s popularity on the rental circuit was unexpected) and then bankrupted their distribution label (Cannibal Swim Club was more of the same coming out a little too late). Scattered throughout are interludes with perhaps the most die-hard fan ever made, Henry Jacoby (Chris LaMartina). While part of me feels Jacoby’s awkward zeal compromises the movie somewhat, another part acknowledges that he is in all likelihood an accurate representative of militant bad-horror enthusiasts.

Little jokes and asides come and go, sometimes stacking on each other. Michael addresses the phenomenon of “walk time” for Curse of Stabberman (used to fill out a movie’s time clock when plot and dialogue are wanting); later, Richard echoes the idea with “swim time” when discussing Cannibal Swim Club, giving a “see what we did there?” kind of look to the camera. I’m no expert in the genre being ribbed here, but I’ve seen enough to know that Channell’s distilled all the very worst parts of it into these guys and the two movies they made. While I’d be loath to watch either of the films from the Henderson’s oeuvre, it was a very enjoyable experience to see those two brothers done justice (of sorts)—or, more accurately, to see justice done for all those amateur directors, writers, and actors who, despite the theme of their chosen genre, were never ones to say die.

Winners Tape All is available exclusively from IWC Films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s always fun to see straight-faced depictions of made-up things which are just plain ridiculous.”–Jesse Skeen, DVD Talk (DVD)

WOODY ALLEN’S ZELIG (1983)

Zelig (1983) finds in full experimental mode. This mockumentary was released a full year before Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which is often cited as an innovation. With a more cultured, refined approach and subject matter, it is relatively easy to ascertain why the quaint Zelig lacked the broader appeal of the loud Spinal Tap. Although the earlier film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, numerous critics pointed out that it is an extended single joke. Of course, the same might be said of Spinal Tap, but its celebration of heavy metal culture does give it a more extensive quota of memorable lines and puns—and nothing against that.

Yet, even in his most experimental film, Woody Allen continues to speak solely in his own voice. Indeed, he may be the most personal American filmmaker to date. Zelig charmingly plots out the life of “human chameleon” Leonard Zelig. In doing so, it follows the gimmick of 1982’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid: teleporting its protagonist into yesteryear’s newsreel footage, beginning with the 1920s. As in Midnight In Paris (2011), we are introduced to icons of the jazz age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both films, Allen’s approach to the pre-WWII era is paradoxically fawning, clear-eyed, and critical. He is consistent in expressing his loves and obsessions, although he does so with more subtlety, and better, in the earlier film. Smartly, he minimizes the pathos and so is more aligned with the spirit of in Zelig (Paris was sentimental like ). Like those silent clowns, Allen’s art is a guardian for his preoccupations.

Susan Sontag informs us: “Zelig was the phenomenon of the 20s,” and that “according to Saul Bellow, Zelig was amusing, but at the same time, touched a nerve in people perhaps in a way in which they did not want to be touched.” It is not surprising that Allen casts a critical Freudian eye on social conventions of America’s past. As a character, Leonard Zelig literally mirrors Western neuroses. As a compositional image—and this film is about image—Zelig is the guy with the vacant stare in the photograph’s bent corner. A non-personality, Zelig becomes the film’s co-personality. The eternally underrated Mia Farrow gives comic zip to both Zelig and “The Changing Man” film housing him. The film’s most animated scenes are on the therapy couch, where she becomes Zelig’s reflection, peeking through the corner of her glasses with a “you want to go to bed with me? But, I’m not pretty” look as she adjusts herself at the edge of the seat.

Allen compares Zelig to a character out of Kafka (along with Freud, another obsession). Indeed, Zelig’s transformations are more sepia insect than Technicolor chameleon, and the community’s response to him is one of initial curiosity, followed by reaching for the insecticide.

Still from Zelig (1983)Zelig leaps from hobnobbing with William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Charlie Chaplin to becoming an anonymous speck in the Nazi machine. After he is cured, Zelig becomes the provocative intellectual hated by American working class heroes. Naturally, he is rehabilitated after his fall from grace, rendering his idiosyncratic, celluloid promenade as an archival blueprint for precision in poignancy.

Allen is hardly a model of American filmmaking. He is New York, not Hollywood, and never attended film school; but his body of work stands as a unique immersion into the study of film. In his studies, he avoids the pratfalls of being too sentimental (Chaplin) or too glacial (). Once Allen made it clear that he would not be contained by our “funny man” category, he composed his own parties, showing up in a plethora of hats and suits: warm, beautifully bleak, elitist, anti-elitist, nostalgic, and modern. Like Zelig himself, Allen revels in his own contradictions with individualistic conscientiousness. In other words, Allen is always authentically Allen. Zelig is a testament to that.