Tag Archives: Mockumentary

CAPSULE: THE NOWHERE INN (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Bill Benz

FEATURING: Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Carrie Brownstein

PLOT: Annie Clark (who performs as “St. Vincent”) commissions her friend Carrie Brownstein to make a documentary about her; but when Annie’s real personality proves too boring for film, she spices things up acting more like her alter-ego, losing sight of reality in the process.

Syill from The Nowhere Inn (2021)

COMMENTS: About midway through The Nowhere Inn, it occurred to me that I hadn’t really learned anything about Annie Clark that I didn’t know before I hit “play.” Looking up her bio in Wikipedia after watching this fictionalized documentary, I found the following quote from : “Despite having toured with her for almost a year, I don’t think I know her much better, at least not on a personal level.”

This made me feel better. Clark uses this faux-confesisonal mockumentary to hide in plain sight. Her alter-ego, St. Vincent, is brash, aggressive, and sexy onstage, shredding her guitar in a skintight red vinyl minidress while an image of her vomiting turquoise paint streams on a giant video board above her. Backstage, though, her friend Brownstein (the real-life riot grrl musician turned “Portlandia” comedienne) finds it hard to assemble meaningful footage for her behind-the-scenes documentary, since all the musician wants to do in her downtime is play Scrabble or video games or sample the local radishes. Even her bandmates and roadies can’t find anything interesting to say about Clark. So, abandoning her original plan capture the artist just being herself, Brownstein prods her subject to project her personality and start acting more like St. Vincent—a challenge the singer-songwriter meets too fervently, turning herself into an insufferable cliche of an image-obsessed rock diva. The pendulum having swung too far, Brownstein falls into an artistic crisis as Clark disappears into her new persona. The movie’s last act takes a hard turn into psychological thriller territory.

So what begins as a sort-of avant garde variation on This Is Spinal Tap segues into a sort-of riff on Mulholland Drive by way of Pink Floyd: the Wall, with hints of 8 1/2 sort-of lingering around the edges.  Please observe the deliberate “sort-of”s in that formulation; I don’t mean to oversell The Nowhere Inn. The movie is far more modest and humble than those big comparisons would suggest, and even when it gets existential and meta it always remains grounded in a friendly, pleasant, and lightly satirical comedy. From Clark’s initial encounter with a limo driver who doesn’t recognize her, to a bass player who decides he’ll be Australian on camera, to a hilarious bit part by Dakota Johnson as the tabloid-friendly love interest, The Nowhere Inn undercuts charges of pretentiousness by putting funny first. Even when it’s trending towards its darkest and most unhinged moments, the movie breaks the tension with its most elaborate comic set-piece, a very obviously staged trip to meet Annie’s family in Texas. Brownstein actually carries the film with a sunny confidence that yields to awkwardness, uncertainty, and embarrassment as she realizes that the insightful documentary she has planned is not salvageable. Clark is also very good in her feature debut, essentially playing two characters, neither of whom, we suspect, is all that close to her real personality (whatever that might be). The movie’s themes of artistic integrity and the duality of performers’ public and private personae are not exactly groundbreaking, but they’re handled cleverly and with enough unpredictability and humor to keep even non-fans watching to the end. Presuming, that is, that you have a taste for unconventional presentations. As Clark tells her limo driver, “I’m not for everyone.”

Director Bill Benz is mostly known for his work on “Portlandia” and other TV comedies, which explains why, although it frequently slips into psychedelic music video mode—especially, but not exclusively, during the rock concert numbers—the movie maintains its consistent comic tone.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Early on, the self-deprecating stuff takes on a studied air, and in the final stretch, the filmmakers seem to think they can shock-cut and rug-pull their way into something resembling psychological horror. The weirdness isn’t really weird enough to pull this off; it’s all the self-indulgence without much oddball pleasure.”–Jesse Hassenger, Paste (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD (1968)

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DIRECTED BY: Charles W. Broun Jr., Joel Holt, Arthur Knight

FEATURING: , narrated by Carolyn De Fonseca

PLOT: Jayne Mansfield narrates her visit to Rome, Paris, New York City, and Hollywood.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: This brazen cash grab (and virtual grave-robbing) flits along with an airy-but-bizarre tone of narration and titillation, before a jarring interruption in the final minutes. Laughably odd becomes wrenchingly tragic at the drop of a hat.

COMMENTS: For almost an hour and a half, we go on a guided tour of a couple of European cities and a couple of coastal American ones, before a coup-de-grace deflates the whole affair. Jayne Mansfield, dead—and nearly decapitated—in a car accident. Before this movie was even completed. So who have we been listening to? Having begun this film with no knowledge of it (and only passing knowledge of the starlet), I have to tip my hat to Carolyn De Fonseca for her dead-on characterization (please pardon that accidental pun [that one, too]) of Jayne Mansfield. Simultaneously, I have to wag my finger and tut-tut at the trio of directors who went ahead with this project.

The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield claims to be a “documentary.” I took a semester about documentary film in my college days, with a focus on the reliability of documentaries and their makers. In this film, we witness Jayne Mansfield traveling around trendy European hot spots–that much can be gleaned from the footage. According to this “documentary,” Rome is (in 1968, anyway) teeming with handsome sexual harassers to a slightly greater degree than Paris is teaming with homosexuals, transvestites, and lesbians. New York City in 1968 had its share of convincing transvestites as well. And Hollywood? Like the rest of the world, it was going through a “topless women do various mundane things” craze. Everything, however, is undercut by the fact that we’re lied to from the beginning about who’s talking to us.

There was probably a respectful way to make this movie. The filmmakers sat on a pile of footage of Mansfield’s recent jaunts, and there must have been people she spoke with who could have fleshed out a real documentary. Instead, there’s a continuous rush of ditzy observations and a laser-keen focus on society’s fringe element—all set to a jaunty score at times reminiscent of Goodbye, Uncle Tom and at others, the James Bond theme.

Broun, Holt, and Knight show as much of Mansfield as they can, show as many other breasts as they can, and pepper it all with daydreams ostensibly from Mansfield (for example, her vision in the Colisseum of her dream-man gladiator). There was also a nigh-untenable degree of faux-modesty—“Mansfield” remarking in wonder at how shameless/fearless all these women/love-making couples/etc. were, and how she simply could not work up the nerve to go fully nude at a nudist colony.

But then it gets weird. There’s a crash-montage of photographs, accompanied by a rubber-burning/metal-crunching sound effects, and the tone slips into maudlin garishness. Suddenly all the mind-numbingly banal remarks (my favorite being, “Poor Caesar! Brutus was his friend!”) are brought into focus: this was a person. Who died horribly. Melodrama worthy of Guy Maddin, I’d say, coming out of the blue, and interrupting my dismissive chuckling.

Severin re-released The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield on DVD and Blu-ray in 2020, with your choice of two different, equally flawed transfers, and a host of extras including a short interview with Satanist and Jayne hanger-on Anton La Vey. The tame 1966 mondo feature Wild, Weird, Wonderful Italians is also tossed in to make the bottom half of a double feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once it gets to the car crash… the movie is surprisingly dark and serious in tone, clearly cashing in on the very real, and very tragic, event that took the life of its star (and, as the photos clearly document, her dog as well)…  Recommended for those with a taste for misguided vanity projects and bizarre documentary features.
” -Ian Jane, Rock! Shock! Pop!

8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

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Dai-Nihonjin

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Tomoji Hasegawa, Taichi Yazaki

PLOT: An offscreen interviewer asks questions of middle-aged Masaru Daisatô, who grows into the giant “Big Man Japan” to fight various monsters who plague the country, as part of a documentary on the superhero’s fading popularity. Far from being honored for protecting the nation from kaiju attacks, Masaru is suffering from low ratings in his late-night time slot, is going through a divorce, and his house is covered in graffiti and vandalized whenever he causes collateral damage. When he flees from one particularly tough monster, his reputation is further damaged, and his retired grandfather (a previous Big Man Japan) leaves the nursing home to take on the kaiju himself.

Still from Big Man Japan (2007)

BACKGROUND:

  • Previously known in Japan as a comedian, Big Man Japan was Hitoshi Matsumoto’s first feature film.
  • The film spent five years in development and took a year to shoot.
  • Big Man Japan has frequently been suggested/recommended by readers over the years. Most recently, it was runner-up in our 2020 Apocrypha tournament.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The endlessly inventive giant monsters—with creepy human faces pasted on them via the black magic of CGI—are Big Man Japan‘s key visual motif. The Stink Monster, who looks like a cross between a squid and a fleshy flower petal, doesn’t seem like the weirdest kaiju in the stable, until a second Stink Monster shows up to do a wild mating dance that makes him look like a spastic ballerina on speed trying to get lucky at the disco on Saturday night.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Combover kaiju; Stink Monster mating dance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It plays like a genetically modified experiment in corssbreeding Spinal Tap with a late-era Godzilla monster mash, which is strange enough; Big Man Japan is not satisfied with it’s own oddness yet, however, so it takes another unanticipated turn into lunacy in the final act.


U.S. release trailer for Big Man Japan

COMMENTS: Thoroughly committed to its absurd premise, with Continue reading 8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

CAPSULE: CAN’T KILL THIS (2019)

AKA Fuck You Immortality

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DIRECTED BY: Federico Scargiali

FEATURING: Bill Hutchens, Josephine Scandi, Brutius Selby

PLOT: An old drug buddy from the 1970s appears to be immortal, so Tony and Kacy try to track him down, and then try to kill him.

COMMENTS: There is a minor character in Can’t Kill This who reminded me of a high school video project that has plagued my memory on and off since its completion. When stumbling around the English countryside looking for Joe, hippies Tony and Kacy accidentally knock on the caravan door of a luchador (el Perro Callejero—“the Street Dog”). Outside his domicile is a junkyard overrun with chickens, which he refers to as “pollo loco”; this just happens to have been the original name for my final film project back during my senior year. We had filmed quite a lot of ancillary shots for what was intended to be a Blair Witch Project spoof (those of you old enough to remember that movie’s cinema run probably cannot blame a flippant seventeen-year-old for feeling inspired). However! (And this is the exciting bit.) About two-thirds through shooting, there was a massive snow storm and we lost all possibility of continuity. And so, on the fly, and by the seat of our respective pants, we threw together an alternative just days before the deadline: Mister Psychopants.

Now that you know a little more about me, let me tell you what you need to know about Can’t Kill This: it was likely done with the earnestness of a late-teenage filmmaker, and, indeed, adopts the same genre (mockumentary). However, Scargiali’s movie was not done last-minute by a gang of high schoolers. These facts don’t necessarily always show, however, as slogging through the eighty minutes of run-time, I found myself laughing thrice (and bear in mind that this is supposed to be a stoner comedy). The first humorous scene involved an amusing secret “door-knock” code bit, touching upon the correct pronunciation of “Fhtang.”. The second funny scene involved Tony in a bathtub having a narrative adventure with two rubber duckies. I do not remember the specifics of the third one, but I do know that I laughed more than twice.

Despite my chirpy, mindless optimism about filmmakers and their directorial debuts, I’m not sure I can honestly say that I look forward to what Scargiali gets up to in the future. I did watch all of Can’t Kill This, and I liked the premise—but I would have much preferred the movie that had formed in my mind when I saw the ominous poster and read whatever bare-bones description came my way before volunteering for this assignment. To wrap this up with a six-word review, “Totally watchable, but I wouldn’t bother.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With the destination that is hard to pin down, Can’t Kill This is a road trip through odd feel-good vibes, dark comedy, and slapstick gore… It could easily be a demented road-movie cousin to ‘Best in Show’ (2000) with an extra dose of LSD and practical gore.”–Rev Terry, VideoReligion.com (contemporaneous)

CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.

On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.

So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.

Still from Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, FrankensteinWhen it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spial Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.

It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)