Tag Archives: Mockumentary

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.

CAPSULE: FUDGE 44 (2006)

DIRECTED BY: Graham Jones

FEATURING: A series of interviewees, each of whom speak for less than a minute

PLOT: Dozens of residents of a Japanese suburb are interviewed about a series of sightings of little men, in a story that gets progressively wilder with every new detail that is revealed.

Still from Fudge 44

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd experiment in how to make a film with almost no money down, but there’s not really enough texture or action here to merit a general recommendation.

COMMENTSFudge 44 might have made a good short story; it’s almost entirely composed of narration by talking heads, with very little cinematic illustration to catch our interest beyond the faces of the interviewees. There is occasional music, but far more noticeable is the audio tape loop which runs for about 10 seconds, ending in a pair of clicks, which accompanies the entire film. This hard-to-explain audio affectation could give the film either a hypnotic or an annoying aspect, depending on your outlook. (I sort of liked it). The plot-heavy nature of the project makes it difficult to discuss without spoiling it, but it’s safe to say that it begins with reports of sightings of tiny little men in a Japanese suburb, and a backstory is gradually revealed that is as consistent as it is bizarre, bringing in a bank robbery, a puppet show, and a gang of “multicultural assassins.”

The story of Fudge 44  is far too absurd to fool you into believing it’s true; rather, it tries to fool you into believing that other people might believe it’s true. And why not, in a world where people believe in Bigfoot and alien abductions? Despite its minimalist format, Fudge 44 has a lot on its mind. It’s a parody of cryptozoological documentaries, and the opening quote suggests that it’s a criticism of the way Western media views Japan through a series of stereotypes. At its core, it’s a whopper, with the trappings of a hoax; and, by the end, it becomes a sort of melancholy elegy for the passage of our childhood ability to believe in such tall tales. “She knew the difference between imagination and reality, but maybe this didn’t fit into either category,” muses one interview subject when describing a child’s reaction to an encounter with the little creatures. It also could be a slogan for Fudge 44, an oddity that doesn’t really fit into any category.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story becomes more and more convoluted as it unfolds by including a bizarre tale of a pair of boys who came up with a secret recipe for fudge and later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”–Matt Exile, “Japanese Hollywood File”

193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)

“What happens, by accident, is that the way you choose to lie, because it’s coming from you, has something of the truth in it. Whatever you’re saying is something that’s intentionally coding the truth. And then somehow that coding gets worn down the more you retell it until finally you might as well just be telling the truth—under oath, and on sodium pentothal. It’s disguised somewhat but it’s as true as, say, Homer is true, the “Odyssey,” and the great literature is true. None of the surface is true, but… So in this case I started with a mostly true surface, and the more mischievous I tried to get about it… I just found myself returning to my way of thinking about the world, or my place in it, which involves laps and subterranean things. So it’s not like I was structuring the story so that things would rhyme or echo with each other, or belong in one piece, it’s just that they came from one place—me—and ended up in one sort of cohesive place—the movie My Winnipeg.”–Guy Maddin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Guy Maddin (narration), , ,

PLOT: “Guy Maddin” narrates a documentary about his hometown, Winnipeg, mixing fact with outrageous tall tales. In the course of the film he hires actors to portray his family and recreate scenes from his childhood. Maddin states his intent is to escape Winnipeg by “filming my way out;” but one of the running themes of the documentary is that no one ever leaves Winnipeg.

Still from My Winnipeg (2007)
BACKGROUND:

  • My Winnipeg was commissioned by Canada’s Documentary Channel.
  • The film is the third part of Maddin’s “Me Trilogy,” three partly autobiographical but fictional films all starring a character named Guy Maddin, which also includes Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006),
  • During festival screenings the film was shown with live narration, usually performed by Maddin but sometimes rendered by guest narrators including and .
  • Ann Savage, who specialized in femme fatale bad girl roles in the 1940s, had not acted in 16 years (her last role was a bit part in an episode of “Saved by the Bell”) when Maddin called upon the then 86-year old actress to portray his mother in My Winnipeg. Savage died one year later.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The eleven horse’s heads, distressed mouths filled with frost, flash-frozen in the Red River after they stampeded while fleeing a stable fire. The view is so romantic and astounding that (according to Maddin) young lovers used to picnic among the icy mares’ heads.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:The Documentary Channel commissioned a documentary about the city of Winnipeg from renegade director Guy Maddin, and instead of a recitation of local facts, they got an icy plunge into the frozen lake of the director’s psyche. The mockumentary form turns out to be a perfect match for Maddin’s prankster temperament. Like the subterranean rivers the First Nations say flow with mystical power underneath Winnipeg’s surface rivers—“the forks beneath the forks”—he exhumes (or invents) fantastic myths about his hometown to try to get at deeper truths about himself.


Original trailer for My Winnipeg

COMMENTS: Relentlessly subjective, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is Continue reading 193. MY WINNIPEG (2007)