Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Spinal Tap and the C.S.A. Live: An Analysis of the Various Forms of Mockumentary Techniques

The following is a deviation from my typical video game themed posts.  The final paper of my documentary class, where I analyze the effectiveness of two mockumentaries (comedy films that use the style of a documentary (though the events in the movie itself are staged and often used with actors) to give the film a false sense of authenticity).  If you have not seen either of these movies, I would highly suggest you watch both of them.  
.           .          .             

This Is Spinal Tap is certainly an interesting film.  With its larger than life characters and ridiculous situations, any observant viewer of the film would find it obvious that the film is a parody of concert films and biopic documentaries, rather than a completely legitimate film about the band “Spinal Tap.”  Yet, the film’s director, Rob Reiner, once noted that while more critical and “sophisticated” audiences in urban areas (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto) easily determined the film’s falsity and thus enjoyed its humorous nature, not everyone could see through the ruse (Platinga, 320).  Reiner notes that when they showed the film to an audience in a Dallas shopping mall, the film was noticeably less successful.  “A small section of the audience laughed,” he says.  “The rest asked why we would make a serious documentary about a terrible band they had never heard of” (Platinga, 320).  Now, many more conscientious viewers and film buffs would find this reaction baffling.  How could anyone find a film that features exploding drummers, cartoonish characters, and such bizarre and awkward situations to have any appearance of validity?  How can anyone actually believe that lead singer David St. Hubbins’s assertion that “dozen of people die from spontaneous combustion every year”?  The answer, put simply, is the execution and style of the film.  Through an expert replication of the same styles used in other concert films and direct cinema documentaries, This Is Spinal Tap makes itself seem like every other documentary because it looks and acts like every other documentary of this style.  Through meticulous camera work and editing, the film is able to perfectly replicate the direct cinema style, and thus Spinal Tap comes to life, regardless of how cartoonish and childish they are.  This is what every mockumentary must do to ever try and convince an audience of the “veracity” of their film.  And films like This Is Spinal Tap and the Ken Burns parody C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, accomplish this with remarkable ability.

These three seem totally relatable and likable.
But how in particular is this possible?  Let us use This Is Spinal Tap as our first example.  What exactly did Reiner do to make the characters of Spinal Tap “come alive?”  It is certainly a hard task to accomplish; the characters, as mentioned, certainly aren’t “normal.”  They are larger than life parodies of every stereotype of the heavy metal and rock genre, with everyone serving a particular role, from the overly macho lead guitarist Nigel Trufel, with his phallic use of the guitar and his complete lack of knowledge of his own instrument, to bassist Derek Smalls, who tries (and fails) to embody the “silent intellectual” trope often associated with rock bassists.  Yet, as mentioned, some audiences felt the band was real, and that is due to the stellar acting of the band’s “members.”  The basis of this “believability” was due to the fact that the film was largely improvised, with the actors only having a rough outline of what was going to happen in the scene.  Thus, they were able to create a sense of the band members being real people by giving genuine reactions to the questions and situations they were presented.  With the lack of a “strict” story and script structure found in other Hollywood films, Spinal Tap’s “members” rants and dialogue seems more in the vein of just normal conversation.  A particularly good example would be when Rob Reiner’s “Marty Di Bergi” (an affectionate parody of Martin Scorsese, the director of the concert film The Last Waltz (1970) asks Nigel about Nigel’s amp that goes “up to 11.”  Di Bergi asks why Nigel could not simply have just “made 10 louder”, and Nigel stops for a moment, considering this idea, before sheepishly and childishly replying “but it goes up to 11.”  However, in the moment before his answer, we see the cogs in actor Christopher Guest’s head slowly moving, and Nigel seems a little more human.    His response is still comedic and childish, but as we see him slowly try to put the pieces together, and eventually failing, he seems more like a real person.  If the script was more regimented, and Nigel responded even a second quicker with the same line, it wouldn’t have the same level of believable earnestness the moment in the film does.  Thus, with the improvisation, the film becomes more like a direct cinema film, since the reactions of the characters become (or seems to become) more genuine.  And, in many ways, the members of Spinal Tap become very much like “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” from Albert and David Maysles’s Grey Gardens.  Though, on the surface, both groups seem almost too cartoonish to be real, the way they act and interact with each other creates a layer of believability.  Though both the Beales and the members of Spinal Tap both act in ways that no rational person would ever consider to be true, when we actually meet and witness their interactions, they become “real.”  We can follow their thought processes, and their inabilities and failures to understand “normal” thoughts.  In this way, the members of Spinal tap walk the fine line and explore the beautiful limbo between fantasy and reality.

It goes to 11.  No further questions.
But even if the actors were acting in a believable manner, the film still would have lost some feeling of a “direct cinema” feel if the cinematography was too structured.  If there were too many crane shots or even a use of a more high quality camera, the film would have lost the feeling of an “on the fly” style of filmmaking.  However, Reiner saw to this too, for he “contracted documentary producer Karen Murphy to give the film a surface authenticity, and hired cinematographer Peter Smokler, who had worked on Gimmie Shelter, as director of photography.” (Platinga, 320)  In other words, in order to give the film an aura and feeling of a concert style film, like Gimmie Shelter, Reiner hired producers and cinematographers who had worked on these kinds of films.  To anyone, this concept seems obvious.  Who would know this style of filmmaking better than people with experience?  And it certainly pays off.  The concert scenes in particular are shot in a style very similar to other concert films and even some early music videos, with the camera frequently moving around and creating a rapidly moving cavalcade of dynamic images and angles, making the film’s audience feel like there are witnesses to a true Spinal Tap concert.  But the cinematography is also impressive in many very subtle ways.  In fact, one could say it is the subtle differences that give the film it’s direct cinema feel.  Sometimes, when the camera is moving, it will shake and shift since the cameraman is walking with it, giving the impression that Di Bergi and/or his cameraman is always present in the scene.  Adding to this effect are the times where you can actually see glimpses of Di Bergi, catching quick glimpses of his hat or jacket.  While in a more structured film this would be considered a glaring flaw, the “accidental” inclusion of Di Bergi in scenes makes the camera work seem rushed and in the moment, just like a Maysles film.  There are also many times where the characters in the film look directly at the camera, and then guiltily look away, as if they are remembering they are not supposed to do such a thing.  There are even two occasions where certain characters in the film question who Di Bergi and his crew are, presenting something not even the Maysles have shown: how new people react to the presence of the camera.  These touches, as well as the generally sloppiness of the film’s cinematography (sometimes shots are obstructed or noticeably shaking), give the film the more “direct cinema vibe.”  This, combined with the acting, give This Is Spinal Tap a strange sort of genuineness that can make people believe the band is real.
Reiner's Di Bergi (Left) and Christopher Guest's Nigel Trufel in one of the many "interviews"
Yet, just as there is not only one style of documentary, there is no one style of mockumentary, and just as This Is Spinal Tap perfectly parodies and mimics the style of “direct cinema” documentaries, the 2004 film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America presents an affectionate parody of the dry style of Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker famous for his extremely lengthy documentary, The Civil War, that aired on PBS in 1990.  However, before going into how C.S.A. mocks Burns’ style, we must first go into what Burns’ style is.  To put it frankly, Burns’ style is what most people consider when they think of documentary, and features several very particular kinds of footage and techniques.  The most noticeable and recognizable technique is the “voice of God” narration, which drones over the poetic descriptions of battles and the history of the conflict.  It also features many photos, which are panned over or zoomed in on in order to make the shot more dynamic or to shift the focus from object to another.  For example, Burns may focus on a specific area of a painting of a Civil War battle before zooming out to show the rest of the canvas as the narrator drones on, as well as some dramatic music, or a reenactment of a song performed at the time (such as “Dixie” or “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”).  Speaking of reenactments, Burns uses these quite often to convey a certain meaning.  For example, he can just use the marching of feet on the ground to convey a moving army or a firing cannon to convey a battle.  Another common trope of Burns’ documentary is the interviews, or “talking heads.”  From intellectuals to former Senators and even descendants of those involved in the fighting, many people put in their two cents on the importance or significance of a certain event.  Finally, Burns often used different voices to read the letters and diaries of famous historical figures or common soldiers, as if the people themselves are reading the letters instead of the narrator. 

C.S.A. utilizes all of these tropes and more in its portrayal of an alternate history, and while it may not convince any American of its veracity, I can see where it would confuse someone who is not familiar with the history.  From the voice of God narration, to the reenactments, to the “talking heads,” C.S.A. uses Burns’ style perfectly.  In many ways, one could say that C.S.A. uses Burns’ style to point out how ridiculous and manipulative the style is.  For example, in order to create an alternate history, the filmmakers have to use a lot of re-contextualization of certain pictures and documents in history to keep the film somewhat grounded in historical accuracy in order to make this alternate history seem believable.  One scene that caught my eye in particular was the use of photographs of the destruction of a particular city.  In Burns’ film, he never says the name of the city, and merely mentions that the “South” faced terrible devastation in the war.  As one would expect from a documentary, Burns used a photo to convey a meaning he could not really show in detail.  However, in C.S.A., the exact same photos that Burns used to convey Southern destruction were now applied to the North.  In a matter of fact tone, the narrator in C.S.A. tells us that these photos are now supposed to represent New York City’s devastation.  In this moment, I had an experience similar to the viewing of Land Without Bread, noticing the huge assumptions I had made when watching Burns’ film.  I could certainly understand that the narrator of C.S.A. was lying, but how could I be sure that Burns was telling the truth?  In this moment, the makers of C.S.A. were almost pointing out how easily it is to be manipulated by the images and official sounding narrator of a Burns-style documentary.  In fact, this seems to be the main interesting point of the film.  While there are some images that do fail at “reworking history” (some of the fake historical characters have photos that do not match the same grainy quality as others from the Civil War era), many of the created images do make the film seem quite official.  Many political cartoons, paintings, and photographs are either doctored or re-contextualized to have completely new meanings, and have the potential to confuse the uninformed or inattentive.  The Confederate Flag can seem perfectly natural on top of the White House’s flagpole.  John F. Kennedy’s speech about “freedom” during his televised debate with Richard Nixon can take on a whole new meaning when taken in the context of the Confederate system of slave labor.  The footage taken in World War I can be easily reworked to be taking place in Mexico instead of Germany if the narrator claims it is.  And while some images are more humorous in nature, the ability C.S.A. has at creating such an official portrayal of this alternate history is rather startling and disturbing.

Once again, the brilliance lies in the subtleties that make the film very similar to Burns’ The Civil War.   Even the smallest of touches, like the repeated “commercial buffer” of a soldier walking silhouetted across a red sky, with a cursive “C.S.A” imposed over the image, seems almost directly ripped from Burns, just with a different title.  In addition, the “talking heads” segments in both Burns and C.S.A. share a similar tendency to have bizarre angles and zooms on the faces of those interviewed.  While there might be some shots of the interviewees shot from a comfortable distance, other times the camera is zoomed right into their face, sometimes at strange tilts.  In both films, it is jarring, yet it meant to create more dynamic shots.  These talking heads segments also capture the rather long-winded and pompous ways some intellectuals portray themselves on camera, adding in the same dramatic pauses and reactions of hatred or admiration that scholars often present in films like Burns’.  Another good example of these subtleties would be the press conference of fictional senator John Ambrose Fauntroy V (the great-grandson of one of the men who helped to create the C.S.A.).  In an almost direct parody of Bill Clinton’s denial of his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, Fauntroy denies that his ancestor had “sexual relations” with one of his servants, thus making Fauntroy of mixed blood.  While the scene is indeed humorous in itself, the real magic occurs in the presentation, which marvelously mimics an actual press conference, not only in the camera angles, but even in the low quality camera used, making the scene seem ripped from a cable news channel.
This looks way too familiar.
Another interesting section of the film is not part of the documentary itself, but the fake commercials.  While mainly used for comedic effect and to reflect the new, incredibly racist society that formed under the C.S.A., these commercials are brilliant in their techniques.  From bizarre, Snuggie-style infomercials advertising a tracker collar for one’s servants (featuring the same terrible acting and attractive models that one would find in other infomercials), to an incredibly macho commercial for a cigarette brand called “Niggerhair” (based on an actual product) featuring footage of cowboys and horses in a wide open plain, these commercials perfectly reflect not only the culture of the C.S.A., but mock our own commercials by merely presenting the same footage with small differences.

Thus, by following the styles of the different kinds of documentaries to a striking amount of accuracy, these filmmakers are able to create a surprisingly believable new “reality.”  The question becomes not “how could someone believe a band like Spinal Tap is real?”, but “how can one not be sometimes tricked by the presentation of the films?” In their cinematography and their stellar acting, both films have a lot that could possibly confuse or misinform a less attentive viewer.  And while the situations they portray might be ridiculous, are they ever really more ridiculous than the Beales of Grey Gardens?  Are they ever presented with less matter-of-fact assertiveness than Burns’ The Civil War?  By performing such effective parodies of documentaries, these filmmakers make us aware of the all too common tropes we find and take for granted in documentaries.

  1. The Civil War. Prod. Ken Burns. Dir. Ken Burns. PBS, 1990. Digital Distribution.
  2. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. Dir. Kevin Willmott. By Kevin Willmott. IFC Films, 2004. Digital Distribution.
  3. Plantinga, Carl. "Gender, Power, and a Cucumber: Satirizing Masculinity in This Is Spinal Tap." Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998. 318-32. Print.
  4. This Is Spinal Tap. Dir. Rob Reiner. By Rob Reiner and Rob Reiner. Perf. Rob Reiner. Embassy Pictures, 1984. Digital Distribution.

No comments:

Post a Comment