Criterion Sunday 165: C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992)

Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde; Writers Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier; Cinematographer Bonzel; Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017 (and years earlier on VHS in Wellington).

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

Undoubtedly filmmaking outside the mainstream has always looked different, and as a film which presents itself as a documentary, lo-fi technology and a lack of budget is practically flaunted here. The lead character (played by director Cheryl Dunye) works in a video rental shop, using its resources to research and film a piece about a mysterious 1930s actor known only to her as ‘The Watermelon Woman’, so we see her recording equipment, not to mention shelves and shelves of antiquated VHS tapes (although these may not have seemed so at the time, I suppose). But it would be wrong to write the film off because of the way it looks, just as it would be disingenuous to say its greatest value is in representing a black lesbian point of view. Certainly it was and remains interesting for that reason, but 20 years on it still has an energy to its underlying message that goes beyond simply testifying to the presence of black and lesbian women in history. At a wider level, it’s a film about the erasure of identities within history as a whole, as Cheryl picks through various archives and libraries, not to mention the testimonies and personal mementoes of an older generation, in order to find something out about her subject. Yet all this is presented within a broadly comedic framework (even romcom, with the appearance of Guinevere Turner’s video shop customer) that makes its political force effortlessly palatable, and hardly diluted by the fact that the black lesbian actor of the title is a fictional recreation — not existing may be the ultimate erasure of historical identity.

The Watermelon Woman film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cheryl Dunye; Cinematographer Michelle Crenshaw; Starring Cheryl Dunye, Valarie Walker, Guinevere Turner; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 10 December 2016.

Criterion Sunday 12: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This wasn’t the first ‘mockumentary’ film to blend the documentary format with a fiction subject in a comedic way, but in many ways it set the standard for all subsequent attempts (including this year’s What We Do in the Shadows, as just one of many examples), not to mention much of writer/star Christopher Guest’s subsequent career. It also, rather more to the point given its thirty year vintage, holds up rather well, not something that can be said of a lot of 1980s films, let alone comedies. Part of that is to do with its target, the bloated pomp and self-importance of those within the music industry, which hardly seems to have diminished in subsequent years, and indeed many of the film’s plot points and characters are inspired by noted musical groups of earlier decades (the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in particular). Spinal Tap the band (formed of lead guitarist Guest, vocalist Michael McKean and bassist Harry Shearer along with a rotating array of drummers) typify many of the trends of the era, from baroquely introspective progressive musical noodling to hair metal and electro-pop, and exhibit the same boorish tone-deafness in each of them — though the particular way they manage to do so is part of the comedy, for they’re not by any means awful musicians. The corporate shmooze and unprofessional management also gets a kicking though, and the image of Spinal Tap’s public school-educated manager wielding his cricket bat is a difficult one to dislodge easily. It’s a film which is still held in high esteem for good reasons, and it remains consistently entertaining.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Reiner; Writers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Reiner; Cinematographer Peter Smokler; Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, December 1997 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 December 2014).

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

The ‘mockumentary’ is a canny choice of genre for a New Zealand film, as its documentary form hides some of the shortcomings that come from low-budget production. We’re relying on the charisma of the performers and their comic writing (already tested in such ensembles as actor/writer/director Jemaine Clement’s Flight of the Conchords, who had their own US TV series for a couple of seasons), rather than the quality of the sets and camerawork. And as a comedy take on the popular vampire legend — appropriating all the iconography and transposing it to a quotidian situation of three mates in New Zealand sharing a flat together — it certainly has its pleasing moments, with strong turns from its three leads, particularly Taika Waititi as the upbeat central vampire, Viago. It was also nice for me to see my adopted home city of Wellington on screen for a while, as a lot of it is shot on location in the streets. Yet despite there being some good laughs, it still feels like a bit of a throwback to the 80s and 90s when this kind of film was at the height of its popularity, and stylistically it’s particularly reminiscent of the Belgian film C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992), with its similarly deadpan mockumentary take on a serial killer — functionally, not a million miles removed from a vampire. As ever, a lot of the good gags are in the trailer, and the feature length doesn’t always make them more resonant (I gather that the film originated in an earlier short film by the same team). Still, I did laugh (quite a bit at times), so for those looking for some light relief and a bit of meta-humour at cinema’s expense, it’s a fine choice.

What We Do in the Shadows film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement; Cinematographers Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen; Starring Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 26 November 2014.