A Beginner's Guide to Mockumentaries

With the upcoming release of Paper Heart (August 7), you've heard about these mockumentaries, and once you look into it, it seems as if they're everywhere. Perhaps you're wondering what else is worth watching, and while you could waste your time perusing Netflix for hours or wandering the aisles of your local video store, there's another way. Although there are older mockumentaries, the genre really came into its own in the mid-'80s and '90s, and mainly through the efforts of a single director. A beginner's guide to mockumentaries would be remiss without mentioning this director, the single greatest mockumentarian of all time, Christopher Guest. Guest single-handedly defined the genre and paved the way for not only a whole new generation of parodists, but also Sasha Baron Cohen's new and raunchier films. But, where to begin?

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

As you're looking to ease your way into the genre, there's a clear beginning point and this is it. As perhaps the first modern mockumentary, the Rob Reiner-directed This Is Spinal Tap brought attention to the genre and it stands as a favorite among many, a strange story of a metal band hell-bent on world domination through rock and roll. The beauty of a mockumentary is much the same as the beauty found in real documentaries, when a character offhandedly reveals and comments on their own life with a heavy dollop of hilarious self-analysis. A wealth of quotes are to be found here, including the infamous statement that while most amplifiers go up to 10, this one "goes up to 11." The phrase has come to mean anything being used to it's fullest potential. A final highlight involves Stonehenge and a troupe of midgets, but I'll leave that to your discovery.

Waiting for Guffman (1997)

A next step in the journey is the vastly entertaining, strange, and marvelous Waiting for Guffman, which highlights the lives of the people in a small town as they endeavor to put on a high-class play for a mysterious critic. A young girl (Parker Posey) who dreams of life beyond the Dairy Queen, a married pair of travel agents (Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara), a tragically un-hip dentist (Eugene Levy) are only a few of the wildly strange individuals who populate the community theater. The exotic Corky St. Clair, played by Guest himself, strives to direct a play entitled "Red, White and Blaine," a tribute to the town they live in, and yet each actor hopes to shake off their small-town existence if the play proves successful. Now, the things in a film that put it beyond functional are the fun details, and the voyeuristic look into the crazy happenings in small town America is loving and hilarious.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Imagine you've run across a videotape that documents the complete terrorization of four people lost in the woods. Imagine you were told these were real events, and you're watching something that actually happened and could happen again. The Blair Witch Project was like nothing anyone had ever seen, a complicated story following a group of kids tracking down a mysterious legend in the dark woods. Though this stands far aside from the usual comedies that populate the mockumentary genre, it still remains firmly in the category, filled with people presenting false events as true. This film succeeded far more than others since the main actors were unknown and the premise was novel. Technically a horror film, this much-parodied movie struck fear into the heart of America and deserves to be seen by any aspiring genre enthusiast.

BoratBorat (2006)

For a more advanced foray into mockumentaries at their most mocking, one must ask: How might a totally inept visitor to the United States see our world? In 2006, Borat went for the jugular, taking no prisoners as Sasha Baron Cohen played upon America's worst fears, pretending to be a strange homophobic and uncouth man making obscene gestures and racist statements as he attempts to "learn about America" and interacts with countless unsuspecting victims. The idea itself is hard to hate, as everyone loves to see a joke at other people's expense, but the level that Borat takes it to as a character is unbearably uncomfortable as he humiliates and disgusts everyone he encounters. The fact that Sasha Baron Cohen wasn't badly hurt during filming is a miracle, and the film that follows is funny, although frightening. Borat was necessary to pave the way for Cohen's turn as flamboyant homosexual Brüno, although it would prove less successful as America refused to be fooled the same way, and where Borat felt spontaneous, Brüno feels strained.

Best in Show (2000)

The finest example of the genre is perhaps the much beloved Best in Show. Some movies are just fun to watch, you can't stop grinning or laughing, and Best in Show is pure joy. In another Christopher Guest entry, a cadre of insane dog owners prepare their pedigreed pooches for the biggest dog show in the country. All the regulars are here, O'Hara, Levy, Posey, and all are at their finest as they talk themselves into trouble and lavish love on their various dogs. These people are always just strange enough that you are aware you're watching a film, but engaging enough that you can't help but root for their small victories and cringe along with them in their discomfort. The film is a comedic gold mine rife with priceless one-liners and contagious laughter, the perfect example of a gently mocking mockumentary that understands itself and its audience.