After a 10-year break from filmmaking, mockumentary icon Christopher Guest has returned to the big screen by way of the small screen, debuting his new movie Mascots on Netflix today. The film follows the shenanigans of a national mascot competition, and if it seems like Christopher Guest has returned to right where we left him when he was making movies like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, as in all Guest’s work, the devil is in the details.
Christopher Guest started out as a character actor and bit player in the 1970s, but his first break came in 1984 with the release of This Is Spinal Tap, a film he made with fellow comedy-actor-turned-first-time-director Rob Reiner. Though artists like Louis Buñuel had experimented with satirizing documentary filmmaking, This Is Spinal Tap was the first popular mockumentary, a sendup of heavy metal by way of a sendup of the era’s fawning rock-and-roll documentaries, as Reiner replicated the aesthetic of nonfiction filmmaking with fictional characters. This Is Spinal Tap follows a fictional metal supergroup called Spinal Tap through a rocky nationwide concert tour as they explain to the camera their origins, their dreams, and their amplifiers that go to eleven. Guest played Nigel Tufnel, the band’s lead singer, and he received a writing credit, though there was no formal script and the movie was entirely improvised between Reiner and his fellow performers. The film was a smash in the nascent video sales market, becoming a cult classic favorite of the very musicians it was parodying and launching mockumentary as a genre outright.
Reiner would go on to direct scripted films like The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally, but Guest held on to Spinal Tap, making appearances as his character on shows like The Simpsons and late-night programs through the 1980s and into the ’90s. From Spinal Tap, Guest would fashion his own filmmaking career, and in 1994, he followed in Reiner’s footsteps and continued the mockumentary exploration with his own movie, Waiting for Guffman. Guffman, as well as Guest’s follow-up films Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, use Reiner’s template, combining faux interviews with the visual trappings of the observational documentary form. Guest is a democratic storyteller, and like Reiner, he takes filmmaking as an opportunity to show off the talents of other performers. His films can be identified by their ensembles, as performers like Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, and Jennifer Coolidge return again and again. But if Reiner made a movie about mass media, Guest’s films satisfy his own fascinations with weirdo Americana, portraying the oddities of personality and behavior that occur within enclosed communities.
At their best, Guest’s movies play as if they’ve been adapted from a special interest newsletter, available only to those who already subscribe. Guffman takes place in a community theater, Best in Show sends up the prize dog community, A Mighty Wind dives into folk music, and For Your Consideration parodies the Oscar campaign trail. Each movie relies on the tension between familiarity and strangeness to build its own sense of comedy. The worlds that Guest tries again and again to enter are the ones we encounter in life as kitsch — we might find dog training or Oscar ceremonies amusing in passing, but it would be embarrassing to totally commit our lives to their pursuit. The fun of watching a Christopher Guest movie then is in adopting his total devotion to people and places that would be discarded by almost anyone else. Once his characters start talking, they reveal themselves to be a hodgepodge of strange quirks and fetishes, but their ambitions rarely transcend beyond the boundaries of their tiny communities, and it’s never totally clear if what we’re watching is pettiness or grandiosity. Whether he’s at a folk festival or a dog show, his movies are a chance to see what it’s like to be a big fish in a small pond.
Though Guest’s style remains unaltered, Mascots subtlely stands apart from the films that came before it. A mascot competition might not seem too far off from a dog competition, but if an audience watching Best in Show could fall back on cultural osmosis to appreciate the niche pleasures of a Westminster Dog Show parody, Mascots lacks any similar basis in the real world to support its quirkiness. The regionalism that has in the past grounded Guest’s films is replaced here by a kind of free-for-all freakfest. Mascots are conflated with furries, the hometowns of the various competitors matter little more than their accents, and there’s no sense of momentum to the competition itself because the characters fail to congeal their gimmicks enough to feel like fully formed human beings. Guest reprises his Guffman character Corky St. Clair in a cameo where he turns out to be the mentor for Parker Posey’s Cici Babineaux — but the shared universe that exists for these movies must have just accounted for a world in which there are two Parker Poseys, since the St. Clair recall doesn’t make any mention of Posey’s Guffman character, Libby Mae Brown. If the films Guest made prior to Mascots were as intricate as they were miniature, the Fabergé eggs of mockumentary, Mascots is what it looks like when Guest lets himself get sloppy.
With Mascots, Netflix has continued their new habit of reaching out to filmmakers as creative partners, offering deals before projects exist for filmmakers to pitch. Just last week, Netflix premiered The 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about prison injustice that was financed and filmed with a similar focus on creative partnership. DuVernay took her opportunity and ran with it, using the access to substantial funds and relative creative freedom to make a film that for her was a matter of urgency. But not every filmmaker is suited to total freedom. As much as the independent financing process is a punishing part of the creative experience for filmmakers who have to beg for money and withstand rejection, it can also act as a filtration system, pushing artists to improve and edit their own ideas. If the movies that made a cult hero out of Christopher Guest felt like they were labors of love, Mascots feels like a movie that was made because, well, why not?