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The Treachery of Images
by Ethan de Seife / University of Wisconsin
No Lies, dir: Mitchell Block, 1973, US.
The Falls, dir: Peter Greenaway, 1980, GB.
This Is Spinal Tap,
dir: Rob Reiner, 1984, US.
Man Bites Dog
(C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous), dir: Benoît
Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, 1991, BEL.
Fear of a Black Hat, dir: Rusty Cundieff, 1994, US.
Waiting for Guffman,
dir: Christopher Guest, 1996, US.
dir: Peter Jackson, 1996, NZ.
OTHER FILMS DISCUSSED
Salome, dir: Colin McKenzie, c. 1928, NZ.
Man with a Movie
Camera, dir: Dziga Vertov, 1929, RUS.
dir: Orson Welles, 1941, US.
Why We Fight,
dir: Frank Capra, 1942-1944, US.
Night of the Hunter,
dir: Charles Laughton, 1955, US.
Chronicle of a Summer, dir: Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1961,
The Last of Sheila,
dir: Herbert Ross, 1973, US.
Faces of Death,
dir: Conan la Ciliare, 1978, US.
Woody Allen, 1978, US.
The Last Waltz, dir: Martin Scorsese, 1978, US.
Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, 1980, US.
Reds, dir: Warren
Beatty, 1981, US.
Eddie and the Cruisers,
dir: Martin Davison, 1983, US.
Meet the Feebles,
dir: Peter Jackson, 1989, NZ.
Dead Alive, dir:
Peter Jackson, 1993, NZ.
dir: Peter Jackson, 1994, US.
Hard Core Logo, dir: Bruce McDonald, 1996, CAN.
In an article from
Magill's Cinema Annual 1984, Rob Edelman, writing about Woody
Allen's Zelig (1983), says, "With Zelig, Allen has come
up with a totally new form of cinema, a fictional documentary
that plays like an extended newsreel." Edelman goes on to
say how, in particular, the appearance of historical and present-day
"real life" celebrities lend believability to the film.
Then, he takes it a step further:
"Maybe with Zelig, Allen
has stretched the medium of cinema as far as he can. He has gone
from pure comedy to comedy with a plot and characters with points
of view. He has experimented with straight drama. So what is
next? A fictional documentary."
While I agree with Edelman
that Zelig is in many ways a groundbreaking film, I find his
opinion useful but flawed. Edelman implies that the fictional
documentary or "mock documentary" is
perhaps the highest form of cinema art, presumably for its ability
to convincingly blend fact and fiction. While I think a case
could be made for this position, Edelman passes over the several
steps that exist between "straight drama" and fictional
documentary, if indeed there is a clear progression. (Such a
progression seems to be purely the creation of Edelman himself.)
It is easy to be impressed by the ingenuity with which Allen
blends new and archival footage, and also by the skill with which
he imitates the tried-and-true newsreel format. Zelig is probably
Allen's most technically accomplished film and one of his most
insightful, but it certainly did not invent the genre of the
Three years before Zelig was
released, Peter Greenaway made a staggeringly complex, heavily
self-referential, and extremely funny mock documentary called
The Falls (1980), which was supposedly a filmed biographical
account of 92 of the 19 million survivors of something called
the Violent Unknown Event. Greenaway's film, the conception and
execution of which is almost unfathomable for its remarkable
density, was the co-winner of the British Film Institute's award
for Best Film in 1980. Though it remains relatively unknown and
difficult to see despite Greenaway's subsequent success, the
film received a good amount of coverage and was definitely known
to those in the filmmaking industry. As such, it could be the
inspiration for the spate of mock documentaries in the early
1980s and early to mid-1990s.
But Greenaway, too, had predecessors.
It is certainly conceivable that Greenaway, a prolific maker
of short films, had seen, before 1980, Mitchell Block's 1973
short No Lies. No Lies is one of the earliest mock documentaries,
and also perhaps the most convincing. Its premise is that a male
film student turns the camera on a friend as she gets ready to
go out for the evening. The film is banal until the woman reveals
that she has been raped recently. The filmmaker presses her to
answer more and more questions about the event, thereby instigating
the action of the film. She becomes visibly upset, not only at
the rape, but at the camera's presence. Thanks largely to an
incredibly naturalistic performance by Shelby Leverington as
the woman and to the hand-held "vérité"
camera, No Lies is completely convincing as a documentary ...
until the credits roll. (Credits play an important part in establishing
and/or destroying the illusion created by mock documentaries,
and I will discuss this subject presently.) It is then that we
learn that the people on screen were actors, and that this was
a fiction film, not a documentary.