Academic journal article Post Script

Introduction: At Play in the Fields of the Truth

Academic journal article Post Script

Introduction: At Play in the Fields of the Truth

Article excerpt

If we search out the nexus of social commentary, cultural critique, and the crisis of representation, it is there that we will find the mockumentary. One part humor, two parts transgression, the many forms and variations of the mockumentary genre hold a mirror up to our flaws, poke fun at our assumptions, and refuse to let us look away from our most cherished notions about reality, the "truth," and the taken-for-granteds of everyday life, laying bare the audacities, frailties, and well-guarded fantasies that bring them into being. Mockumentaries play with our inner worlds, as well as our social lives, at times, gently, at others, drawing blood. They make no apologies, they take no prisoners, and they laugh at our discomfort in the process.

Ranging from parody, to hoax, to active critique of documentary aesthetics, each with multiple nuances, the mockumentary genre holds that discomfort as central to its mission--for it is through that discomfort that we, as both audience and subject, reflect on our norms, values, ideologies, and ways of being. Mockumentary's cinematic roots run deeper in Western culture than in the cinematic traditions of other nations, with British and American traditions being the most prolific, but recent additions to the genre have originated in Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Iran. While ties can certainly be made to early theatrical social commentary, and other forms of transgressive performance, such as the parodies of class and gender found in turn-of-the-century burlesque, the contemporary mockumentary form is most often traced back to a three-minute April Fool's Day hoax, "The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest," aired on the BBC's current affairs program, Panorama, in 1957. Broadcaster Richard Dimbleby reported that, due to a mild winter and the eradication of the spaghetti weevil, Switzerland was experiencing a bumper crop of spaghetti. The spot, which featured mock-documentary footage of the annual Harvest Festival, elicited hundreds of calls, seeking to verify the story's authenticity, and obtain instructions for cultivating spaghetti trees in England.

In the fifty-two years that have passed since "The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest" aired, the mockumentary genre has exploded, training its lens on historical figures and discoveries (Forgotten Silver, 1995; Forbidden Quest, 1993), icons of popular culture (Drop Dead Gorgeous, 1999; Elvis Meets Nixon, 1997), nationalism and inter-cultural relations (Talking to Americans, 2001; F**kland, 2000), religion (Enlightenment Guaranteed, 1999; The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, 2006), race and ethnicity (The History of White People in America, 1985; Born in the Wrong Body, 1995), the horrors of death (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980; Faces of Death, 1978), and the horrors of suburbia (G-Sale, 2003; Human Remains 2000), along with numerous send-ups of the culture industries, from television to music (This is Spinal Tap, 1984; CNNNN: Chaser Non-Stop News Network, 2002-2003). While a number of these films have mocked their way into first-run theaters and the hearts of mainstream audiences, as the mischievous brainchildren of notable filmmakers, such as Christopher Guest, Woody Allen, and Rob Reiner, others have been relegated to art house theaters, direct-to-video releases, internet-only sales, and new media formats, such as YouTube. As a body of moving image literature, they speak volumes about the traditions and trappings of the human condition. Likewise, as a body of moving image literature, they have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. (see Roscoe and Hight, 2001; Rhodes and Springer, 2006; Juhasz and Lerner, 2006).

A key issue in the analysis of the mockumentary is, first and foremost, what qualifies? Are there degrees of mocking, and how do we understand them? Do different styles (parody, with its focus on humor, derived from the contrast between the rational and the irrational; hoax, which reflexively sets up a fictive documentary text as a means of commentary; and active documentary critique, with its open confrontation of documentary aesthetics) function differently or require different contexts in order to function? …

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