The Gradations of Insincerity that Haunt Frederick Wiseman in the Night

On the highly-specific-yet–strangely-supple homage-cum-parody spectrum, Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic, bombastic melodrama maximalism sits at one end, and the smooth stylings of Heidecker & Wood soft rock cozies up on the other. Documentary Now! tries its damnedest to fill out the underexplored portions in the nether-region between the two poles. Skeptical that this is the measure? Look no further than season one’s easy listening, late-’70s FM, Seals and Crofts-esque, History of the Eagles-piss-take two-parter, “Gentle and Soft.” The Blue Jean Committee mockumentary spawned its very own Starting from Nowhere-type spin-off EP, Catalina Breeze, from the fictional band. Complementing the honeyed, sun-kissed licks of these tunes is a faux-doc—Spinal Tap by way of Hall & Oates—that splits the difference between “Behind the Music” and Walk Hard.

In its golden moments, the genteel medium hybrid of Documentary Now! hits that confoundingly precise middle-brow note where the distinction between genuine article and caricature melts away. Played straight to the hilt, you’re left with that unrequited gnawing on your brain stem in absence of a punch line. Stewards Armisen, Hader, Meyers, (and Mulaney et al.), are clearly aware that documentaries—as a form, as a history, as a highfalutin ideal—are a mess of paradoxes: bizarre, grounded, theatrical, muffled, stylized, organic, fact-based, cunning, moral force, ego stroke, troublesome, and noble. What is a documentary? What is a modern documentary in this day and age? What is a documentary now? What is Documentary Now!? Why the exclamation point?

Navigating this quasi-declension, trace the farce to multivalent sources: the lofty source material and its period imported into the chaotic, sarcastic media environment in which we live. In an age of pocket-direct cinema, where vérité is simply part of the humdrum vernacular of mediated modernity, what function do straight documentaries even serve anymore? Does anyone still take these things at face value? And why are we hungrier than ever for orthodox takes on the form, or even ballooned classicist reiterations? Some blood lust is being tapped, and Documentary Now! parodies it with a feather touch. In modern times, perhaps the main function of the documentary is to reinforce and enable rampant cynicism, functioning less as investigative fact-finding for unseen corners of society, but rather tone poems for civilization in decline. Documentary Now! bathes in the gentle waters of lost innocence and the well-intentioned naiveté of the distant and not-so-distant yore.

Despite its warmth and organic moments, there’s something near-mechanical to the conceit, breaking a form down to its geometry, a mission of deconstruction and rigid categorization to seek out the irreducible, possibly non-existent core ethos at the heart of documentary filmmaking—the evil flip-side to celebrating breadth and doggedness. Generally, docs have some identifiable point of reference in the real world, a subject of some kind, however abstract, pulling in eyewitnesses, testimonials, perspectives from those affected, archival footage, narrative, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc., into something that approximates non-fiction—a collage that aspires to truth through information abundance or objective distance. Like anything worth its salt, it’s equally prone to manipulation and narrowness and unreliability, if not more so by dint of a fetishistic, quixotic revelation fixation.

No wonder then that the mod-doc tradition is a meta one, defined as much by the investigation of the investigation of viewer manipulation, as a theme bundled within a theme unto itself, marked by a bone-deep understanding of its own existence and the need to present itself within itself or to crank the manipulation squelch dial as a defense mechanism. Ambiguity and nagging irresolution—or frustrating resolutions that counters the conclusions posited therein—typically consume at the tail end. Where’s the line between homage and send-up, or parody and satire for that matter? Is there a divide? Is there a point where riffing on thoroughly picked over canonical texts and self-perpetuating styles becomes an act of parodying the act of parodying low-hanging fruit—mockuparody, if you will? Documentary Now! simultaneously reinforces and interrogations the historicity of the non-fiction Canon. Where modern parody often devolves into lampooning cultural saturation and popular ephemera, there’s a certain nobility in bringing self-serious, quiet, socially-conscious signposts (literally and figuratively) down to size.

Texture is theme; surface is refrain; subject is dislodged. At points, the generic period-piece variations and reproduction stylistic exercises turn the dial—clockwise and/or counterclockwise—but one notch. With the point of origin once-removed from recognizable reality—documenting and presenting a slice of a slice of existence, a veritable Vertovian corrective—the viewer enters looking for satire over earnestness and gets a strange, more homeopathic brew than expected. Given the tenor of the times, zeroing in on the fuzziness of audience expectation seems almost political, despite the dulcet, syrupy ambience. These are the formalist/realist rabbit holes primed to disturb an octogenarian’s dreams, fueling said statesman to hang out with Berkeley undergrads and In Jackson Heights to ease his fly-on-the-wall, direct cinema mind.

To sojourn through Documentary Now! is to pick through gradations of sincerity, always looking for the distinction between authentic and absurd, window dressing and burlesque. It’s water soluble parody; the search for fundamental truth dissolves in the liquidity, lapping against the eroded sedimentary layers of a modern history of representation in lovingly replicated bite-size aesthetic ripples. Many have praised the mockumentaries of yesteryear for subtly skewing and skewering the fundamental self-seriousness of their subjects, but often, the form and its complicity is wallpaper. There’s an ongoing tension within Documentary Now! between inhabiting the diffuse small world created and the need to spin the material into a succinct parodic SNL-ready sketch.

As time wears on, there’s less emphasis on a twist and more in the art of reproducing art (as a giddy scam, as a sincere expression of affection, and as faithful recreation nudging inverted expectation). TV is a medium that rewards reduplication and pattern and gestures that favor the bottom-line—a stylistic template (and a brand-ready look) is set and a series or collection of shows color within the parameters. Documentary Now! switches gears like a good anthology should, but even within this lineage, it’s rather chameleonic (and semiotic). Tasked with presenting and familiarizing the audience every seven days (for a fake 51 years), the show also runs like second-hand Cliff’s Notes—well-trod and drool-soaked for cinephiles, but niche for the normals. Faux-longevity, British-certified pomp, and IFC-stamped bona fides cross the wires of competing realities while imploding bloviating status-obsession. The lyrical mundane interludes that shade the settings from episode-to-episode display the wealth of terrain yet to be sent-up and fawned-over as each outing pitch shifts and reshuffles for 22 minute bites of low-gravity alterna-film history. Imitation and flattery and all that jazz.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine


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