Monday, May 23, 2011

The Auteur Files #11: Adventures in the Criterion Collection Part Three; Or, Yr Humble Reporter Searches for an Auteur Amidst the Laffs While Dodging and Digesting the Overstated Missives of the Young Technocinephiles -- Rob Reiner's (Or is it???) THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Criterion Spine #12)

Ah, the things a person can find on the internet. A headlight for a 2001 Chevy Metro (price $65 with shipping), video clips of late monologist and comedian Brother Theodore, numerous recipes for peach cobbler, how sideburns attained their appellation (it’s a “corruption of the original burnsides, named after American Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, a man known for his unusual facial hairstyle that connected thick sideburns by way of a moustache but left the chin clean-shaven”, so sayeth Wikipedia), an audio recording of poet Lorine Niedecker made in her home in 1970 by fellow poet Cid Corman, video images of a drunken David Hasselhoff, free online courses in the international language of Esperanto, and the roster of the 2010-11 Washington Wizards Basketball Team. Hell, if so inclined, an inquisitive web-surfer can even find pictures of naked people! Also in abundance are less specifically definable tendencies such as unchecked snark and the bold statement: here’s an excellent example of the latter; “First of all, let's just clarify something: THIS IS SPINAL TAP is the funniest film ever made”. Now it would be easy to assume that quote originated from some obscure corner of the Web via Randy’s Extremely Awesome Movie Site (fictitious, at least I think so) or from an Ain’t It Cool News-styled knockoff (unfortunately very much real), but no. It comes from writer Ben Falk via the BBC. Regardless from whence it originates however, the quote is a great example of a subset of the Bold Statement, namely Fanboy Hyperbole. This is a rather innocuous, playful example of the phenomenon, but it’s still indicative of an approach taken by many when stumping for the superiority of films that are almost always of fairly recent vintage. Ben Falk may well think to the core of his soul that THIS IS SPINAL TAP is the funniest movie ever, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he lacks strong film knowledge from before the year of his birth. But I could be wrong in that assumption, so let’s instead focus on the year of TAP’s release, 1984. Those twelve months found Martin Brest’s BEVERLY HILLS COP and Joe Dante’s GREMLINS also hitting big screens, so it becomes clear that TAP has some serious competition, and that’s just limiting the field to Hollywood motion pictures. If Ben Falk had stated instead that “First of all let’s clarify that THIS IS SPINAL TAP is, along with BEVERLY HILLS COP and GREMLINS, one of the three funniest Hollywood films of 1984” I’d jump on board right quick. This statement might lack overzealous, forced pizzazz, but it holds its own springboard for ascending points of interest. Perhaps the starting point is that all three of the titles referenced above are in some way hybrid films, COP being action-comedy, GREMLINS horror-comedy and TAP a spoof in the form of a fake documentary. TAP wasn’t the first Mockumentary, but it probably is the first to really endure in the public eye, Woody Allen’s ZELIG being infrequently discussed and Jim McBride’s DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY being basically, sadly forgotten.

TAP essentially signifies the beginnings of Christopher Guest’s long comedic career, and for many TAP is identified as a Guest film even though it’s directed by Rob Reiner, who also appears in the film as documentarian Marty DiBergi. Even though I’m an unabashed Auteurist, I can’t credit Reiner as the dominant artistic personality on TAP in large part due to my belief that he lacks any sort of definable personality through his long filmography. He’s helmed overrated romantic comedies (WHEN HARRY MET SALLY), overlong dramas (A FEW GOOD MEN), a light comedy/period fantasy that seems crafted to be nearly impossible to dislike (which is perhaps why I hold a somewhat indifferent attitude towards it) (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) and a movie I wouldn’t watch if tempted with a sawbuck (THE BUCKET LIST). But with that said I don’t designate default authorship to Guest. While TAP has surface connections to Guest’s mature directorial work, there are larger overriding differences, and within TAP itself Guest’s contribution doesn’t really rise above any of the other main players in the ensemble. If I were to award an auteur to THIS IS SPINAL TAP it wouldn’t be a person but rather a medium: that of television. TAP’s relationship to TV is suitably multifaceted. On one hand the movie feels strongly connected to the tradition of Norman Lear-sponsored satire such as MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN (a spoof of soap operas) and FERNWOOD 2NITE (the same of talk shows) and it’s not at all difficult to envision TAP shaved down to an hour episode of an episodic spoof of public-TV styled documentary programs. On the other hand, TAP also often feels like an inflated skit from Saturday Night Live, which isn’t surprising since Shearer, Guest and McKean are all former cast members of the program (true, McKean didn’t join until 94-95, but Shearer and Guest were part of SNL the year TAP was released). From there, the cavalcade of TV-centric performers (Paul Shaffer, Fran Drescher, Howard Hesseman, Ed Begley Jr. and Fred Willard) is sweet icing on my thesis-cake. The first film that undeniably belongs to Christopher Guest is WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, released in 1997, but 1989 is just as important in charting his artistic development. That’s the year Guest’s directorial debut THE BIG PICTURE, a Hollywood satire ala Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. or Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER hit screens and promptly sank without a trace.

I haven’t seen it and must confess I’m not eager to, not because I suspect it’s bad necessarily, but instead due to the numerous indications that Guest’s mature sensibility is basically absent from the production. But the 1989 event that had the arguably biggest effect on Guest wasn’t the failure of his first film but the appearance of Michael Moore’s ROGER & ME, a movie that helped redefine the boundaries of documentary, introducing comedic elements that flew in the face of the form’s sober-sided tradition. Moore’s breakthrough continued to be refined not only in his own films but in such docs as Jeff Feuerzeig’s THE BAND THAT WOULD BE KING, Terry Zwigoff’s CRUMB and most recently and most germane to the subject(s) at hand Sacha Gervasi’s ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (more on this one shortly).

This sea change really amplifies the difference between THIS IS SPINAL TAP and Guest’s later work, and spotlights the double meaning of “mock” in Mockumentary. TAP lambasts (mocks) the unflinching sobriety of the form, a determined seriousness that never relents, even when the subject proves unworthy of such elevated treatment. Guest’s directorial efforts instead imitate (mock) the post-ROGER template, where if a subject proves dysfunctional or unintentionally hilarious, well that’s just gravy for the mill. Guest’s films aren’t spoofs of genre but instead appropriations of the form, the better for intensely packed exposition and inspired riffs of improvisation. TAP does feature improv, but it’s very much the product of a collective troupe in the tradition of SNL or SCTV. Guest’s films, BEST IN SHOW being my personal favorite, also utilize groups of talented comedic actors but all feel guided by the hand of one dominant authorial voice. When TAP pads itself out with definably movie-like elements, most notably the introduction of the girlfriend Jeanine, it loses some of its steam, a problem Guest’s films avoid in their finer-tuned construction. But enough about THIS IS SPINAL TAP’s auteurist pedigree, it’s in the end a very successful comedy that’s fully deserving of its designation as a cult classic, though I can’t help but feel the appearance of ANVIL! has stolen some of TAP’s panache, its barbed lampoonery suffering in the face of the really real. Ultimately, THIS IS SPINAL TAP distinguishes itself as a very good if dated and mildly flawed film, certainly not the “funniest film ever made”, but then I can’t imagine anyone with firsthand knowledge of Chaplin, Keaton, W.C. Fields, the Brothers Marx, Preston Sturges, Jerry Lewis or Jacques Tati ever making such a claim.

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