Friday, February 5, 2021

His Lordship

Mockumentaries are funny at first, Until you realize they're just mocking people.

I was reading an article online which criticized the use of brackets in quotes. The author made a good point about that, and we all tend to use this bracketing thing too often to modify quotes.  But the example cited for using [brackets] improperly, was an article critical of Christopher Guest in his role as Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman.

Christopher Guest rose to fame in 1984 as one of the members of "Spinal Tap" in a "mockumentary" directed by Rob Reiner.   It was a funny movie and a send-up of the heavy metal genre.  Oddly enough, many people thought the band was real - or simply didn't care - and the group actually toured and released an album.

The term "mockumentary" is an interesting one, and apparently Guest doesn't like the term, as it implied he is mocking the people who are the subject of the movie, rather than mocking documentaries in general or being a "mock" documentary.   But I think the term has all three meanings, and despite his protests to the contrary, Guest is often mocking the subjects of his movies.

Guest started writing, directing, and starring in subsequent movies, which is never a good sign.  While he did use the same or similar ensemble cast of players, when you have that much control over a movie, it isn't a good thing - there is no one to push back on your editorial, directorial, or acting decisions.

Guest directed Waiting for Guffman in 1996, Best in Show in 2000,  A Mighty Wind in 2003, For Your Consideration, in 2006, and after a decade-long lull, Mascots in 2016.  He also directed Family Tree in 2013, a series for HBO that was cancelled after eight episodes. Apparently the mockumentary formula did not lend itself to a series format, and the premise was somewhat bizarre.

The movies are formulaic, to say the least.  A documentary is being made of some sort of somewhat obscure field of endeavor (community theater, dog shows, folk music, movie production, sports mascots) where some sort of competition or event is about to take place.  We are introduced to the ensemble cast of players - usually the same actors - each playing a kooky person with particular idiosyncrasies (sexual or otherwise) which are only apparent to the viewer and not the subject, who takes himself or herself too seriously. Hilarity ensues  - sometimes.

Guest really made a career of this sort of trope.  He started out with National Lampoon, writing and acting in Lemmings, which was a sort of mockumentary of Woodstock (billed as a Mock Concert).  He then moved over to Saturday Night Live (as many other NatLampCo alumni did) for one ill-fated season.   There he did a lot of poor sketch comedy including...... a mini-mockumentary about synchronized swimming, in which he appeared with Martin Short, who played a synchronized swimmer who can't swim (and apparently mocks mental disability as well).  Guest plays an effeminate dance instructor, sort of a proto-Corky.  Sadly, Guest is the definition of a one-trick pony, at least when it comes to film-making.  One could argue that he simply makes the same film over and over again.

While Guest claims he isn't mocking the subjects of his films, they do tend to, well, mock the subjects of his films, who are portrayed as earnest and eager, but completely clueless as to their own utter lack of talent or ability - or limited quantities thereof.  Perhaps Guest is projecting his own insecurities, or perhaps that of any actor.  Interesting thought.

It is funny, though, that of the mockumentary films he made, A Mighty Wind was not as loved by the critics, as some said he treated the subjects too deftly.  Guest, being a musician, perhaps pulled back from biting commentary a bit in that film, and audiences were not as pleased.  So that illustrates part of the problem - we select what is produced on the screen, to some extent.  And perhaps the problem isn't Guest and his mocking of ordinary folks, but that we like to see these bitchy fights and tearing down of our fellow man.  Perhaps it is we who are the problem, not Guest.  He is just throwing us the red meat we all love to chow down on.   

But getting back to Guffman, (which itself is a play on Waiting for Godot and Alfred Hitchcock's use of MacGuffins) I hadn't thought about it much, but it's true that the role that Christopher Guest played was sort of a Stepin Fetchit version of a gay minstrel show.  It really was an offensive stereotype, although in his defense, in that time (1996), such social stereotypes were common, although in the decline.

Stepin Fetchit was at least black, and not a white person in blackface, so you could at least argue he brought some humanity to the role, even if, in retrospect, we might find the persona a stereotype.  It is akin to Amos and Andy, who were played on the radio by white actors - and indulged in some of the worst stereotypes of blacks.  When they made the move to television, at least, they found black actors to take the roles.   Stereotypes are demeaning, but doubly so when perpetrated by someone not of that minority group.  When a black actor plays to black stereotypes (which still goes on today, alas) at least you can argue that the audience is laughing with him, and not at him.

But it got me thinking and I did some research on Christopher Guest and it turns out he's actually a Baron and was a member of the House of the Lords for a brief period of time before the Lordship act of 1999. That act eliminated, for the most part, hereditary titles and changed the qualifications for membership in the House of Lords. No longer do you inherit a seat in the House of Lords, rather it is selected by other means. If you win the national lottery in Great Britain, first prize is one million quid. Second prize is a seat in the House of Lords. In a way this is a much more egalitarian system.

While I enjoyed Spinal Tap, and Best in Show, as well as A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman always struck me is kind of awkward.  While Guest may have retired from this sort of filmmaking, the mantle has been passed on to another Baron - Sasha Baron Cohen, who has made  career of writing, directing, and acting in (again, the evil vanity-project trifecta) a series of "mockumentary" films that skewer ordinary people - only this time, the ordinary people are not chosen from a stable of actors, but are people off-the-street who often don't realize they are being had. We could condemn this as well, but his "exposure" of Rudy Giuliani makes it all worthwhile - for now at least.  But like Guest, Cohen resorts to crude gay stereotypes for a laugh - and often doesn't get the laugh in the process.   Worse yet, in some of his films, he borders on blackface.

I mentioned before that the television only depicts us little people as being kookie and stupid. So if you're the guy who collects the world's largest ball of twine, or painted your house in the colors of the local sports franchise, or perhaps refuses to mow his lawn, then you'll make it on the evening news. But other than that, most of the news is about celebrities and how we worship them. The rest of us are just kookie oddballs, who at best, might be able to build a shrine to Cher in our basements.

And it struck me, watching Mascots on Netflix, that Christopher Guest really is looking down on us and mocking us, even though he decries the term mockumentary as he claims he isn't mocking the subjects of his fake documentaries but laughing with them. But I think his Lordship is in fact looking down his nose at us "commoners." Despite his protests that the House of Lords should be reformed, and its members elected, he did not step down from his role until forced to, and certainly isn't about to give up his title as Baron or Lord or whoever-gives-a-fuck.  This is America - we don't have inherited royalty.

While we might excuse the use of stereotypical gay characters in his earlier films such as Waiting for Guffman, it's kind of awkward that Corky St. Clair makes a reprise in Mascots two decades later.  Again, maybe in the 1990's that sort of thing was more acceptable (but even then - Saturday Night Live has a lot to answer for, besides Black Jeopardy!) it seems odd to reprise the character twenty years later.  Not only that, but the character adds nothing to the story line and all of his scenes could be easily cut.  Going even further, they should have been cut, because they just confused the storyline and introduced an unnecessary character and dialog that made no sense overall.  Corky parachutes into the story as a former "teacher" of one of the Mascots, but the last time we left him in Guffman, he was selling tchotchke in a gift shop off Broadway.  How did he hook up with a Mascot from Alabama in the interim?   Again, if the same person was not writing, directing, and acting, perhaps different decisions would have been made.

As the article in Esquire more eloquently put it, these sort of put-downs are are quite disturbing.  In Guffman we are introduced to Corky St. Clair, who is portrayed as a closeted gay man, who everyone else (but himself) realizes he is gay.  Hilarity ensues:

It’s not just that Corky is married to an offscreen and out of town “Bonnie,” who may or may not exist but whose pantsuits he definitely buys. It’s not even the Judy Tenuta t-shirt. It’s that when he is casting “Red, White and Blaine,” he reaches out to Blaine bad boy Johnny Savage. Savage has no discernible talent or interest in theater, but he is played by ‘90s indie dreamboat Matt Keeslar, so he is therefore hot. Corky woos Savage for the show and maybe something more. “Oh, you get off at 5,” Corky says in the garage where Savage works. “That’s a long day,” he flirts, as Savage's father watches in horror. Later, at a cast gathering, Corky gives Savage his private number and tells him not to share it with anyone. He goes for it, whether out of horniness or the bone-deep despair of being a gay man in a small Missouri town before Grindr. Corky is audibly gay, he has pursued the stereotypical gay career path of “drama teacher,” but when it comes to the actual sex part of homosexuality, he is either in deep denial or he’s low-key predatory, and his fumbling for love and human contact is the joke. Look, the gay guy thinks he’s people.

Interesting footnote, Matt Keeslar, after a pretty extensive career in moves and television, chucked it all and went back to college for a degree in biology and is now a Physician's Assistant working in a urology practice.  Who said there were no second acts in American Lives?  Good for him!

It is interesting, how so many famous people and wealthy people started out as actors or worked part-time as actors, even as they pursued other careers. Even our own former president used celebrity to his own advantage, only recently  resigning from The Screen Actors Guild.  If you think about it, acting is a pretty good gig, provided you get those starring roles,or even the occasional bit.

Of course, we don't have royalty here in America, we have celebrities instead. They are the royalty that I guess we little people crave. As I've noted in many posts before, people want to elevate one of their own above themselves so they can worship them from afar. We don't have Queens and Dukes and Kings in this country, so we create our own. And we even worship European royalty from afar.  Sounds like Guest has the best of both worlds - celebrity in America and royalty in the UK.

I'm not sure what the point of this is, only that the article in Esquire kind of soured me on Christopher Guest. His movies seemed kind of funny at the time, but now they just seem kind of repetitive and boring. Each one has the same old setup, where a kooky collection of ordinary people are brought together for some reason and their own foibles are used against them. We look down upon them and laugh at them for being stupid and obstinate.  And the end of each film, we are treated to a "one year later" update, with most of the characters having moved on, most not learning anything in the process.  Like I said, his movies are formulaic, down to the last detail.

Mr. Guest's rendition of Corky St. Clair might have been excusable if he was in fact gay himself. However he is a heterosexual, playing a stereotyped gay man. In fact, a gay man that really doesn't exist in real life, speaking in a mincing sibilant lispy voice and acting in an effeminate manner. Perhaps such gay people do exist, but they are distinct minority, and the joke here is that the character in question doesn't believe himself to be gay and yet the audience immediately recognizes this from the stereotyped characteristics. We're not laughing with him we are laughing at him.

Many, many decades ago, we saw the same thing in terms of how blacks were depicted in movies. As many blacks said at the time, they were happy just to see their own kind depicted at all on the screen even if they were depicted in stereotypical roles. Of course, there was a parallel black Hollywood producing Motion Pictures specifically for black audiences, and these often presented black characters in ordinary circumstances, not in some sort of minstrel show pantomime.

The same is true for gay cinema. Years back, we would be happy just to see a gay character, even though they were usually shown is either buffoons or clowns or mincing effeminate stereotypes - or in many cases the evil villains. More than one James Bond film, for example, has implied that the villain maybe perhaps less than manly. The film Diamonds are Forever, in fact, featured a pair of homosexual assassins, who meet their well-deserved demise in the end.  Hey, they weren't people anyway, right?

But just as there was a Black Cinema in the early years of Hollywood, there was also Gay Cinema of that period, which played movies mostly to small art houses in urban areas.  And those films depicted gays in ordinary circumstances, not as stereotyped clowns or ancillary characters. But over time, gays have been more accepted into mainstream society, this sort of Jim Crow effect has diminished.

Of course, this sort of thing has not disappeared entirely. People are now casting black actors in traditionally white roles, such as in the recent Netflix series Bridgerton, which some have protested is not "historcally accurate."  At first it seems jarring, but after the second episode you come to accept that perhaps maybe it was possible that some royalty in England was in fact black, or perhaps a black person could play a white role and we could see beyond the color of their skin. And in fact, it is quite easy to do so. A show driven by plot and character doesn't rely upon appearances as much.  And let's face it, it is just a soap opera, not a period piece or a documentary - or even a mockumentary.

But of course, there has been push-back from the Neanderthal set. When the new Ghostbusters movie came out that featured in all-female cast, it was severely criticized by a small minority of misogynist people. And in particular, one of the black actors in that film was singled out for particular abuse.

But now there's talk of perhaps that the next James Bond being a woman, or perhaps even black.  And in fact, in one of the recent James Bond films featuring Daniel Craig there was even a very homoerotic scene.  We've come a long way, perhaps.   But then again, it was the villain who was depicted as trying to seduce Bond, and like Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, gets what is coming to him, in the end.  So maybe we aren't making as much progress as we'd like to think.  It is akin to these action movies, where the token black character always has to sacrifice himself so the white characters can escape.

But yes, progress is being made. As for his Lordship Christopher Guest, well, he is in his seventies and probably isn't making too many more films. And I guess he can be excused for being part of the old school and not realizing he needed to update his act. The movie Mascots dates from 2016, a time when he should have known better than to pointlessly resuscitate Corky St. Clair. The fact that the character of Corky Sinclair added nothing to the film itself is kind of odd.  It really adds nothing to the plot other than an obvious gay joke.  And he could have written a new character for a film that has no obvious connection to Guffman in the first place.  But that would have taken effort and talent, and it is much easier to go for the minority stereotype.

Maybe his Lordship Guest should retire and let the next generation make movies. That's the way I feel about these things as well. I don't understand a lot of what the next-generation is saying, and a lot of it doesn't make any sense to me. But then again, the next 50 years belongs to them, not to me. And clinging to the ways that I was raised in, but are clearly obsolete, doesn't make any sense.

Maybe I'm not a big fan of Miss AOC, who is mystified by garbage disposals. But perhaps in 20 or 30 years she could be President of the United States. Weirder things have happened, sadly. And certainly our generation is not elevated the best and the brightest to that position. In fact, we have an awful lot to answer for.

And so does his Lordship.