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We have seen that, in most cases, the mock documentary form is used to create comedy. In fact, the mock documentary, precisely because it can allow so many different levels of reality to interact with each other, offers the opportunity for some of the most intelligent and scathing comedy of any film genre. In the mock documentary, anything is fair game for satire: the subject matter of the film, the subjects of the film, various film genres, both the real and the projected worlds, and, most importantly, the tenets of documentary itself. As I mentioned, the objects of satire in This Is Spinal Tap and Zelig, for instance, are almost too numerous to count. Even Man Bites Dog, morbid as it is, must be considered a comedic work.
But we have also seen that the mock documentary is not limited to comedy, as in the case of No Lies. But this seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Merely by making a "fake" film, a filmmaker is inviting playfulness, ribaldry, and absurdity to set up shop on his set. Just as René Magritte invoked an impishly playful spirit when he painted his pipe/not-a-pipe, the makers of mock documentaries know very well what they are getting into when they decide to poke fun at conventions of the documentary film. No Lies, then, was a necessary step in the comedic evolution of the mock documentary: someone had to make a serious one before someone else could make a jesting one. That is, the mock documentary itself has a set of conventions, many of which are explored in the deceptively simple No Lies, and others of which I hope to have touched on here. By taking as its model the general cinematic language of the documentary, the mock documentary is able to rework the conventions of an ostensibly nonfiction genre into the somewhat trickier conventions of a genre that purports to tell the truth when it, in fact, lies. By adopting and changing these conventions, the mock documentary developed for itself a new set of its own conventions, to which it constantly adds dimensions and techniques, just as the conventions of documentary themselves never cease to be reshaped. The mock documentary is, at once, less than a documentary, more than a documentary, and not a documentary at all.

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Copyright © Ethan de Seife, author of Cultographies: This is Spinal Tap. Reprinted with permission.

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