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Now that we have a working definition of the mock documentary, I would like to apply that definition to two films in particular to see how they behave as mock documentaries. As I have mentioned before, I believe that Man Bites Dog and Forgotten Silver are among the best of the lot. I have chosen these two films for a number of reasons. Their premises are among the most plausible of any mock documentary, though, in both cases, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required. Also, these films maintain their illusions for their entire durations, up to and including the credits. And the closing credits, as we have seen in the case of No Lies, can be the final and decisive giveaway about a mock documentary's true nature.
Finally, these two films are less well-known (at least in the U.S.) than the two I consider their equals — This Is Spinal Tap and Zelig — and therefore have less of a cult of fandom and scholarly writing about them. This Is Spinal Tap, in particular, has amassed vast legions of devotees, any number of incredibly detailed web sites, and a cult reputation perhaps matched only by the Star Trek or Star Wars films. Large numbers of admirers do not do anything to diminish the film's wit and incisiveness, of course, but they do do something to diminish its impact as a mock documentary. When so many people are in on the joke, the joke's effectiveness dwindles somewhat; not measurably, but somewhat. Zelig is at the opposite extreme: Any Woody Allen film lends itself to scholarly study, and Zelig has produced perhaps the greatest body of critical work of them all. The film is an incredibly rich text, what with its themes of the place of the individual in society, the real vs. the fake, documentary parody, and its easily drawn references to Reds (1981), Citizen Kane (1941), the "elephant man," and modern-day intellectualism. Robert Stam has written insightfully about Zelig in his book Subversive Pleasures, and Janet Staiger has followed his lead in Bakhtinian analysis of the film in her Interpreting Films. There is much to be said with regard to Zelig as a mock documentary, and Stam in particular has said a good deal of it. Though a fair amount has been written about Man Bites Dog, it does not (yet) have the exalted status that Zelig and This Is Spinal Tap have achieved in their vastly different ways. And what little has been written on Forgotten Silver has principally been published in Australia and New Zealand, Peter Jackson's home country.
In addition to all of this, both Man Bites Dog and Forgotten Silver are more typical of the mock documentary form than are other films. They neither reveal their true nature too early, as Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Fear of a Black Hat (1994) both do, nor do they have as their principal goal the deliberate trickery of their audiences, which is a component of No Lies. These two films are, first and foremost, concerned with having their viewers question what they see. It is no coincidence that these two films also are about, in more ways the one, film. To borrow Eitzen's phrasing, these are documentaries about documentaries, even if they are fiction films about serial killers and unheralded directors. As they progress, both films arrive at pointed and intelligent critiques of documentary practice, and that is what ultimately separates these films from others of the genre.

Man Bites Dog >>>>>>
Forgotten Silver >>>>>>
Conclusion >>>>>>

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

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