In last Wednesday’s New York Times, Manhola Dargis performed a vivisection of director Kevin Willmott’s mockumentary, qua alternative history, CSA: The Confederate States of America. The film comically (if harrowingly) depicts what might have occurred had the South won the Civil War. In it, “the Confederate flag waves, Lincoln dies of old age and D.W. Griffith makes a movie about the disgraced president’s escape attempt by Underground Railroad and the good graces of a doomed Harriet Tubman.”
Dargis likens CSA: The Confederate States of America to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, the elder director’s satire about a black minstrel television show, but ultimately despairs: “Mr. Willmott’s film rises to the bait but not the challenge.” I haven’t seen the film, but I’m a fan of the mockumentary genre (see my own, Hold Me With Your Robot Hand) and surprised Dargis didn’t question whether or not issue-driven mockumentaries such as Willmott’s sabotage their own commentary by virtue of the genre itself. It’s like that old “I am a liar” conundrum. Can one take seriously something that purports to examine real issues but is framed in a manner that is, by its nature, unreal?
After some contemplation, I’ve concluded, yes, ultimately, one can put great stock in the unreal as a means of serious examination. Religion, for example, is a form of fiction used to examine our existential notions; politics is a farce fueled almost entirely by deceit devised to explain why you’re poor; high school has absolutely nothing to do with reality but aids in studying self-loathing.
Ours is now a media-literate society, we no longer ask “Is it real or is it Memorex?” We know that a mockumentary is not asking us to suspend our disbelief nor is it attempting to fool us – it doesn’t challenge what we know so much as how we know. (I mean, if Magritte passed the pipe wouldn’t you take a puff even if you knew ceci n’est pas une pipe? I totally would, then I would say, “Damn, Rene, that’s some good shit.” And he would say “This is not shit” and the whole thing would start again, but we’d both be in on it.)
Dargis’ review brought to mind a cheeky mock-doc, similar in some ways to Willmott’s, by Malcom in the Middle scribe Andy Bobrow. Titled The Old Negro Space Program, Bobrow’s short (essentially NASA meets the Negro Baseball League) likewise lampoons Ken Burns style documentary-making while effectively commenting on America’s checkered past segregating black and white. As before, the elephant in the screening room is racism and though Bobrow doesn’t necessarily take it by the tusks, he does lob a mouse or two to make it squirm (some viewers may too). Either way, it serves to remind that the silver screen will always do better by humanity’s projections of itself than, say, a white sheet.
“A mock documentary, by containing some elements which are not of the real world, encourages viewers to question those elements of the real world which they would normally take for granted,” writes the University of Wisconsin’s Ethan de Seife in his essay “The Treachery of Images” (published, appropriately, on the website SpinalTapFan.com). Likewise, Willmott’s and Bobrow’s films aspire through the commentary of their comedy to air issues that sadly remain part of our “real world,” a noble endeavor no matter how fantasized the window-dressing, or mock the doc.