Sunday, November 22, 2020

Fake Doc Watch: Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Watched:  11/14/2020
Format:  DVD
Viewing:  Unknown
Decade:  1990's
Director:  Christopher Guest

For a run of about five movies, Christopher Guest managed to borrow the "mockumentary" format pioneered with Spinal Tap (in which he famously costars), and managed to create some Gen-X favorites.  The run began with Waiting for Guffman (1996), a "doc" following the production of a pageant/ play intended to celebrate the sesquicentennial of a small, Missouri town, Blaine, the participants of which believe will be seen by an agent of a Broadway producer - elevating their joy at just participating in a local stage show to the chance for something beyond their wildest dreams.

Guest's ensemble would continue on with him through all five films, into his HBO show Family Tree, and into the attempt to recapture the magic with Mascots in 2016.  This film includes talent that was breaking at the time, established talent, and helped to establish some of the cast.

The great Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Larry Miller, Don Lake, a young David Cross (and you can see Bob Odenkirk in a single shot), Paul Dooley, and others.  In an era before film was shot digitally, the idea of letting actors improvise endlessly just wasn't that appealing.  Film is difficult and expensive.  But apparently Guest figured out how to budget for what he knew he wanted to do - and he knew he could trust his cast to make it work.  Apparently there's 60 hours of film shot for this one.  It's been a long time, but I think it used to be usually more like a 4 or 5 to 1 ratio for minutes shot to minutes used in a typical movie.

And, yeah - the film remains hilarious.  Some of the things I didn't really note or find all that funny in 96', I now find hilarious (Brian Doyle-Murray's nearly silent performance).  But this is peak stuff from a lot of the rest of the cast, and it's what earned them the trust of backers to go out and do Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.  

Unlike other films that tried to follow on the heels on Waiting for Guffman, like Drop Dead Gorgeous, the film never feels exactly mean-spirited toward the characters or their environs.  It may not present it with glamour and a huge part of the comedy is the naivete or cluelessness of characters, but it never makes anyone the enemy - you're rooting for the characters even when you know: this isn't going to work.  It's a surprisingly fine line.

Some of the movie is dated by 2020 standards.  A badly closeted gay man living in small town America doesn't ring the way it did in 1996 (Guest's character, Corky, never confirms his orientation, but...).  The cast is overwhelmingly white.  But I remember 1996.  

Of course, several shows (see: The Office) borrowed the faux-documentary style, and even when they aren't, they're shot like one (see: Brooklyn-99.  No, really - it's funny - I recommend. See it.).   So, I'm not sure what this would even look like to the kids.

On a final note:  this was filmed outside of Austin in what is regarded as the BBQ mecca of Central Texas, Lockhart.  So, it's kind of nice to see a classic Texas small-town square* featured so prominently in the film supposedly in Missouri.  I think they used the same one for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  

It's kind of shocking how few of these movies there ever were, as they left such a big impact, at least to my mind.  They did a lot to change what was possible in movie comedy - which led indirectly to what has crept into television, up to and including the annual broadcast of the dog shows.  But it also pointed to not just improv as a great way to make comedies, but to ensure characters had heart even when they were ridiculous.  I mean, we're devastated along with the characters when we learn Guffman never showed - even when we were cringing our way through their show for the prior 20 minutes of the film.

That's something pretty great.

*Texas small towns all had a similar layout for decades.  A court-house in the middle, with a sort of grassy, green area.  Then a square of shops and commerce surrounding.  You can hit small-town after small-town in Texas and see the same.  San Marcos, Georgetown, Lockhart, Lampasas and plenty of others around here all look the same.   

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