Fred Armisen is a man of many talents, real and imagined (see: Late Night with Seth Meyers for elaborations on both), who has found a delightful outlet for his considerable gifts and unique sensibility on Portlandia. His former Saturday Night Live castmate Bill Hader is slowly, surely becoming a movie star. He earned stellar reviews and awards buzz for his dramatic turn in The Skeleton Twins last year, and this summer, he appeared in the season’s best comedy (Trainwreck, opposite Amy Schumer) and best film, period (Inside Out). Somehow, someway, these busy guys found time to collaborate with Meyers on Documentary Now!, a six-episode IFC series that spoofs classic documentaries and contemporary documentary forms, made for a moment that’s gone gonzo for documentary storytelling of various types. (See: The Jinx, Vice, Going Clear and more.) This thing can’t miss. Right?
Well, it doesn’t. Documentary Now! is a true gem, though its many facets and intricacies may be difficult to appreciate, especially its premiere. “Sandy Passage” which presents itself as a film from the seventies produced by two brothers, about a pair of recluses, a mother and a daughter from high society stock who live in squalor in a dilapidated country mansion. Armisen is a hoot as the mom, but Hader is brilliant as the daughter, in a performance that transcends the men-in-drag gag. The storytelling simply observes the ladies in their habitat, even lets them guide the narrative, with Hader’s sad, unrealized dreamer relishing the attention and using the opportunity to feel like the star she feels she could have/should have been, to escape, at least in her mind, her fate as caretaker to a bitter bitty.
It’s all very poignant, precious, and even a little boring: You keep waiting for a twist, for more visceral, heartier laughs. Something does happen — fulfilling a suspicion you’ll have from the start – and while it’s funny and satisfying, it also transforms this idiosyncratic piece into something more familiar. You wonder if a point is being made. Unspoken here is that – until the late game morph — “Sandy Passage” is a parody of “Grey Gardens,” a 1975 milestone made by the brothers Albert and David Maysles, innovator legends of the field (the former recently passed away), and an extraordinary, then-unusual example of direct cinema. “Sandy Passage” represents a comment on the evolution of a genre, and reminds us, perhaps mournfully, that a certain kind of technique was once used to chase loftier, more humane goals than crass reality TV Schadenfreude or cheap-o found footage horror flicks.
The themes and satirical perspective suggested by “Sandy Passage” are developed further in subsequent episodes. “Kunuk Uncovered” which riffs and rips on “Nanook of the North,” a seminal 1922 film profiling the life of an Inuk man and controversial for its use of staged events. Armisen (who plays Kunuk), Hader (unrecognizable in old age make-up) and Meyers turn this fake doc about a fake doc satirizing a faked doc into an allegory about the history and evolution of film and an affectionate, admiring poke at auteurism, from the silent comedians of old to modern renegades of today. “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chigon” is the most accessible and most overtly satirical of the first three episodes, as it targets VICE’s brand of edgy, visceral, rock n’ roll docu-media and reckless participant journalism in general.
Documentary Now! – with a title borrowed from Apocalypse Now — makes heady comedy out of important, timeless aesthetic and critical concerns that are becoming increasingly important and relevant to today’s media-saturated, media-savvy consumer, like the relationship between subject and camera, reality and “reality,” and (the horror! the horror!) the audience takeover of art-making and journalism. It achieves a similar effect as other satirical entertainments about the entertainment industry, from Network to Wag The Dog, The Truman Show to UnREAL: It opens our eyes to how stories are told, how truth is manipulated, how the medium works us and media co-opts us.
Some are saying Documentary Now! is all inside jokes that no one will get. Maybe. I’d like to think anyone not in the know will laugh plenty, and if they don’t, they can and will delight in the artistry of its actors, writers and directors (kudos to Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono for tackling and mastering an array of styles). If you can’t, that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean Documentary Now! isn’t a quality piece of work or that it doesn’t deserve to exist. I hate the “inside joke” complaint in general. It risks shaming artists for interests that aren’t the least bit shameful and for having and enjoying an intelligence that I’m grateful they possess. Applied specifically to Documentary Now!, the criticism marginalizes anyone who does get some or all of the show’s references. I even appreciated the references I didn’t get, like “Grey Gardens,” a film I’ve never seen but have heard a lot about over the years. That episode didn’t alienate me. It inspired me to find out more about Grey Gardens, which in turn enhanced my regard for “Sandy Passage.” Eek! The horror, the horror of a show that does something as terrible as stoking curiosity and spurring some learning about its subject matter! Please, Mr. TV Man, no more of those! A