For the most part, mockumentaries do not receive any more credit than presenting parody-centralized, escapism comedy to audiences. While mockumentaries most certainly act as a social commentary for the ways documentary films are made, they usually end up coming second best, losing out to the ‘serious’ issues their sister genre never fails to present. The rap mockumentaries receive is one of unfair criticism, as the films also possess undertones of various civil issues, which seem to get buried underneath a comedic script. Though the film, Best In Show (Christopher Guest, 2000), may appear to be a light comedy, focussing on the absurdity of a dog show on the surface, there are certainly themes of film-making ethics, and the exploration of social issues concerning the early 21st century, layered underneath the film’s seemingly playful exterior.
Ultimately, Best In Show illustrates that mockumentaries act as a window into the public’s view of how social issues are dealt with in documentary films. While it would be easy (and not out-of-the-question) to catalogue Best In Show as nothing more than an entertaining mockumentary, it is surprisingly much more than that. These days (with films such as Borat, or Bruno) it is increasingly difficult to realize that mockumentaries are more than just crude throwaway films, but that they are ‘mock documentaries. ’ In one way or another, they must deal with the same issues real documentaries face, as they borrow the same template of film making.
One of the big issues these films must deal with are, ethics in documentaries. Although Best In Show employs actors to portray the dog owners being caught on film, the film’s director, Christopher Guest, uses them to poke fun at how social actors are treated in most documentary films. To begin, in his book, “Introduction to Documentary,” Bill Nichols asks, “Should we tell someone we film that they risk making a fool of themselves or that there will be many who will judge their conduct negatively? ” (9). In the same vein as many of his contemporaries, Guest answers this question with an unapologetic “no,” and continues to monstrously exploit the characters of his film. Notably, every character in Best In Show unknowingly comes off as a complete and utter fool at some point in the movie. For example, the film’s naive Norwich terrier owner, Gerry Fleck, often comes off as sad and freakish, as Guest makes a point of using footage exhibiting Fleck’s “two left feet,” and the embarrassment of running into his wife’s ex-lovers throughout the course of the film.
As a result of Guest’s choice to leave these embarrassing moments in the film, the audience is left with tons of material to laugh at, but all at Gerry Fleck’s expense. Luckily, the film is a piece of fiction, so the character’s feelings mean next to nothing, but surely the character’s torment is Guest’s well-executed critique of how documentary filmmakers mishandle and abandon ethics, in the pursuit of making a great film. Next, it would appear that a documentary filmmaker’s ‘art’ is more important than the well-being of its subjects. In fact, Bill Nichols explains this theory well stating, “Filmmakers, especially journalistic filmmakers, belong to organization and institutions with their own standards and practices.
Even independent filmmakers usually see themselves as professional artists, pursuing a career more than dedicating themselves to representing the interests of a particular group. ” (13). With this in mind, Guest decides to use a best-in-breed dog show as the focal point of his ‘art,’ in order to reveal the foolishness of other documentary makers. With such a ludicrous idea for a film, Guest seems to be suggesting that an artist’s piece of work, should never trump the well-being of the people who volunteer themselves to appear in the work. Even though Best In Show is clearly an over-the-top piece of fiction, there are no holds-barred when it comes to divulging the complete lack of ethics, in all forms of documentaries.
Although the year 2000 does not seem to have been that long ago, it has been nearly 15 years since Best In Show was first released, and it is quite interesting to reflect on how the social issues of the time were handled in the beginnings of the 21st century. While literally every character in the film is portrayed as a stereotype, Best In Show still puts on a brave front, attempting to deal with many of the rising matters of contention in the early 2000’s. First, there are two groups of homosexual characters that the film deals with, a pair of homosexual men, and a pair of platonic female friends, who by the climax of the film, end up becoming a couple. The pair of men, Scott and Stefan, are portrayed in a light that by today’s standards would fall under the stereotype branch, as one partner is overtly flamboyant and the other is a straight-ahead, unassuming gay man (think Cameron and Mitchell on ABC’s Modern Family). Unfortunately, the stereotypical character themes continue with the pair of closeted lesbians, Sherri Ann and Christy. Sherri Ann is a gold-digging beauty queen past her prime, and Christy is her butch, short-haired dog trainer.
Not only are the character’s appearances stereotypical, but so too is their dialogue, filled with stock phrases and cliches designed to match the aesthetics of their speakers. From Scott having to, “pack seven kimonos for 48 hours in Boston” to Christy being called a, “happy fella” by the show announcer, after winning the best-in-breed competition, it feels like neither of these characters get to move forward, that they are forever stuck in a rut. However, if the film does have one shining moment to advance its homosexual characters, it is at the very end of the film, when Sherri Ann and Christy (who are closeted throughout the movie’s entirety) begin to kiss uncontrollably, in front of an entire arena of dog fanatics. Perhaps placing this scene near the film’s climax, is Guest’s attempt to illustrate that as the 20th century comes to an end, so too should the taboos that surround homosexuality.
Secondly, Best In Show does an interesting job of depicting just how imperfect the ‘perfect couple’ really is. The characters, Meg and Hamilton, are a prosperous couple that both have jobs practicing law, and seem to be in the middle of the yuppies transition into the impending 21st century. The couple’s only success in the film seems to be that of their careers, with their personal relationship being one of high stress, with lots of competition and tumultuousness. At one point in the film, they recall the time they first met, stating that they had seen each other at law school, but actually met at separate Starbucks, with Hamilton growing the courage to cross the street in order to talk to Meg. Thinking back, Hamilton remarks that he was drinking a grande espresso upon their first encounter (which Meg found quite sexy), but quickly states that he now drinks ‘chai tea latte soy milk,’ as he has recently become lactose intolerant (much to Meg’s disappointment). This exchange perfectly illustrates how much these middle aged yuppies lives have changed since they first met.
For instance, Hamilton’s development of lactose intolerance is almost the equivalence of erectile dysfunction in the parallel world of yuppies. In the end, Meg and Hamilton seem to have been written to show the evolution of the yuppie; turning the young urban professional of the past, into the Starbucks-drinking, bohemian yuppie of today. It is through these characters, that Guest shows the audience that money certainly cannot buy happiness, and uses them as an opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of the world they inhabit. Surprisingly enough, Best In Show is able to tackle major issues in both society and film, all while managing to generate big laughs along the way.
It is interesting to take a look back to the turning point of the 21st century, and reflect on how much the social issues of the times have changed since then. Though we have not completely solved the problems surrounding ethics in filmmaking, or social issues, it is still fascinating to see where Guest believed the general public could move towards, all through the use of mockumentary film.
Best In Show. Dir. Christopher Guest. Perf.
Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock. Warner Bros. , 2000. DVD. Nichols, Bill.
“Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking?. ” Introduction to documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. 9, 13.