Note: This was written for Mark Berretini’s Mocumentary course at Portland State University in Spring 2011.
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is
because Fiction is obliged to stick to
possibilities; Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain
There is a question that every mockumentary unconsciously plants in the viewer’s mind: How “realistic” is this intended to be? What makes it a mockumentary? The common misconception is that the term “mockumentary” translates to a fake documentary in the comic mold, or a fake documentary that mocks its subject. In reality, the term relates to anything that presents its subject as non-fiction and then mocks the actual documentary form. Hence the term, mockumentary.
These questions become difficult to answer in any definitive sense when it comes to David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), a borderline surrealistic travelogue in which we are introduced to a peculiar small town on the verge of a special event. In the film, Byrne introduces us to the town of Virgil, Texas on the eve of a celebration of “150 Years of Specialness.” The film has some things superficially in common with other mockumentaries, namely the concept of clearly-defined, essentially well-meaning, “ordinary” small-town people converging on a special event, which it seems to share with Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003). “Like the writer and director Preston Sturges (The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve), whose wacky characters cherish their American dreams as lofty as building an airport suspended over a city or as low as cheating at cards, Guest has respect and affection for the oddballs he creates. No matter how absurd their circumstances, he always takes them seriously, which only makes them funnier. Their wrenching heartbreaks and tiny triumphs make them exactly like us” (Witchel). So does Byrne. On some level, he seems to love the characters he’s created, reputedly based on “true stories” he found in newspaper clippings, subsequently published in a book collection.
In True Stories, we are introduced in roughly the most roundabout way fathomable to the bizarre little town of Virgil by a Narrator (Byrne, who also wrote and directed), a tall, thin, oddly-voiced man in garish would-be cowboy clothes who drives a convertible through the rural and vaguely suburban backroads of town, occasionally on point about whatever he’s talking about, occasionally drifting into odd territory with his narration. He begins on a stage in front of a large movie projection screen, narrating over black-and-white footage going back to the age of dinosaurs (clearly filmed for the purposes of one of those B.C. era B-grade action films of the 40s or 50s) and treating it as fact, as if a documentary crew was there at the time and captured the sights on film. So right away, Byrne’s authoritarian narration is undermined by a certain absurdity punctuated by dry wit (ala’ Bunuel’s Land without Bread).
From this point, Byrne actually walks through the movie screen, which underlines the artificiality of the film’s construction, and so begins his travelogue/driving narration as he makes his way into the town of Virgil. The audience is introduced to Virgil as a leading forerunner of technological production in the United States, including a computer chip plant in which employees work on an assembly line, gabbing away about whatever their experience is and whiling away the time. The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), for example, attempts to connect every conceivable event in American and Texan history for the past 25 years to her personal life, clearly making things up as she goes along, from things involving the Kennedy family to a reputed dalliance with Burt Reynolds and, if I’m not mistaken, alien abduction. A fellow worker named Ramon (Humberto ‘Tito’ Larriva) claims he can read the psychic vibrations given off by his fellow Virgilians, intuiting whatever is going on inside them simply by focusing intently with his mind. These kinds of moments ring absurd but true; as Roger Ebert wrote in his original review, “There is hardly a moment in True Stories that doesn’t seem everyday to anyone who has grown up in Middle America, and not a moment that doesn’t seem haunted with secrets, evasions, loneliness, depravity or hidden joy – sometimes all at once. This is almost like a science-fiction movie: Everyone on screen looks so normal and behaves so oddly, they could be pod people.”
That being said, there are moments in True Stories which easily stretch credulity to the disintegration point. If the tour of the plant in town comes across as believable at first, there is one moment that makes one wonder; it’s subtle but it’s there: the camera stands at the end of the hallway watching as Byrne and a mid-level technician tour the facility and as they pass the camera, it turns, apparently blending into Byrne’s POV, following slightly behind as the technician explains things to him. In the middle of this tracking shot from Byrne’s POV, however, the filmmaker cuts to a reverse POV shot from the perspective of the technician, watching Byrne’s reaction as they walk and talk. This becomes problematic because, although documentaries are constructed like any other film from multiple takes and utilize editing and various tricks to underline their points as needed, it seems like a vaguely contrived way of breaking out of the “realism” or “documentary-ness” of the film’s vibe – to whatever degree it had managed to establish it at this point.
However, we then have our introduction to Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a large but basically sweet-natured and kind-hearted doofus who works in the clean room at a factory, wearing one of those big white anti-radiation suits to do his job. He talks about his job and speaks to the camera, very much in the vein of the documentary interview style. We learn that Louis has a desire to find someone to love him and has, somewhat desperately, placed a neon sign in his front yard which reads “Wife Needed” and has a large arrow pointing toward the front door of his house. We learn that Louis has a level of pathos as well, as he goes on a blind date to visit the Cute Woman (Alix Elias), a dollhouse-residing little girl in a thirtysomething-year-old woman’s body to whom he plays a song he’s in the progress of composing (the song turns out to be “People Like Us”).
It is, perhaps, worth noting that the entire soundtrack is constructed of songs composed by Talking Heads, written by David Byrne and then performed in the context of the film by the various cast members at often very jarring moments; whether it be a church sermon devolving into the Gospel-esque “Puzzling Evidence” or a group of kids wandering through a housing development area and playing with garbage as they march and sing “Hey Now.”
Certainly the film’s most bizarre musical moments would include a scene in which Louis finds our Narrator (Byrne) at a local nightclub and the DJ announces that he will be playing a song and encourages everyone to get up on stage and do some karaoke. Sure enough, “Wild Wild Life” plays and various characters, including Louis, appear on stage in rapid succession, lip-syncing and dancing to the song in what verges on a music video for the Talking Heads (indeed, it turns out Byrne and company used the sequence from the film as the “official video” of the song subsequently).
Another even more unsettling moment of unabashed commercialism comes with the already introduced Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz), AKA “the Lazy Woman”, who is so rich that she never has to get out of bed, has robots do everything for her and has a black servant who helps take care of her and, I guess, ensures some modicum of human interaction enters into her humdrum life. In one scene, the Lazy Woman is watching TV and comes across a commercial-style music video for the Talking Heads song “Love for Sale” in which she is clearly taken in by the superficiality and 80s commercial-style that, one hopes, the Talking Heads are commenting on and/or critiquing. The problem is, at times the music is so omnipresent and formidable that the film almost comes across as less a “celebration of the Specialness of Virgil” than a celebration of the specialness of Talking Heads – well-deserved though it may be.
Another element which adds, unfortunately, to the artificiality of the whole enterprise is that, if the early passages of the film benefit from the casting of interesting people as factory workers and unique personalities, the gradual use of people who have since become more famous as actors – John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Grey as a man who will have a nice dinner party for the Narrator but will spend the entire time vicariously interacting back and forth with his wife through his kids – like the use of Talking Heads’ music, becomes increasingly distracting as the film goes on. While in 1986 the likelihood of the audience knowing John Goodman on sight (post-The Big Easy, pre-Raising Arizona) or being aware of Spalding Grey (post-The Killing Fields and circa-Swimming to Cambodia) or even Swoosie Kurtz (much more recently of Pushing Daisies fame) [was slim to none], the viewership of the film in today’s world is sabotaged, in a sense, by the awareness of some of the people Byrne and company use to shape their weird, mythical little town.
In a sense, this is the same complaint that many have lofted against Christopher Guest and his growing, familiar ensemble of actors. To whatever degree that it is a distraction, in a strange way it may perhaps even make things more comfortable and, in a sense, reassuring.
However, this issue brings us back to the mockumentary form and what is the bare bones minimum of documentary-esque qualities a film can have to qualify as a mockumentary. Certainly at times, Byrne seems to be gently mocking/utilizing the basic documentary format but it is so wildly inconsistent and bizarre that one wonders how much this film would qualify in that category. However, it doesn’t really alter the film’s sense of joy in its making and the overall enjoyment of the film that a viewer can potentially have. And, after all, as Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”