I recently embarked on a mini-marathon of your work as part of a service to a fellow movie lover who had too little exposure to your work. He had seen This is Spinal Tap, and loved it, so it surprised me to find out he had never seen any of your other films. Over the past few weeks we have watched A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and re-watched Spinal Tap. This personal journey was a wonderful reminder of why I admire your work so much.
Comedy is one of the most difficult mediums to achieve true success in. A comedy writer, actor, and director must not only have funny ideas but be able to translate and transpose these funny ideas from the deep recesses of the mind to a format that is more easily accessible to all. What I find most impressive about your films is the high level of collaboration between all of the cast members. I think it is safe to say that you and your collaborators played a highly significant role in the popularization of the mockumentary in popular culture. Spinal Tap is a seminal film, widely quoted and loved by an extensive cross-section of the population. It’s interesting, and speaks to the quality of the humor and writing, that such a specific genre of film poking fun at an even more specific film genre, one without any particular wide-ranging appeal, would achieve such a high level of success. The cause may initially be difficult to identify, but I believe it to be the highly detailed rendering of each character and subculture presented in each film.
Each of these films, while still all variations on a formal theme, manage to cut to the comical heart of a unique subculture. My own inclinations often lean towards the anthropological, so I feel as though the reason your works particularly tickle me is because they are, in a way, evocative of ethnographic films. You allow the viewer VIP access into an otherwise relatively closed world, and he or she is able to experience both the ups and downs of daily life and witness exciting culturally-specific rituals. All audience members may not be able to directly relate to the preparation for a dog show, for example, but it is highly likely that a viewer has either met someone engaged in that activity, or when channel-surfing has stumbled across the televised event and stopped to wonder to herself what it takes to show dogs, and what type of person finds himself passionate about that particular pursuit. While these characters are often (but not always) exaggerated versions of their real-world counterparts, they are rarely unsympathetic. Each portrayal is honest and unbiased. As a viewer, you are sucked into each character’s personal journey and find yourself rooting for his or her success, no matter how ridiculous their pursuit may be.
My initial viewing of your films all occurred at a young age. I remember appreciating certain aspects of Best in Show, for that was the first film that I saw, but I could not understand how the film functioned on many levels. I appreciated the most basic comedy, but the extent of the subtext and parody was mostly lost on me. In this recent re-viewing of the majority of your body of work, I find myself most appreciative of Waiting for Guffman. I am not much of a theater person, but I have encountered a variety of theater folk throughout my life, so I could appreciate the archetypical players portrayed. I am also from a very small town in Oregon with incredibly striking similarities to Blaine. Having lived through my own town’s sesquicentennial celebration, I can personally attest to the importance of such demonstrations of town pride and community spirit. Finally, as a student of sound in film, I thoroughly appreciated the use of MIDI instrumentation in lieu of real instruments for the music written for the play and the end credits. (I too played in a community orchestra in which we received a very similar MIDI mock-up of highly patriotic and Copland-esque pieces).
But, I would like to return to the consistently palpable sense of collaboration present in every frame of your films. Waiting for Guffman aside, you do not star in your films. Your character choices illustrate respect for the narrative and your fellow collaborators. Your characters either act as the necessary catalysts for essential narrative conflict (leaving the band in Spinal Tap), or b-plot elements that help with other character development or clever narrative twists (Best in Show). You provide the adequate space for your other costars to shine and create their own fully fledged identities. Where other directors might let their own desires color the entirety of production at the expense of everyone else, resulting in an imbalanced and inadequately developed cast, this is never the issue for your films.
Students of film should study your productions to reinforce that film is, above all else, a collaborative process. Films are made much more effective when they are the result of a multitude of ideas brought to the table each day. Creativity breeds more creativity, and it is wonderful to know that a group of like-minded individuals are able to come together to create projects entirely within their creative control that they are proud of, have a great time making, and that provide entertainment to all. Thank you, and I look forward to your next film!