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That What Is Not (Movies in Disguise)

One of my wife’s favorite things at Disney World is when the costumed characters get dressed up in costumes themselves.  So far we’ve only seen things like Winnie the Pooh in a Halloween ghost costume—nothing quite so meta as having, say, Mickey Mouse wear a Donald Duck costume.  But we can hope.

Sometimes movies wear costumes, too—such that you get the thrill of having one fictional reality dress up and make believe it is yet another fictional reality.  And this week I want to explore that curious phenomenon—even though to do so in the world of movies means I must first make a trek through the world of British television comedy.  Because that’s how this is gonna play out, folks.

There is a weird sub-genre in contemporary British TV comedy that seemingly obsesses over mimicking other media forms.

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For example, Look Around You.  In its first “season,” this consisted of a series of 8 minute educational films apparently from the early 1970s.  But as authentic looking and sounding as these films were, the fact was they were made in 2002, using the meticulously duplicated style of old-timey A/V reels to convey some very silly jokes (such as that the largest number in the world is 45 billion, or that “mafipulating” nitrogen gas into water with results in “embenzalmine nitrotomine,” otherwise known as whiskey—a “pleasant tasting, thirst-quenching drink enjoyed by the whole family.”)

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A second season of Look Around You followed a few years later, with a complete format change.  The jokes remained silly, but instead of ’70s era 16mm educational films now the show pretended to be an early 1980s newsmagazine show.  Creators Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz presented various segments on what music, food, and sport would be like in the distant future of 2000.

In both iterations, the humor came only partly from the absurdly inaccurate “facts.”  The punchline, however, was that this nonsense was conveyed with such authority, with such a blunt conflation of ignorance and condescension.

Which brings us to Darkplace.

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What is Darkplace, you ask?  There are two answers.  The first is that Darkplace was a l980s-era TV series created by hack horror writer Garth Marenghi, and produced on a shoestring budget by his publisher Dean Lerner.  Marenghi also stars in the show, as Dr. Rick Dagless, a celebrated pediatrician at Darkplace Hospital, where an experiment into the occult has opened up a portal to Hell.  Each week, Dagless and his team must confront the forces of darkness.  Todd Rivers co-starred as Dr. Lucien Sanchez, whose expertise with firearms often came in handy, while troubled actress Madeleine Wool played psychic Liz Asher.  Dean Lerner also appears in the series, as the grouchy hospital administrator Thornton Reed.  Although the series went largely unseen in its original run, it was revived in 2003 by the UK’s Channel 4, framed by newly shot interviews with the actors and filmmakers.  These episodes were then repackaged again for a deluxe DVD in 2006.

The second and far more truthful answer is that everything in the preceding paragraph is a lie.  Darkplace was created in 2003 by comedians Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade using characters they had carefully honed in a previous stage show.

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Everything about Darkplace is carefully constructed to maintain the illusion of authenticity.  They have lovingly recreated all the period details of a 1980s TV show, not just in terms of hairstyles, clothing, and music but the more arcane aspects such as lighting, composition, and special effects.  If you didn’t recognize the cast from The Mighty Boosh or spot a cameo appearance by Stephen Merchant, there is nothing inherent in the entire creation to give the game away.

The true creators’ names appear nowhere on the DVD release, nor on the official website, nor in any of the press materials for the show (which instead highlight the fake CVs of its fictional creators).  The making of footage contained on the disc, the “informational” booklet, even the audio commentaries are all done in character.  The insistence of the cast on remaining in character even for promotional appearances so befuddled the English press that, reportedly, some journalists fell for it and came to believe Garth Marenghi was a real person.

Speaking of fooling the press, this commitment to keeping the game going even when the show was over is as much a part of this odd subgenre as the detail-specific mimicry of the shows themselves.  The makers of Look Around You mocked up fake websites and supplemental materials, all of it in-character.

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An earlier example of the form took this to even greater lengths.  Chris Morris’ satirical Brass Eye aired in 1997, and spoofed the overhyped production style and emphasis on moral panic that characterized news magazine shows.   If you haven’t seen it, the best way to explain it is that here in the US we have things like The Daily Show, or SNL’s Weekend Update, that take actual news events and make jokes about them.  But Brass Eye (and its earlier cousin The Day Today) presented complete nonsense but in the style of a real news show—the joke being in the misfit between the absurd lies and the misapplied sense of gravitas.  In other words, the same joke as Look Around You.

But Chris Morris actually fooled real celebrities and political leaders into appearing on Brass Eye to talk about such made-up problems as the spread of the new drug “cake” or the threat of “heavy electricity” (it can fall out of overhead wires and crush you).  And some of these people continued to worry about these made-up problems after they left—such as trying to debate the perils of cake in Parliament.

So far I’ve been focusing on British TV comedy—not the usual purview of this blog—because that’s where this approach has thrived most conspicuously.  And to some extent this makes sense as an extension of British TV’s traditional excellence in period dramas—it’s a short leap from mimicking a historic time period to mimicking a historic media format, too.

We can find something like this phenomenon in contemporary (American) movies, but the overall effect is rather different.

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For example, there are Quentin Tarantino’s and Richard Rodriguez’ Grindhouse films and their spin-offs starring Machete, which gained much of their traction by not just paying homage to a moribund drive-in movie format but by trying to pretend they actually were relics of that format.  Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite spoofs Blaxploitation films of the 1970s by aping every detail of them, even down to the tactile aspects of their film grain.

A similar vibe runs through The Artist, a film about silent comedies that positions itself as an artifact of the very moment in silent comedies that it dramatizes.

But there’s a subtle difference at work under the hood: the Grindhouse films, Black Dynamite, and The Artist actually are examples of the format they studiously recreate.  The aesthetic aims of these films are the same as the moribund media formats they copy.  To return to the metaphor from the top of this post, it’s like Winnie the Pooh dressing up in a Winnie the Pooh costume to better look like himself.  There’s no real masquerade taking place.

Whereas Brass Eye is pointedly not a news magazine show—it lands its satirical punches because it looked enough like one to be mistaken for the real thing.

And in that regard the best cinematic approximation of what we’re talking about here would be in the sub-sub-genre of fake documentaries.  Films like [Rec], The Blair Witch Project, or Cloverfield are not actual documentaries, they are horror films that use the stylistic touches of documentaries to make their horrors more immediate.  This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and Zelig  are not documentaries, but use the stylistic touches of documentaries to lend heft to their jokes.

Of course that brings us back around to where we started, with the absurdism of Look Around You packaged as genuine educational content.  There’s something about comedy—even the silliest of comedy—that can carry a metatextual burden and narrative complexity that straight drama rarely attempts.

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8 Responses That What Is Not (Movies in Disguise)
Posted By Richard Brandt : March 15, 2014 5:35 am

If you had actually made all of this up, that would have been awesome.

Posted By daze of forty-nine : March 15, 2014 7:41 am

We’ve had a number of examples of this sort of “hipster” black humor, especially on TV networks like Comedy Central & Adult Swim etc., e.g. — which at one point also presented the wonderful “Look Around You” (& the run of the original “The Office UK” which ultimately fills the bill as it was presented as a serial mockumentary of sorts …) .. Other examples include

The Sarsh Silverman show with a sort of faux sun-shiny sitcom premise masking her trademark deadpan black, often borderline offensive humor etc.

the very popular “Aqua Teens” — animation with an opening suggesting “heroic”, crime-fighting protagonists … Whereas one swiftly learns that the (inanimate object) roommates are in fact singularly incompetent even to the point of being ludicrously pathetic — & that their human neighbor across the street is such a poor specimen as to be if anything even worse off … then using this as a launching pad for surrealist satire & “stoner” humor etc. …

Haven’t seen “Childrens Hospital” but I’m told it falls in this rubric also

Much of Robert Smigel’s material is of this sort — particularly the brilliant “TV Funhouse” series — using memories of seventies live-action & stuffed-animal set Saturday morning shows as a jumping-off point for unbelievably dark humor …

“Mr. Show” with comedians Cross & Odenkirk was a stupendously successful (on a “cult” and critical level that is) attempt at a meta-level, post-modern satire show … Arbitrary “cutaways” are used hilariously to transition to entirely new, unrelated segments — a practice originally displayed by Monty Python …

I’m not including programs like “South Park” or the astonishing “Morel Orel” because these kinds of shows basically ARE what they PURPORT to be — although one has to watch them for a fair while before beginning to understand the extremely dark humor!

Posted By Liam Casey : March 15, 2014 2:33 pm

I’m not sure what I enjoyed more: Mr. Kalat’s article or Mr. Brandt’s comment.

Posted By Doug : March 15, 2014 3:31 pm

So, If I’ve got this straight, David is actually a puppet for “The Onion” posting as Liam Casey and Richard Brandt COMMENTING AT The National Lampoon Letters Column IN 1979…about a fake TV show from some made up place called “Britain” where they look around you in a darkplace.
And I’m wearing a Winnie-The-Pooh outfit. Very clever, “Mr. Kalat”.

Posted By Doug : March 16, 2014 3:19 am

My apologies if my comment was ‘too’ meta-it only makes sense if one knows that the NatLamCo writers wrote their own letters to the editors pretending to be famous historical/political figures. Most letters were in very poor taste-as was the rest of the magazine. Accusing David of posting as Liam and Richard is the sort of bit NatLamCo made famous. If you have a large enough coffee table, look for “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” by Rick Meyerowitz to place upon it.
The Onion made their bundle doing fake news before there ever was a “Daily Show”.

Posted By Tom S : March 18, 2014 5:35 am

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z20AaMCVExE this video, mimicking retail training videos from the 80s, is so dead on I didn’t realize it was a fake the first time I saw it (despite some pretty obvious clues.)

Posted By robbushblog : March 19, 2014 8:01 pm

I loved Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. That show was hilarious.

Speaking of Black Dynamite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk6Zy1xC4JM

Posted By swac44 : March 21, 2014 1:11 am

If you love Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, keep an eye out for its companion show, Man to Man with Dean Lerner, a talk show hosted by the Darkplace “star” and publisher of adult literature, with guests including (but not limited to) the “actors” from Darkplace. I think there were only six episodes or so (as is the way with UK comedies) but it just makes for more concentrated hilariousness.

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