Posted by David Kalat on March 15, 2014
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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