There are many ways that filmmakers have made use of the documentary form to tell a story. One that has come into favour in recent times has been the "mockumentary". One of the more recent attempts that achieved notoriety was, of course, The Blair Witch Project, but more often than not the mode is employed for the potential it offers for humour and satire.
Meet The Ruttles, featuring Eric Idle, was a send-up of the whole Beatles phenomenon and one of the first full-length mockumentaries that I know of. But it wasn't until Rob Reiner made This Is Spinal Tap that the format gained wide acceptance. Since then amateur theatre groups, dog shows, and folk musicians have all been subject to the "mock" treatment with various degrees of success.
The secret to a good mockumentary is its ability to present the ridiculous or the unbelievable in as realistic a manner as possible. Every attempt must be made to make things as believable as possible in order for the absurdity of the situation to shine through.
In the new Cinema Libre Studio release The Hole Story we are presented with a mockumentary in the black comedy/satire territory. But there's an added twist in that the line between reality and movie is blurred almost beyond recognition.
Writer/director Alex Karpovsky has created the story of wannabe TV documentary/human interest show director Alex Karpovsky who has given up his job editing karaoke videos to pursue his dream of selling a pilot to cable television. Provincial Puzzles will travel around the United States seeking out mysterious events that have happened in small town America and try to come up with answers to the riddles posed in each case.
For his pilot Alex has chosen to go to Brainerd, Minnesota in the middle of the winter, where, in spite of temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit, for the second year in a row a mysterious hole has opened in the ice on North Long Lake just outside of town. With his savings, Alex hires a crew and heads out to Brainerd only to discover that two days before he arrived the hole had frozen over again.
But Alex won't give up that easily and he decides to do his interviews with locals, and the other stand-ups that can be shot without actually seeing the lake. You never know, he says, the hole could open up again just as easily as it closed. After all they don't know why it opened in the first place do they – so what's to stop it from opening again?
The only leap of faith that we as the audience need to take is to wonder why Alex's film crew never stops filming him. After all, they are here to shoot a television pilot, not to shoot Alex every step of the way. But that's also part of the joke too – because at times Alex will take the camera into the bathroom with him in the middle of the night to record his thoughts for posterity.
In fact his second monologue is one of the best bits in the film. It's a drunken, rambling monologue about the need for myth in American life and how his television show will fill that need. Going from town to town, he envisions creating a new mythology out of the stories he tells about each town's mystery.
It has to be one of the best pieces of satire that I've seen on film in ages. His vision is so at odds with what he is actually doing, making cheesier versions of Life's Unsolved Mysteries, or whatever those shows are called. It's almost like he is trying to mythologize American Kitsch; the Franklin Mint, Hallmark cards, and Disney World are his visions of myth instead of the real folk tales that people told each other.
He cites Paul Bunyan, whose home was credited with being in Brainerd, Minnesota, as his inspiration as a true American Folk Tale, when in actual fact Paul Bunyan was a creation of an ad agency back in 1910. Alex's great vision is as tarnished as the myth he is trying to forcibly create in Brainerd with the hole in the ice.
Eventually when the hole fails to materialize he takes a chainsaw to the ice and cuts a hole big enough to jump in. After six days in the hospital recovering from hypothermia he checks himself into a mental institution suffering from deep depression. It's while in there he finally figures out how the hole is formed and comes up with a plan to recreate the circumstances that will allow it to open again.
For Alex the hole takes on mythic proportions because his whole life revolves around it. Without the pilot he will have to go back to a lifetime of editing karaoke videos, and the pilot can't happen without the hole. Perhaps the fact that the town folk refer to the hole as a Black Hole should have given Alex a clue. Supposedly a Black Hole is an area of space where nothing exists. They're perfect vacuums and anything that gets drawn into them ceases to exist.
Alex doesn't quite cease to exist but he gets awfully close, with the rest of the world retreating into the background, the hole becomes his raison d'etre, and without that piece of nothing he's nothing. Somehow the irony of that is lost on poor Alex, and that's part of what makes the movie so funny. But it also makes Alex a figure of ultimate pathos as he pursues his empty dream.
If you do buy The Hole Story on DVD I recommend that you watch the completed pilot episode of Provincial Puzzles that's included in the special features. In it we see all the staged, faked shots, that we had seen Alex create to compensate for the lack of the hole as tried to create his own Paul Bunyan — a myth of definitely non-epic proportions.
The Hole Story is a funny, sad, and satirical commentary on television, false visions, and obsession. Looked at through the lens of the camera shooting Alex, the American Dream looks more than a bit like a nightmare.