For over half a century, Documentary Now! has gifted us with the finest in cinema verité, introducing generations upon generations of documentarians to viewers around the nation. Who can forget when D.A. Pennebaker first unveiled his groundbreaking Dylan doc Dont Look Back on the show in the early spring of 1967, right before he brought it to the hippies and headcases on Haight Street? Or the controversy that occurred when the series defied its sponsors’ wishes and broadcast Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A. in 1976? (It would win the Oscar for Best Documentary the next year.) Or when DN gave muckrakin’ Michael Moore a huge boost, courtesy of the television premiere of Roger & Me in 1989? As longtime host Dame Helen Mirren has said, it’s “the definitive collection of nonfiction filmmaking.” And this beloved television staple remains the gold standard of presenting you the whole truth and nothing but, 24 frames per second….
The above intro is, of course, a baldfaced lie. (Other than the part about Harlan winning the Oscar. That is true.) Then again, so is everything else about Documentary Now!, besides its very real affection for the subjects it parodies. It’s possible to watch this series and not immediately realize that the entire thing is completely and utterly fake; its dedication to replicating the look of different filmmaking styles, vintage film stocks and past eras, all with the utmost fidelity, is peerless. (They have even used the same lens in order to perfectly recapture the look of a particular work. Not the same type of lens — the exact same lens the original documentarian used.) Until you start to realize that, wait a second…is that old woman living in the Hamptons circa ’75 actually Bill Hader in a headwrap? And doesn’t that Inuit hunter from a 1920s newsreel look like a dead ringer for Fred Armisen? If there’s a better extended cinephile in-joke than this mockumentary anthology, we have yet to witness it. A subscription to the Criterion Channel and participation in at least three different Film Twitter flame wars should be required to view it.
The brainchild of Armisen, Hader, fellow SNL cast member Seth Meyers and director Rhys Thomas, Documentary Now! operates on the principle that detail-oriented, live-or-Memorex imitation is the sincerest form of flattery — and that the realer something looks, the funnier it will be when you send it up or gleefully fuck with it. Many episodes are hilarious on their own, because who would not find a performance artist played by Cate Blanchett drinking milk from a bowl and screaming “I! AM! HU-MANNN!” at a cat funny? But should you live and breathe documentaries, or just cinema in general, you’ll appreciate what they’re doing that much more. This is pure, 100percent uncut catnip for film nerds. And with the show’s new season (its fourth, not its 53rd; the idea that the show predates the Nixon administration is just another part of its commitment to the bit) running October 19th through November 9th on IFC, this comedy can tick a few more classic/popular docs off its hit list.
The two-parter airing tonight, “Soldier of Illusion,” is a great example of the entire project’s methodology: Take a well-known movie or grouping of films — in this case, the documentary work of Werner Herzog — and try to recreate everything about them down to the Super-16mm grain in the slightly faded images. Then add a generous amount of absurdity. Alexander Skarsgard does a better-than-average version of a Herzog accent that’s almost become a self-caricature of Teutonic sternness. Keen viewers will notice that its behind-the-scenes look at an out-of-control production resembles Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, which chronicled the making of Fitzcarraldo; the appearance of an insane, wide-eyed actor played by August Diehl instantly brings to mind My Best Fiend, the director’s portrait of Klaus Kinski.
But they’ve also thrown in the fact that this Werner avatar is making a CBS sitcom (Bachelor Nanny!) in the middle of a Russian no-man’s-land. Deep-cut references divided by ridiculousness equals comically genius. You can appreciate the attention to getting it even better than the real thing and if not, you’ll likely crack up at a batshit German actor shrieking at popping-and-locking dancer before a live studio audience of shepherds.
The rest of the season’s episodes stick to this notion of spot-on parody plus one incongruous element or unlikely environment. “How They Threw Rocks” takes an epic sports-victory flashback a la When They Were Kings and transposes it onto a 1974 championship match involving two Welshmen throwing rocks at each other until the other drops. (Whoever did those mock, animated BBC TV graphics deserves 22 Emmys.) “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport” borrows the can-they-pull-this-event-off template used for looks at special fashion-magazine issues and Met Galas, and subs in suburban British hairdressers trying to photograph their annual hairstyle catalogs. (Once again, Cate Blanchett for the win!) Besides having the greatest title ever conceived, “My Monkey Grifter” will ensure you never think of the insipid, award-winning My Octopus Teacher the same way again. As with last season’s “Searching for Gary Larson,” which gracefully turned a flame-thrower on first-person-doc narcissism, this is an uncharacteristically scathing look at a subgenre worth mocking — a poison pen letter instead of a valentine.
Every season has it peaks and valleys, and this one is no different. Every season also gets one transcendental half hour, however, and this new batch of Documentary Now! episode drops its standout at the very end. In Season 3, it was “Co-Op,” a note-for-note redo of Pennebaker’s Company: Original Recording doc that probably helped the latter get a Criterion Collection release. If you knew the source material, you realized this entry wasn’t just funny but brilliant, monumental, a masterpiece of satirical Sondheim ribbing. “Trouver Frisson” may be the one that leaves casual filmgoers smiling gently and shrugging, even as they recognize the heart in it, while cinephiles swoon away. A take-off of Agnes Varda’s later work (The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnes, Faces Places), it nails both the philosophical wit, the playful asides and the borderline-twee persona of the her have-camera-will-travelogue excursions. It helps that Call My Agent’s Lillian Rovere does an incredible faux-Agnes as well. Again, if you know and love these movies, and miss the late, great diminutive giant of French cinema, this is a gentle riot.
But then this “film essay” about the director, here named Ida Leos, searching for her long-lost joie de vivre zeroes in on a notorious segment from Faces Places, when Varda went to go see her old friend Jean-Luc Godard in Switzerland. He wasn’t home when they arrived, but had scrawled a note of sorts, referencing her late husband Jacques Demy. She took it as insult and began to weep. The fact that she passed away in 2019 without apparently resolving this possible sleight with her Nouvelle Vague compatriot only makes the sequence more tragic.
“Trouver Frisson” takes that scene and, for lack of a better word, “corrects” it. Here, the Godard stand-in is a nursing home; the Varda character does see him. He seems exhausted by life, which was the same word that Godard himself was quoted as saying before he died in September. And this time, the two have the moment of life, fraternity and equality that the real Varda sought and never received from the M.I.A. gentleman. It’s such a tender, beautiful moment, smuggled into a half hour that riffs on every artistic quirk and signature filmmaking trick she employed. The show has always been a mash note to documentaries Hader, Armisen and Co. have admired. This episode is their love letter to fellow movie lovers. It knows that there are a handful of us laughing through tears.