Bad On Purpose: On the Corporate Faking of Hand-made Films (September 4, 2009)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
My YouTube work has consistently focused on the idea of bad video and fakery for several reasons. As a professor who teaches Introduction to Video Art—where students learn craft, composition, technique, storytelling, etc.—I've had to come to peace with the kinds of YouTube video practices that my students and I engage in that consistently fall outside these lofty, "expert" standards. As a scholar and filmmaker, I've been interested in the fake documentary: producing a feature-length fake doc, The Watermelon Woman, and coediting a book, F is for Phony.
According to Wikipedia: "Without You I'm Nothing is a 1990 film starring and written by comedian and singer Sandra Bernhard, based on material from her award-winning one-woman show of the same name ... It was released on VHS video cassette in 1990 and became a cult classic, prompting it to be re-released (again on VHS) in 2000 as part of the 'MGM Avant-Garde Cinema' collection. It was not a commercial success, but it was highly praised by critics for its caustic commentary on American values and celebrity culture."[cit]

Paper Heart (2009) is one of several recent indie films that fake the style of user-generated video. Others include: The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008), and Be Kind Rewind (2008). I discuss several of these films in the texteo "Faking The Funky: February 12, 2009."

"My path is different from a lot of my friends. Some friends went to film school, finished college, etc. Then moved to LA, got PA jobs. Started from the bottom and moved up. Made internet short videos. Worked with other comedians and wrote and collaborated, making good short videos, getting attention that way and landing agents/managers. I may not be able to tell you how to get 'there,' but I hope you find your way," blogs Charlyne Yi.[cit]
I'm provoked. Just saw the movie Paper Heart and this charming, pseudo-naive, cynical/happy, fake-rumination on love by comedienne Charlyne Li pushes this blog's fixations on fake documentary's current yummy banality to new highs—or perhaps lows.

I propose Paper Heart to be another member of what I'd like to call "the slow-film movement" (I've already written about Be Kind Rewind and Zach and Miri Make a Porno as high achieving students in this pseudo-school, but we need to remember Dogme 95 as well), by which I really mean the bad-film movement of corporate financed and released feature films that at once mimic, make fun of, and glorify an over-the-top parody of handmade (DIY, YouTube) user-generated style. It seems that just as it true with food and foodies who relish expensive oldfashioned tomatoes, filmmakers are rebelling against corporate made excess, manipulation, expense, blandness, and froth by faking the heirloom forms and humble preoccupations of people-made video: intentional shadows where any studio would produce over-lit scenes, staging actors in cheap Motel6 lodgings (as if any of them would stoop to such grimy lows), or actors underplaying scenes and feelings to the point of the zero-degree non-acting (as in the fake-doc The Office) that is all the rage on television and on YouTube which both leads and follows it.

A pinnacle of this new practice is represented through the inclusion of Yi's childish puppet shows. This peak soars even higher when it is accompanied by a handmade score, written and performed by fellow (real movie) star, Michael Cera, that punctuates and illustrates the "true" love stories of the "real" corn husker overweight, charming real-people documentary subjects she "finds" "on the road." (Although this film does seem to like its real people, unlike Borat or the recent indie narrative that covers much of the same ground as Hearts, Away We Go). It's as if the art practices of six-year-olds are the new cherished vernacular for adult indie-cinema even as, or perhaps precisely because, today's six-year-olds actually produce masterful, highly mediated video through the ubiquitous use of home-video programs (many made especially for children) that allow anyone to make slick media. (My kids would never show the edges of cardboard and pieces of string in their puppet shows.) This corporate-financed retro-futurist throwback winks at nostalgic memories of an improbable time when there was any terrain of media untouched by the machine, and made by the wee babes. But it's made by the machine. Hmm.

And how does Yi's movie-making feel to adults? Sweet-ish. I guess. Sappy but self-knowing. Cynical in reverse. I'm currently working on my own mean-spirited contemporary fake doc, The Owls (just wrapped principle photography, yeah!) returning in its special middle-aged way to the handmade styles, desires, and communities of the film's actual (not imagined) forebearer, the "new queer cinema" and its "real" indie features of the 1990s. We actually shot The Owls on an indie budget for $15K (and The Watermelon Woman for $30K), while Paper Heart only adopts the indie aesthetic (I'd love to know its budget and finance history.) And our crew actually fights about (and self-reflexively tapes) whether we should still strive for the beautiful Hollywood style many of us have become accustomed to or whether it would be more interesting to use a brash, bad, ugly style that marks our actual poverty (which Yi only fakes.) Furthermore, Yi and Cera bumble into love, playing themselves as naive, nerdy, almost-sexual pre-teen-like grown-ups (something Owl's star and director, Cheryl Dunye, did in her earliest work, She Don't Fade, for instance), while our cast chooses to plays it all as post-love: the site of violence, sadness, manipulation, and anger.

This brings to be mind the edgy fake doc anthem of my youth: Sandra Berhard's Without You I'm Nothing. In our time, we loved this fake doc because it angrily pushed against simplified and packaged ideas of race, sexuality, and gender. To fake was to cut, hard. Now it's just to play, soft. Love/schmove.