Gabriel Range's new fake documentary Death of a President, which depicts the assassination of George W. Bush in 2007, is stirring up all the hand wringing, rending of garments and general hubbub you'd expect. Even before the film came out, Rush Limbaugh and the Bush administration's other conservative talk show sock puppets were, of course, already vilifying it, sight unseen, as seditious, anti-American trash. Self-proclaimed lefties like Hillary Clinton and The Chicago Sun-Times' Richard Roeper have also been denouncing the film with their jaws a-clenched and eyeballs a-poppin', with Roeper writing that he found the very idea of the film "repugnant and morally objectionable." The Regal Cinema chain banned the film and NPR refused to air ads for it. But with all of this purple-faced fury going around, nobody seems to be mentioning the really outrageous thing about the film: it shamelessly rips off the premise of Brian Flemming's fascinating if little-seen 2002 curio, Nothing So Strange, a faux doc which alleged to chronicle the assassination of Microsoft mogul Bill Gates.
Mockumentaries—that is, funny fake documentaries—are a well-known form at this point, going back at least to Woody Allen's 1969 Take the Money and Run, perhaps reaching their apex of hilarity with 1984's This Is Spinal Tap and continuing today in everything from the crowded comedies of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, etc.) to both the English and American versions of The Office. But what are we to make of a relatively recent offshoot of the mockumentary genre, films—some funny, many not— presenting accounts of historical happenings that never actually happened?
You've got Death of a Presidentand Nothing So Strange. You've got Kevin Willmott's C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a 2004 satire that introduced us to a disturbingly plausible, dystopic America where the South had won the Civil War. You've got In Smog and Thunder, Sean Meredith's 2003 film based on artist Sandow Birk's book and gallery show about a bloody, modern civil war between northern and southern California. You've got William Karel's 2002 film Dark Side of the Moon, an extraordinarily odd picture that sets out to prove the first moon landing was faked by Stanley Kubrick, and backs this outrageous claim with poker-faced interviews with guys like Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger. (When you make your living lying to the public, I imagine appearing in a movie like this must be a bit of a busman's holiday.) These alternate universe chronicles are popping up all over the place lately, so much so that it's really starting to look like we have a whole new genre on our hands here, related to but distinct from the usual mockumentary format.
I think this genre needs a name, and while Range has been running around calling Death of a President a "fake retrospective documentary," that strikes me as way too unwieldy and college syllabus-y. I propose we call such movies bunkumentaries. Henry Ford famously said that history is bunk . . . and after all, what are these films but bunk history? But giving this new genre a name (even if it is such a wonderfully clever one) doesn't answer the question of why are there so many bunkumentaries out there all of a sudden?
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These filmmakers would tell you they all have their own, very specific reasons for using the bunkumentary format. Nothing So Strange uses Gates' death as a MacGuffin to explore the obsessive nature of conspiracy buffs, and the documentary trappings allow Flemming to follow twists in the story that would probably seem hopelessly digressive in a conventional narrative. C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America uses the documentary format to give us a fuller picture of the film's nightmare world, cutting away from the faux doc to show us racist kiddie shows and QVC commercials for slaves, driving home the absolute ubiquity and banality of this imagined culture's evil while also making us uncomfortably aware of just how similar this culture is to our own. But for all their differences, I detect in all of these bunkumentaries a dissatisfaction with contemporary journalism itself, a gnawing impatience with the elegiac Ken Burns montages and the squawking heads of Fox News and the shiny, happy nothingness of Entertainment Tonight and its ilk. Of the films in question, Dark Side of the Moon is the most explicit and arguably the most effective in its attack upon the documentary format, going so far as to bring in actual world leaders so they can lie to us (we just happen to know they're lying, this time) and using every trick in the book to show us that with the right tricks from the right book, even the craziest crap will seem real.