The Making of ‘… And God Spoke’
The phenomenon of the mockumentary is a comic genre ushered in by the cult success of Rob Reiner’s rock music satire, This is Spinal Tap (1984) – and, three decades later, simmered to perfection by the TV series Documentary Now! (2015-2022). In between those undoubted milestones, the unfolding history of the form can get a little lumpy and tedious.
This is Spinal Tap was a fake documentary posing as an on-the-road cinéma-vérité portrait of a British rock band touring America. Reiner managed an expert pastiche of music documentaries such as Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (Denis Sanders, 1970). The whole circus of the modern rock industry was on display: promoters, record producers, journalists and hangers-on.
It is a story of complete decline. Concerts go badly, the band’s new album is a disaster, and tensions within the group tear it apart. Through all this, whether losing or winning, the band members come out as basically a bunch of dim kids who never grew up. The film pokes merciless fun at their delusions, self-justifications and ridiculous habits. The lyrics of Spinal Tap songs like “Big Bottom” (“Drive me out of my mind / How can I leave this behind?”) are as clueless as possible.
Reiner’s movie is infectiously funny, especially so when it charts, in quick glimpses, the vastly different musical styles the band goes through in its career – from bubblegum pop to hard rock and, at their lowest point, free jazz fusion. This type of montage-sequence gag has become a staple of music-centred comedies including Jake Kasdan’s spirited Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007).
This is Spinal Tap has wielded an enormous influence, which is weird when you consider that it seemed to be, at the time, such a splendid one-off idea. Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts (1992) had a Spinal Tap touch, even though it finally aimed to be a ‘social issue’ picture. The send-up of black rap music in Fear of a Black Hat (Rusty Cundieff, 1993) is a scene-for-scene homage to Reiner.
With The Making of ‘ … And God Spoke’, the subject changes: this time, a mockumentary about filmmaking. But the form is again almost exactly the same.
Director Arthur Borman (who later migrated to Reality TV: restaurant and tattoo programs) sends up not music documentaries per se, but a closely related, still less elevated cultural-commodity form: those tedious making-of, promotional, EPK (electronic picture kit) pieces that have burned a path through TV, VHS, DVD/Blu-ray and websites.
We follow the trials and tribulations of a producer-director team, Marvin (Stephen Rappaport) and Clive (Michael Riley), as they embark on their harebrained epic … And God Spoke – an unfussy adaptation of the Bible. As usual, everything goes wrong. Marvin and Clive argue that their film is a disaster, but somehow also a miraculous success. It’s the type of warped justification we sometimes hear in real life post the pop-cultural event of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003).
The influence of that great American filmmaker Robert Altman hangs over the entire mockumentary genre. There is a slight mocko element in Altman’s disappointing Prêt-à-Porter (1994). And Altman’s TV epic about a fictitious political campaign, Tanner ‘88 (1988), was the immediate model for Bob Roberts. Altman never made a movie exactly like This is Spinal Tap, but there is something in his distinctive style that fits this new comic form like a glove. It is his way of setting actors up in a half-real, half-fictional environment, giving them the outlines of their characters, and then allowing them to riff away, mixing scripted lines with ad-libs.
Much of The Making of ‘… And God Spoke’ follows this pattern. The result: scenes where the actors drone on in overlapping, deadpan monologues. Marvin and Clive start in with some stupid, pretentious statement about filmmaking, such as “I’m uneasy with the term film to describe what we do, because film is something you buy at the drugstore”. They then compound this imbecility as they ramble on and on.
Watching a film like this, one sometimes gets the impression that all the male schmucks of contemporary American comedy are just pale clones of the character of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) on TV’s Seinfeld (1989-1998) – a guy who gets himself into deeper knots of self-humiliation with every word he utters.
The comedy in The Making of ‘… And God Spoke’ is pretty basic. Anyone who has ever worked on a film crew will enjoy the gags about manic assistant directors, or grips who mooch around thinking they are the only ones who do any real, physical work. But most of the jokes focus on the horrible badness of the movie that Marvin and Clive are making.
The fictive Director of Photography is a ponderous guy who muses about Ingmar Bergman and the symbolism of light; of course, most of what he shoots is so dark and underexposed that no one can see the actors. Another clip from the movie-under-construction has Adam and Eve chatting in the Garden of Eden while present-day traffic roars in the background. The comedian Soupy Sales (1926-2009) is brought in to play Moses, descending Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments. To satisfy the demands of product-placement deals swung by the producer, Moses nonchalantly carries a six-pack of beer along with the Holy tablets.
In short, The Making of ‘… And God Spoke’ trades on an easy derision of B movies: B meaning, in this context, cheap, formulaic and sensational. Such an attitude of derision toward B cinema has been popularised by the baleful Golden Turkey Awards phenomenon – books and festivals that hold up apparently Bad B movies for a vicious laugh. Michael Medved, a godfather of the Golden Turkey concept, actually has a cameo here.
I loathe the Golden Turkey trend. Its only positive manifestation – positive in the sense that it’s somewhat creative – is the live theatre of Australia’s Double Take team (indebted to USA’s long-running Mystery Science Theater 3000 project that began in 1988), where sometime cult-film host Des Mangan & co. dub different voices onto old Hercules or sci-fi fodder. (Mangan’s most recent outing appears to have been as narrator-participant in the Top Knot Detective  mockumentary project.)
But The Making of ‘ … And God Spoke’ is not so inspired. It mocks up mistakes for a laugh, such as actors with broad accents, outrageous historical anachronisms, or editing that mixes in any old stock footage – no matter how jolting the effect. This is the same as when today’s supposedly hip, knowing, superior audiences are primed to giggle at these flaws whenever they spot them in old B movies. But if you ask anyone who really loves B cinema, such as the films of Samuel Fuller, Edgar Ulmer or Joseph H. Lewis, you will find that these so-called errors or lapses are sometimes their most poetic, meaningful and exhilarating moments.
Nonetheless, there is some low-level fun to be had with The Making of ‘… And God Spoke’. I like a certain brand of silly, adolescent pastiche best when it goes into overdrive – i.e., when it tries to pastiche everything in a quick succession. Some really inspired B movies have already done this, all by themselves – such as the relatively unknown gem When Nature Calls (Charles Kaufman, 1985). This film is so cheap and tacky that it borders on Z grade exploitation; it has the spirit of Russ Meyer’s frenetic sex movies crossed with the gross humour of the most vulgar Animal House-type teen films.
When Nature Calls starts with about 20 minutes of imaginary ‘coming attractions’: marvellously ridiculous trailers sending up Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978) and other respected films of the period. Cut into these are parodies of advertisements, as well as of Jerry Lewis’ once-annual Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon (1966-2010). The overload effect of all this wild pastiche is ... just sublime.
In The Making of ‘… And God Spoke’ there is a similar passage near the start, showcasing clips from the previous productions of Marvin and Clive (this portfolio-run-though technique continues today in Documentary Now!). Each one is an inspired combination of sex, horror, teenagers, gore and whatever pop stuff was big at the time.
Marvin and Clive, naturally, never describe what they make as sensationalist, riotous B movies. They are searching for respectability, legitimacy. And if that does not come along, they will settle for the cult fame of a Golden Turkey award.
© Adrian Martin April 1995 / April 2023