Mockumentary is most readily associated with a handful of standout examples from the worlds of both Film and Television. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is arguably the most famous example from cinema (and supposedly where the term ‘mockumentary’ entered common parlance…supposedly), and star Christopher Guest went on to critical acclaim for his lesser known forays into the form such as Best in Show (2000) and Waiting for Guffman (1997). Even high-profile filmmakers as disparate as Woody Allen and Peter Jackson have tried their hand, in Zelig (1983) and Forgotten Silver (1995) respectively. The most prominent examples of recent times are Borat (2006) and Brüno (2009), although the profile of the film’s star Sacha Baron Cohen, combined with their thinly veiled, self-conscious approach to the supposed ‘documentary’ aspect – eclipsed by the literal ‘mock'(ing) and duping of the subjects the two characters prey on – takes them away from the usual realms that Mockumentary inhabits.
While Borat was sweeping the board at the box office though, Kenny (2006), the debut feature of writer/producer/director Clayton Jacobson, went largely unnoticed. Lacking the same level of exposure, backing and names that the former possessed and taking a more standard approach to Mockumentary as a form meant that it’s, albeit modest, ambitions weren’t achieved and as a result it is now out of print – in all likelihood indefinitely (arguably through little fault of its own; more on that later). In spite of this it remains a heart-warming, well-rounded film that deserves the exposure it has previously lacked. It follows the life of Kenny Smyth (played by Jacobson’s brother, Shane) an enthusiastic ‘Waste Management’ (A.K.A. porta-loo attendant, repairman, deliveryman etc.) worker, father and all round good guy as he goes about his day-to-day business (no euphemistic pun intended).
As Jacobson himself has commented, Kenny is the “‘The Dalai-Lama’ of Waste Management”. Not only is he unashamedly dedicated to his role (“someone’s got to do it!”) but even fuses his commitment with an avid sense of enthusiasm (checking out the world of waste management at the convention in Nashville, Tenessee) and at times even passion (the heartfelt way in which he sells the TV fitted porta-loos isn’t what you’d expect from your average car salesman). These qualities also carry over to his paternal responsibilities, in which he is tender, loving and, as all fathers should be to their offspring, a superhero in the eyes of his son.
It’s not necessarily all positive for Kenny though – there is a sense, at least at the beginning of the film, that he is something of a lonely figure. His father rejects him and questions his vocation, his ex-wife mocks him and he jumps almost too eagerly (although it must be said politely) at the chance to stay at his bosses following a round of beers. Again Jacobson plays the role of the resilient, optimistic underdog fantastically. Touches such as the odd rasping of his ‘S’ sounds, bright ginger hair and beard (sorry redheads!) and Jacobson’s awkward, top-heavy physique and mannerisms all prompt a distinct underestimation of this man that is, essentially, an outsider by societies ‘usual’ standards. There is hardly any exposition, at least in terms of the mundane, everyday activities of which we are learning about him, and so this understated performance becomes all the more intriguing and, eventually, endearing as the film develops.
And develop it does. Like an Ozu film, the regular rhythm and formal simplicity offer a palimpsest upon which the life/lives of the character(s) can play out. As a result there are very few emotional ‘peaks’ within the film. Instead our emotional attachment slowly builds as we endure with the plot, and with Kenny himself, slowly gaining an understanding, followed by an empathy and eventually a genuine liking for him.
This relatively slow pacing and gentle treatment of the material similarly manifests itself in the humorous aspects of the film. It would be a masterclass in subtlety to take such a film and not include any toilet humour so, unlike the approach I imagine Ozu would in this case take, there is – inevitably – a few poo and fart jokes. Again though, these never overstep the bounds of the basic decency that Kenny as a character exhibits or indeed of the consistent verisimilitude the film oh-so-carefully constructs and similarly they do not come across as a way of mocking him or indeed anybody in his line of work. They may not be all out screamers, but they – and indeed other cases of comedy linked more closely to Kenny himself – do constitute a mention of the fact that this is indeed a very warm, funny film.
So: if all I’ve written is true – a fact we shall of course take for given – then why hasn’t the film been able to find a market? Why has it been banished to the realms of the bargain bin and late night terrestrial/freeview television in the less-than-7-years since its theatrical release despite a largely positive overall response from audiences? The problem – at least insofar as I see it – is one of categorisation. By this I do not refer to its genre as such, but where it sits within the current industry paradigms and thus how to market it. It is neither commercial comedy nor ‘arthouse’ character study and due to its relatively conventional approach to ‘mockumentary’ it also lacks some of the idiosynracies we have come to expect from the modern (pseudo-) ‘independent’ sector. It seems that the distributors lacked the ambition, and the imagination, to target the right audience, which, had the process been handled correctly, would undoubtedly have been wider and more enduring.
The DVD cover pays testament to this type of mishandling and ‘mismarketting’, depicting an image of Kenny broom in hand, with his overalls and gloves on, amid a sea of toilet roll looking quite the colourful, wildly eccentric character I suspect the distributors wished he was. Although this doesn’t quite wander as far from the film’s essence as the marketing for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (a film that has more in common with Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) than to 300 (2006) as the DVD and promotional artwork suggests – a fact confirmed by the overarchingly negative, and at times painfully funny, customer reviews the film has received on Amazon UK), it nonetheless misses the mark by a long shot, suggesting a character akin to Ron Burgundy (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)), Ricky Bobby (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)), Frank Drebin (The Naked Gun series starting with The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988)) or Simon Garden (The Parole Officer (2001)) among others. These are characters largely defined by their occupation, roles for which their caricatural excesses are usually at odds with, despite the inevitable success they invariably find – at least by the time their respective films reach their climax.
With perhaps one exception, that won’t be named, I in no way want to denigrate these films – in most cases they are fine comedies – but the fact of the matter is that Kenny, and indeed Kenny, is a very different kettle of fish; a tender, down-to-earth portrayal of a man and his life outside the usual expectations of what constitutes a ‘hero’. As such the film needed, and still needs, to create audience expectations that are consistent with this, aside from such larger than life jaunts into the realm of character comedy that I have outlined .
This all goes to show just how important it is for a film’s marketing to be coherent with what it is trying to do in the first place. The larger the discrepancy between the audience’s pre-viewing expectations and the piece itself, the bigger a flop it is likely to be both financially and critically – often through no fault of the movie itself or indeed the movie-maker(s). Of course coming from an auteurist, cinephilic and at times industry-critical (although it should be noted not indiscriminately) viewpoint I am somewhat biased, but nevertheless there is a whiff of injustice about such a situation – and no, it isn’t an overflowing porta-loo.
– Adam Ryan