In 1999, the world became fascinated by a little independent film called “The Blair Witch Project”. Word spread about this “real-life” found footage of college kids being stalked and ultimately murdered by a spectral being which sparked a wildfire of interest and prompted many people to discuss and investigate this story. Of course we all know now it was phony and even the smallest amount of research revealed the truth, but at the time it was quite the sensation. If you’re like me and keep up with current film industry rumors and news, you were clued-in far ahead of the rest of the general public. Besides, the movie never technically claimed to be real (even the “based on true events” tag no longer holds validity since then), merely the clever marketing suggested it could be.
Now in more jaded times, audiences are harder to fool. We think we’ve seen it all and most of us can’t fathom being duped like that again. This has prompted many filmmakers to resort to gimmicks or ambitious campaigns, sometimes involving some type of a hoax, in an attempt to get their project noticed. Three films releasing this year are trying to accomplish just that and so far, it looks like at least two are succeeding. They herald the return of the genre known as the “Hoaxumentary” which takes the “Mockumentary” one step further by officially claiming to be 100% real.
The first of these films I’m calling out failed to convince viewers before the “documentary” was even finished. Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here” (trailer at the end of the article!) features Joaquin Phoenix as himself, apparently trying to reinvent himself as some sort of progressive hip-hop artist after quitting his respectably successful acting career. In February of 2009, Phoenix was interviewed on “Late Night with David Letterman” and appeared to have a full-blown celebrity meltdown on national TV. A few minutes into the interview, it hit me and I said to myself: “This is a goof. He’s playing a character and he’s doing this to promote something.” Even Letterman seemed to figure it out after awhile and attempted get Phoenix to come clean, but Phoenix stayed in character much to the annoyance of Letterman and the bewilderment of viewers across the nation.
Fast forward to August of 2010 when the trailer for “I’m Still Here” premiered on the web, eliciting a collective groan across the country as (pop-culture savvy) people finally realized what Affleck and Phoenix were trying to do… a Hoaxumentary with Phoenix as the subject. Affleck still maintains that it was all “real” and that Phoenix remains serious about the whole thing, but let’s look at the facts:
- Although he’s nutty, Phoenix isn’t crazy. He seemed just fine before the Letterman stunt and had been enjoying moderate commercial success. He’s not known for drug use (unlike his late brother, River) and despite a brief stint in alcohol rehab, he’s always seemed too serious-minded and disciplined to have a meltdown of that level.
- Phoenix is an exceptionally calculated and talented method actor. I have no doubt he would create this character for himself and stay in character for over a year and a half as a sacrifice for his craft. I’m sure he considered it the greatest acting challenge of his career. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if he never admits the hoax for the rest of his life or if the character becomes a permanent part of his psyche.
- Casey Affleck’s primary interest is obviously avant garde/experimental filmmaking. Starring in such films as “Gerry” (which he also wrote and co-edited), “The Assassination of Jesse James…” and “The Killer Inside Me”, here’s a guy who revels in taking cinematic risks. Plus he and Joaquin are related by marriage, so I can totally see him and Phoenix sitting on a couch, watching football one Thanksgiving when one turns to the other and says “Dude, I have this crazy idea for a movie”.
Despite its intentions, I expect “I’m Still Here” to be a critical and commercial flop. The critics won’t be fooled and the movie-going public simply won’t care. Hey, Joaquin… Andy Kaufman called. He wants his routine back.
On the other hand, “The Virginity Hit” (trailer at the end of the article!) looks like a winner. It chronicles a group of college kids/wannabe filmmakers who document the trials and tribulations of their socially awkward friend as he attempts to lose his virginity. Shot to look like a documentary, I’m sure many teens will gladly fork over to see it thinking, “Wow, this actually happened!” However, if you check out “The Virginity Hit” page on IMDB, you’ll clearly see that the film has writers, the actors have professional headshots/past credits and the film is labeled as a “comedy”, not a “documentary”. It’s obvious from the trailer that it takes nothing seriously, with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
I feel this belongs in the “clever” category as most of it seems staged, except for a few “Borat”-styled moments where clueless bystanders got sucked into the action. This film is perfect for the current market which enjoys lucrative returns for high-concept raunchy comedies. The marketing of “The Virginity Hit” even managed to stir up some controversy by posting billboards in various states with the message, “STILL A VIRGIN? FOR HELP, CALL 888-743-4335 TOLL FREE”. This caused various local politicians to go ballistic, but such a controversy can only help promote the film to intended audiences. This film could be an example of a Hoaxumentary done right.
**POTENTIAL SPOILERS IN THE NEXT 2 PARAGRAPHS**
On a darker side of the documentary spectrum comes the inexplicably-titled “Catfish” (trailer at the end of the article!) which documents a guy, Nev, who develops a long-distance online relationship with a woman, Megan, who appears to be the girl of his dreams. The guy tracks the girl down to “surprise” her and ends up learning a sad, disturbing truth about human nature. It sounds like a winner, until you look closely at the trailer. Halfway through the preview I noticed holes in the narrative and behavior of the characters that betrayed the actions of the filmmakers as phony, even if the opposite party wasn’t in on the ruse.
First let’s look at the obvious fact that these guys are being total creeps about the whole thing. In the trailer we see Nev chatting on the internet, having phone sex and even using his computer to paste the woman’s likeness into a photograph next to him… AS HIS BROTHER AND HIS FRIEND ARE FILMING (AND OFTEN LAUGHING AT) THE ENTIRE ORDEAL. Who would film something so meticulously if they didn’t have a plan beforehand? Better yet, who would let their brother film them talking dirty to a girl over the phone, reading her private messages to him, breaching her trust over and over again? Douchebags maybe, but if that doesn’t smell like a setup, then how about this… Instead of doing a background check or a simple Google search to find the “truth” (since they have no qualms about breaching trust in the first place), Nev and his buddies essentially stalk and ambush the person by showing up unannounced on said person’s doorstep, giggling as they knock on the door. If it is true that they didn’t know what to expect when they got there, then they are most definitely naive, foolish in addition to being the kind of cyberstalking creeps who you don’t want to be friends with, much less date your sister. I propose an alternate theory: They knew they weren’t going to find Megan at the house and they must’ve known it far in advance. They also knew if they kept the cameras rolling, they would document an ugly truth that they could exploit to give their film some added punch. I reckon whatever they caught must’ve been better than they had hoped for given the overwhelming hype for the film after its Sundance premiere.
Keep in mind I haven’t seen this movie yet, but all it took was the trailer to give me a there’s-something-fishy-here vibe with the film “Catfish” (although I do look forward to seeing it so I can finally judge for myself). When I first saw the trailer and had my suspicions, I went to Google, typed in the words “Catfish”, “documentary” and “hoax”. I ran across this must-read article from Movieline which presents some damning information against them, citing examples that lend creedance to the idea the filmmakers of “Catfish” are being less than truthful. So apparently I’m not the only one who isn’t buying the “real” aspect of this film and if my fellow suspicious fishes and I are correct, it brings up some serious issues about the ethics of filmmaking, both documentary and fiction.
**(sigh) SPOILERS AGAIN**
It would appear that these filmmakers might have lead some poor soul along over a period of time and staged the confrontation to exploit this person and their mental problems. I hope these guys have some good lawyers because if someone gets hurt (namely the subject of their film) as the result of a cruel game, I imagine prosecutors could find plenty of evidence to cast a shadow of a doubt. If my alternate theory does turns out to be true, at best the filmmakers would be labeled as negligent and insensitive, at worst they might be perceived as sociopaths. There’s also the possibility that the entire film, including the subject, could have been staged as well, opening up an entirely different can of worms…
**NO MORE SPOILERS TODAY**
Lest we forget James Frey and his “A Million Little Pieces” novel hoax. Tucker Max, I’m looking in your direction too.
Now before you think I’m down on hoaxes, I happen think they can be great fun. P.T. Barnum used theatrical hoaxes as his mainstay back in the 19th century. Orson Welles pulled off what most consider the greatest hoax of all time with his 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds”. Recent films like “The Last Exorcism” and “Paranormal Activity” got people’s hearts racing by marketing the movie as “realistic” if not “real”, causing folks to deliberate and wonder. This brings to mind my favorite quote from Christopher Nolan’s dueling magicians film “The Prestige” where in the climax, illusionist Robert Angier says in his dying breath:
You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder and then you… then you got to see something really special… you really don’t know?… it was… it was the look on their faces…
That’s why (ethical) filmmakers continue to create these Hoaxumentaries. They want to fool the audience in order to entertain and jog the imagination. The less ethical ones may or may not aim to entertain but in the end, they end up exploiting and hurting others. Take the case of “The Balloon Boy” Falcon Heene and his attention-seeking parents who faked his accidental trip on a flying saucer-shaped weather balloon in order to drum up publicity for their reality show ambitions. The rescue attempt cost taxpayers tens of thousands and sent the scumbag, child-exploiting father to the slammer after he learned a valuable lesson: 6 year-olds with ADD can’t keep secrets. I remember while the balloon was still in the air, I posted on Facebook that it sounded too fantastic, and it had to be a hoax perpetrated by the parents who hid the kid away safe and sound. I love it when I’m right.
Since we are in full-disclosure right now, I think you will see that my horror website “The Man Behind the Door” is not real. It isn’t even a hoax, really. Any random Google search will reveal that the missing man, Wes Cotton is not real, nor are any of the other characters. I never claimed they were, and I do not have the time or resources to competently fake such a thing to a hoax-like level. It’s a stand-alone, alternate reality horror narrative that unfolds as I find the time to work on it, plus it doubles as a “world/mythology-building exercise” for my screenwriting students, showing them how to create a fictional world from which they can build their story around. But, yes I do have fantasies of creating the ultimate hoax that can fool an entire world into believing in the impossible. Give me the money and the time and I’d happily give it a shot. “War of the Worlds Part 2: Electric Boogaloo”.
Now that I’ve just outed myself as a possible future hoax suspect, I’m going to close with a friendly warning to filmmakers engaged in this type of cinema…
Consider the legal and ethical ramifications of what you’re doing. Be wary of committing libel or slander. Make sure waivers are signed. If there is no obvious potential for anyone to get hurt directly or indirectly, either by your actions or the screening of your film, you may proceed to enlighten and entertain with a clear conscience. Otherwise, prepare for public scorn, potential criminal charges and civil suits. Plus, if your hoax is outed too soon or fails to enlighten or entertain, you’ll look like a total jackass and possibly sink your future career. ‘Nuff said.
First the trailer for “I’m Still Here”…
Now the trailer for “The Virginity Hit”…
Finally, the trailer for “Catfish”…
More great articles and reviews…