A Master of Mockery With an Original Touch
By CARYN JAMES
The New York Times
Published: April 8, 2005
n his boutique near Broadway, selling show business memorabilia - big-headed dolls of Brat Pack actors and action figures from "My Dinner With Andre" - the director and choreographer Corky St. Clair, flamboyantly dressed in a red military jacket, pulls out a rare treasure: a "Remains of the Day" lunchbox, with the tragic faces of Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins on the front. "You know, kids don't like eating lunch at school," he says. "But if they've got a 'Remains of the Day' lunchbox, they're a whole lot happier."
Played with deadpan brilliance by Christopher Guest, Corky has no idea he's funny or the least bit detached from reality, even though he spends most of "Waiting for Guffman" putting on a musical pageant in Blaine, Mo., and hoping to take it to Broadway with the original cast, which includes a dentist and two travel agents. That comic approach - precise observations of characters and the gloriously absurd details of their lives, presented without a single wink at the audience - is why "Guffman" and other films written and directed by Mr. Guest are so hilarious.
At 57, Mr. Guest may be the best parodist working today, and the evidence is in a tightly focused retrospective beginning tonight at the Museum of Modern Art.
The series presents his most accomplished films, three recent mock documentaries about characters who are slightly out of the mainstream and either reaching for or sliding away from success: the neurotic, obsessed show-dog owners in "Best in Show"; the balding folk musicians reunited after three decades in "A Mighty Wind"; and of course the would-be Broadway stars appearing in the Blaine school gym in "Guffman."
Other work in the series allows us to see how Mr. Guest's career took shape. There is the hugely influential, now-classic parody of a heavy-metal band, "This Is Spinal Tap," directed by Rob Reiner using an improvisational approach that Mr. Guest later made his own. It's Mr. Guest's character, the literal-minded guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, who famously thinks that creating an amplifier dial that goes to 11 makes the sound louder than 10.
The retrospective also offers Mr. Guest's first film, the conventional Hollywood satire "The Big Picture," and some television work, including sketches from his one year on "Saturday Night Live" that are among that show's funniest, and lesser oddities from the 70's through the 90's. But mostly this series reveals that his three major films are so richly and humanely observed that they can be seen again and again, always evoking laughs in newly discovered places.
A highlight of the series (scheduled for tomorrow) will be an onstage musical performance by Mr. Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, though it remains their secret whether they will be appearing as their heavy-metal characters from "Spinal Tap," the trio the Folksmen from "A Mighty Wind," or both. The performance will be followed by a conversation with the actors and Parker Posey, who has appeared in the mock documentaries, moderated by Bob Balaban, who has created a series of delightful, tightly wound characters in those films (he's Corky's competition, Blaine High's music teacher, in "Guffman").
That the actors can reunite and sing in character - Spinal Tap has sold out concerts over the years - says everything about the vitality of Mr. Guest's method. Years before unscripted comedies like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Fat Actress" and "Unscripted" became trendy, he was creating improvised films around fully realized characters and stories.
For each of the mock documentaries, Mr. Guest and Eugene Levy created the characters and scenes but no dialogue. The actors then improvised so extensively that Mr. Guest ended up with 60 to 80 hours of film, which he shaped into about an hour and a half over months of editing.
There are evident influences on his work, including an enormous debt to the intelligent silliness of Monty Python. But Mr. Guest's films are more improvisational than Robert Altman's and more pointed than Mel Brooks's. He has turned parody - which is, after all, mimicry - into an act of true originality.
Whether you consider "Waiting for Guffman" or "Best in Show" his masterpiece probably depends on whether you're more of a theater person or a dog person. These astute films could be mocking today's reality shows, though the characters are more believable and certainly more entertaining than the people who play themselves on "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race."
As absurd as "Waiting for Guffman" may be, it is built around utterly believable details. The dentist (played by Mr. Levy, indispensable in Guest films) is always called Dr. Pearl, even by his fellow cast members of the musical "Red, White and Blaine." The precision of a novel of manners is juxtaposed with outrageous small touches, like the meek-looking man (never seen again in the film) who auditions for the pageant with an unprintable scene from "Raging Bull."
The humor is never mean-spirited, though; there is warmth behind the creation of absurdly deluded people like Corky.
You can glimpse Corky's roots in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch about a pair of synchronized swimmers, Olympic hopefuls played by Mr. Shearer and Martin Short, whose character wears a life jacket because he can't swim. Mr. Guest directed the sketch and appears as the swimmer's choreographer, who could be Corky's older cousin.
He also directed one of the most enduring and funniest "SNL" sketches ever, in which Eddie Murphy puts on whiteface and discovers that when there are no blacks around, white people get things free in stores and have cocktail parties on New York City buses.
The other television work says more about the timidity of network TV than about Mr. Guest. He appears in and was a writer on a 1975 Lily Tomlin special that has not held up well. More daringly, he wrote for and appeared in an hourlong special (actually an unsold ABC pilot) from 1979 called "The T.V. Show," an "SCTV"-influenced parody of television. "The T.V. Show" is uneven, but it catches the wry satiric spirit of Mr. Guest's work, and it includes one very funny sketch in which Hitler is put on trial in a contemporary court. Hitler is played by Rob Reiner in a powder-blue leisure suit, which adds an extra kitschy layer to the sketch today.
"Spinal Tap" remains wonderfully funny, although it, too, seems like a message from the past now that Ozzy Osbourne has become MTV's domesticated dad. And looking back, the deadpan, not-too-bright Nigel seems the essence of other characters Mr. Guest would go on to play, from Corky to Harlan Pepper, the earnest bloodhound owner and would-be ventriloquist in "Best in Show."
"Spinal Tap" is bookended by "A Mighty Wind" (same players, different music). It was the least well received of the Guest parodies, maybe because "Guffman" and "Best in Show" set the standard so high. "A Mighty Wind" is funny on its own terms, though, and even touching as the one-time lovers and singing team Mitch and Mickey (Mr. Levy and Catherine O'Hara, another essential Guest player) reunite.
Mr. Guest's colleagues can seem so natural on screen that it's easy to undervalue them; that is especially true of Mr. McKean, who has collaborated with Mr. Guest on much of the dead-on music so crucial to the films.
Behind the apparent effortlessness of these films is highly refined comic art. They're convincing, too. Watch any of the Guest parodies and before long the concept of action figures from "My Dinner With Andre" - all that talk, all that smart silliness - can actually make sense.