We journalists love to recall from time to time in a new/old report, with all possible gravity, pose and pomposity, the epic feat that the intense filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982) entailed. Almost all of these texts are a rehash of what has already been told in El peso de los suenos, a how it became a documentary that shows Werner Herzog as a filmmaker in trouble, trying to survive the inclemencies of the Peruvian jungle and, what is worse, to the psyche of Klaus Kinski, its leading actor.
The fourth season of Documentary Now!, a series made up of humorous sketches that review the history of the documentary genre and that can be seen in its entirety on AMC+, begins with a laugh about it all.
In the first two episodes, Alexander Skarsgard plays Rainer Wolz, a filmmaker (Herzog’s transcript) preparing a documentary about an indigenous people in the Russian Ural Mountains. Due to things in the entertainment industry, he is in charge at the same time of moving forward, sharing space and resources, the pilot of a not very brainy situation comedy for the new television season: Ninero bachelor. If the nonsense sounds like a Saturday Night Live gag, it’s because all the creators of this semi-unknown gem have gone through the legendary comedy show, including Seth Meyers, Bill Harder and Fred Armisen. But, this time, his comedic scenes last at least 20 minutes.
One of the most interesting things about the experiment is seeing established actors —Cate Blanchett and Jonathan Price also appear in this new batch of deliveries— walking through the fine wire of parody, how close are they to falling into excess. They have next to an expert tightrope walker, Armisen himself, brilliant and very tight in that missile against the problems of the millennial bourgeoisie that was the comedy Portlandia.
Documentary Now! questions the viewer on several levels. Some people can see it as a comedy show without more, without needing to know the referents on which their gags are inspired. It works perfectly. The chapters dedicated to Herzog take the German filmmaker as their starting point to end up mocking the complexities and absurd clauses that any actor or director encounters on a shoot. And the joke in another of his episodes at the expense of the Belgian Agnes Varda —who has such a bad temper as to sharpen a being as charming and earthy as her?— is still a look between fun and confused from a group of Americans towards the European culture and way of life. But for moviegoers, this curious format may be an even more alternative version of the mythical Testimonies.
There is also an intermediate space for those who wish, laughing and with an internet search engine in hand, to learn more about the documentary genre and independent cinema. Because each episode is an exercise in a different style, which imitates the aesthetic ways of those whom it parodies. With them, it awakens a reflection on how rich and creative the documentary languages have been since long before it became, a few years ago and in parallel with the rise of digital platforms, mass entertainment.
Documentary Now! reminds us that non-fiction can house auteur cinema as personal as the one made from fiction. And that Hollywood, that factory of fleeting stories, often easily forgettable, is also capable of launching the most caustic criticism, towards others and towards themselves.