Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Waiting for Guffman (1997)

Dir. Christopher Guest
Starring: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey 

This is Spinal Tap is one of my all-time favourite films. It really created the ‘mockumentary’ genre: documentary-style camerawork following actors purporting to be real members of the public. One of the stars of that film, Christopher Guest, has now developed a career as a director so I was keen to include one of his works. Waiting for Guffman was his first work and it shares lots of characteristics with his later movies Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. It is a mockumentary, following a crowd of oblivious and deluded idiots who are working towards what they believe to be a crack at fame. Best in Show was set at a Crufts-style dog show, A Mighty Wind among forgotten folk musicians, For Your Consideration on an Oscar-tipped movie. Waiting for Guffman centres on a small-town drama group preparing a musical tribute to the 150-year history of their hometown of Blaine, Missouri.

Blaine may not have much going for it, but it is proud of its past and is determined to celebrate its upcoming sesquicentennial with all the resources at its disposal. A key part of the festivities will be the dramatic review Red, White and Blaine. Despite the sterling service Lloyd the school music teacher (Bob Balaban) has performed over the years there is really only one choice for director: Corky St Clair (Christopher Guest). Corky is a flamboyantly camp man with a background in “off-off-off-off Broadway” productions in New York. One might even suppose that he was gay, if it weren’t for the fact that he is married. Admittedly, no one can recall meeting his wife, but Corky buy women’s clothing for her so she must be around somewhere. Backed by Lloyd he fills out the cast of his show. First up are Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), local travel agents (who have never travelled further than Jefferson City) and mainstays of the local drama scene. Their audition-piece of a Noel Coward-esque Midnight at the Oasis is a delight. They do have a habit of over-sharing after a glass or two of wine however. Dr Pearl (Eugene Levy, best known as ‘Jim’s Dad’ from the American Pie series) is the Jewish dentist who believes that comedy is in his blood (his grandfather premiered the song Bubbe Made a Kishke on the Yiddish stage back in New York). “People say ‘You must have been the class clown’. And I say ‘No I wasn’t’ – but I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.” Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) is the gum-chewing girl who works at the Dairy Queen. Rounding out the cast is Johnny Savage (Matt Keeslar), a muscular James Dean type who has no interest in acting, but whom Corky is determined to cast in the show. He later drops out on opening night, forcing Corky to squeeze into his shorts and play a succession of rugged young men on stage. 

So far, so haphazard, except that Corky has invited a producer from New York, Mort Guffman, to come see the show. Everyone becomes convinced (without much evidence) that this is it: the show will transfer to Broadway and they will become stars. Hard to see how. Lloyd complains that Corky hasn’t set aside time for music rehearsal, the town council refuse Corky’s request for a $100,000 increase to the budget, prompting him to temporarily quit, Johnny Savage does quit, and the show is full of in-jokes about Blaine’s own local history. Scenes focus on the first settlement of the town when guide Blaine Fabin mistakenly thinks that they have reached California, Blaine’s heyday as “the stool capital of the world” and a 1946 visit by a flying saucer. Not particularly guarantees of cross-over appeal. 

From Uranus to the stool capital of the world

The actual production itself is rather good – surprisingly so when one considers the rehearsal period. Lloyd’s orchestra provide a lovely sound, the singing is in tune and in time, and songs (written by Guest and his Spinal Tap collaborators Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) such as Stool Boom, Penny for your Thoughts and Nothing Ever Happens on Mars are charming. And the performers all succeed in broadening their horizons somewhat. 

The film was largely improvised. Guest and Levy collaborated on the backgrounds of the characters and the aim of each scene, but after that the actors could make it up as they went along. This is how he works. There are some wonderful throway lines. There is a note perfect UFO 'expert' ("Once you go into that circle the weather never changes. It is always 67 degrees with a 40% chance of rain") and a pharmacist called Steve who must be the only other gay in the village. The actor who plays Steve, Michael Hitchcock, along with many other cast members – including Guest, Levy, Willard, O’Hara, Posey, Balaban, and Larry Miller (the Mayor) - reappears in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. It might not be quite as laugh-out-loud funny as Spinal Tap, but then again, few things are. It is whimsical and gigglesome rather than uproarious (Remains of the Day lunchboxes anyone?), but for anyone with a background in amateur dramatics – such as yours truly – it should be compulsory viewing. If only to see how many characters and situations you recognise from your real life experiences. I’m certainly going to follow the sage advice of Ron Albertson from now on: “If there’s an empty space, just fill it with a line, that’s what I like to do. Even if it’s from another show…” 

What have I learnt about Missouri?
Missouri is “the heart of America” – and Blaine is “the heart of Missouri”. So presumably what is said here about Blaine could hold true for a number of mid-western towns. Blaine was founded in the 1840s as the covered wagons rolled west. To this day there is still some cachet attached to those who share the name of those first settlers. There is a strong local pride in the town and its history. It developed a particular expertise in something enabling it to call itself ‘the X capital of America’. It has its own local urban myths, and is small enough for in-jokes among the townspeople. The town is run by a local council. Anyone with a background outside the town – such as Corky hailing from New York – is seen as just a little bit special. 

I think the weather in Missouri is meant to be notoriously changeable. Apparently “there’s a saying in Missouri: ‘If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes’. In Blaine, with hard work, I think we can get that down to three or four minutes.” 

Can we go there?
Sadly Blaine does not insist. Nor was the film even shot in Missouri. Filming took place in Austin and Lockhart, Texas – the same area that provided the locations for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, set in Missouri’s northern neighbour Iowa. Lockhart’s Caldwell County Courthouse can be seen prominently in both movies.  

Overall Rating: 3/5

No comments:

Post a Comment