Between 1996 and 2006, mockumentaries, films spoofing the documentary form, enjoyed their heyday thanks in large part to the creative team behind This Is Spinal Tap (1984) who then moved on years later to produce The Return of Spinal Tap (1994), Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), and For Your Consideration (2006). The quartet beginning with Waiting for Guffman and ending with For Your Consideration defined the trend, since each featured an ensemble including Harry Shearer, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, and the director of all four, Christopher Guest. Each were welcome antidotes to the Adam Sandler or Mike Myers vehicles of the day, and whether the troupe was analyzing small-town theater, purebred dog competitions, folk music, or the race for award nominations, viewers walked away not only exhausted from laughing but a bit wiser in what motivates individuals clinging to activities that might even for a moment help them to escape the sadness of their mundane lives not just for a weekend or maybe a week, but forever.
My favorite remains Best in Show, which follows competitors in the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show as they prepare their dogs, travel, and finally interact in Philadelphia, the venue for the event. The focus on dogs and how they resemble their owners is genius, but more attractive is watching how characters engage with their shared hobby. More so than the other three mockumentaries directed by Guest, Best in Show reveals the energy behind pursuing that “other thing” which gives us life while we’re forced to toil otherwise to make ends meet. Had not Guest and company already so ably covered the field, an ambitious filmmaker could put out a mockumentary centered on any number of hobbies that individuals pursue while dreaming that one day (one day!) they will become successful enough at it to quit their jobs and follow bliss until the grave. For me, this relates directly to science-fiction fandom, for many a hobby that has grown into a way of life.
Whenever convention time nears — major ones like Costume-Con, Gallifrey One, or Worldcon, or even local clambakes like BayCon, Boskone, Capricon, and many others — my social media feeds explode with updates from friends preparing costumes for competitions, songs for filk circles, or raising awareness about works eligible for any number of awards. Years ago, a dear friend was panicking over a costume idea she couldn’t bring to fruition, much as Meg Swan, played by Parker Posey, does in Best of Show when she can’t find the exact replacement for a lost dog toy, a “Busy Bee.” Reviewer Roger Ebert aptly sums up the moment:
Consider Parker Posey’s rage and loathing as she assaults a store clerk who cannot supply a Busy Bee dog toy. Her dog has lost its toy and is fretting, and the way she screams “Busy Bee! Busy Bee!” you’d think she was looking for emergency snakebite remedy.
Thankfully, my friend succeeded in her quest for costuming perfection, because others stepped in to discuss alternatives, essentially forming a very supportive hive mind. I can relate, since my personal journey within the whole has evolved into writing for and editing fanzines. Deadlines! Where can I find information on [fill in the blank]!?!? Collaborating as I frequently do with Christopher J. Garcia and others, however, greatly mitigates this self-imposed torture. Community, then, occupies a central role for those sharing such consuming hobbies. We gain meaning not just from the activity itself, but from others who see it as we do, who understand!
Scott Donlan and Stefan Vanderhoof, portrayed by John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean, illustrate community within the dog fancier’s milieu. A couple madly devoted to their Shih Tzus, they spend much time digging sharply at Sherri Ann (Jennifer Coolidge) and her perennially winning poodle, Rhapsody in White. Although each barb drips with envy, viewers also can detect elements of appreciation under the snarky vitriol. Indeed, at times Donlan and Vanderhoof have nothing but compassion for Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s characters, Gerry and Cookie Fleck, who always wind up lost in one dilemma or another during the narrative. As with any fandom, the dog world has its animosities, its rivalries, and its contretemps, but in the end, there’s appreciation for the shared pursuit, that which binds the community. Are not dreams about beloved endeavors that free us from our boring lives better when shared with others who get it? Yes, and Best of Show reveals how this phenomenon operates.
Best of Show is about dogs, and it’s not about dogs. Each of this group’s mockumentaries examine a micro-world filled with like-minded individuals chasing dreams, or in some cases trying to regain them, but Best in Show more so than the others highlights what that means for average people from different walks in life coming together for ideas, to participate, and to hopefully receive support from engaging with a community. The next time you’re stressing a convention-running SNAFU, or sewing frantically for a masquerade, or editing multiple fanzines within a week, and you ask yourself “Why do I do this shit?” watch Best in Show. Watch how the climactic dog show plays out and watch the reactions not only of envy or spite, but also of joy and belonging from those who are part of that universe. Then you might remember having experienced such victorious satisfaction, and say, “Oh, right.”