Best in Show

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By Todd R. Ramlow

Catalogue People

Tell people you are interviewing Christopher Guest and generally you will get a blank stare. Tell people, however, that you are interviewing Christopher Guest, who co-wrote and co-starred (as Nigel Tufnel) in This is Spinal Tap, and you will surely get a different response—often just a “These go to eleven.” This is Spinal Tap has enjoyed incredible popularity since its release in 1984, and both film and band (first fictitious, now real; or, both fictitious and real) have become pop culture icons, while Christopher Guest remains in relative obscurity, an interesting paradox with which he seems quite happy. This is Spinal Tap has undoubtedly had far-reaching cultural influence (on say, youth cultures, rock and roll as institution, fandom, and docu-/mockumentary), just as his Waiting for Guffman skewers small-town American dreams of notoriety, and his new film, Best in Show is often a dead-on critique of American consumerism. But Christopher Guest resists ascribing any larger influence or social significance on this or any of his films, preferring to dwell on questions of characterization, emotion, and the human condition.

Todd Ramlow:

Your new film, Best in Show, is centered around amateur dog shows and the types of people involved. What drew you to the dog show circuit for this film?

Christopher Guest:

Well, it started with just taking my dogs for a walk in this dog park down the hill from the house my wife and I live in. It was just pretty peculiar, the characters you meet. And I was intrigued by the dynamic between the owners and the dogs, and the owners and the other owners. It was a world I hadn’t really been aware of. I’ve had dogs for a long time, but not show dogs, just pets. That was the catalyst I suppose, and then I started going to dog shows, and that world opened up to me, which is quite a bit different. I figured it might be a pretty good place to put these characters.

TR:

The characters seem to work so well together, and form such a broad cross-section of America.

CG:

Well it is, and it really does represent the dog community, as it does any community, honestly. We were very conscious of doing exactly that and having different walks of life, from my character Harlan Peppar, who is kind of a loner, from North Carolina, there also happens to be two gay couples in the film. It seems to be what’s out there; we’re not really imposing anything on this world that doesn’t exist.

TR:

I was recently watching Waiting for Guffman again, and of course This is Spinal Tap is being re-released and seems to be playing on VH1’s “Movies that Rock” all the time, and it seems to me that the heroes of your films are always, pardon the pun, the underdogs.

CG:

Yes, I think just as a theme, and it’s not anything conscious, I am drawn to people that have dreams that are slightly out of reach. Certainly in Nigel’s case, well in Corky’s case as well, if you think about it. But there is something poignant about that. To me, the most important thing, after making people laugh, is that something emotional stays with them. And I think if you look at Nigel and Corky and the new character Harlan, I think you like these people. I like these people, and I have to feel comfortable with them. I think you do have to feel for them, because ultimately it’s not just a series of jokes. Because at the end of these movies there’s typically some sort of emotional scene that gets resolved. And that is really important for me, because it makes the difference between just a tv sketch and what these films are, which are more multidimensional, hopefully.

TR:

These films all seem to appeal to some sort of Middle-American dream of notoriety, or some sort of significance, or fame. And this appeal to something presumably greater than what one is in some ways seems particularly American to me.

CG:

Well, I can only speak for me. Although I did spend some time in England as a kid, I can’t speak globally. But I would make just one comment, and that is I don’t think it’s unique to just middle America at all. You can find incredibly provincial attitudes in New York City, even amongst people who don’t think they are. To me it isn’t a function of whether somebody lives on Fifth Avenue and has money, it’s about character. Those people’s characters can be just as provincial, in a more subtle way. It’s easy to make comments about “those people out in the boondocks,” but that’s not what this is about. It’s about human traits that are visible in any segment of society anywhere. To strive for or towards something better or even just different seems a part of the human condition.

TR:

The cast you work with here, as well as in Waiting for Guffman; you seem to like to surround yourself with a standard troupe of actors.

CG:

Well, there’s a simple reason, and it’s because of the way these movies get done. There is very little dialogue written down. The story is carefully constructed, and the scenes delineated, and the cast is very aware of the past of their characters, and how they relate to the other characters, but there is no dialogue. Consequently, because there are very few people who can do this kind of work, you end up with just the best people. Occasionally I find new people; in this movie Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge. You have to be incredibly talented to do this kind of work, and that’s the function of why you see the same people. It’s not as if you can just say, well now Nicholas Cage should be in this movie.

TR:

Right, you could presumably get any number of big names and faces.

CG:

Except then the film won’t work. People would be thinking: “Why is Tom Cruise in a dog show?” And truthfully, for someone who is a movie star at that level, people want to see Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford.

TR:

So that it gets hard to see past that star persona.

CG:

And in a film that is supposed to be a documentary that definitely gets in the way.

TR:

I love Parker Posey, I think she’s just fantastic. And in Best in Show her character Meg, and her husband Hamilton are such a smart critique of contemporary consumer culture.

CG:

Those were the first characters that I thought of, and I wrote down on a piece of paper “catalogue people.” I became fascinated by the idea that this culture has now become so crazy. It’s the essence of insanity; the idea that people’s entire lives are dictated by a familiar consumer world, and they can’t live without it. If they were put down in a European city without their Banana Republic or The Gap, they would have an anxiety attack, because god forbid it’s just some clothing store that doesn’t have a name that they recognize. They’d walk in, but they wouldn’t know if they should wear that, because no one else is wearing it. Even before I came to the idea of the dog show world, it was those characters. Their braces, and their version of how they met, being at Starbucks with their Mac computers, which to them is a fantastic story. Of course hearing it is just horrible, it’s a nightmare. When we were in Vancouver shooting, there were two Starbucks literally right across the street, and I thought this is impossible!

TR:

It’s a testament to the standardization of American culture.

CG:

And in these characters it extends to the fact that they saw their dog in a Ralph Lauren ad, which is why they have a Wiemaraner. And it infuses their entire life. They don’t see their dysfunction, they blame it on the dog, and take it to the pet therapist, which is a real thing by the way.

TR:

I suppose the inevitable question you always get asked is about This is Spinal Tap, particularly now that it is being re-released and transferred to DVD, is: Could you ever have imagined…?

CG:

No, definitely no. I think you would have to be incredibly arrogant to think anything like that. I remember at the time writing in a journal that I really liked the movie, and was really pleased with the character. I had no idea what was going to happen. And sixteen years later we’ve had a premiere in LA, because it never had a premier originally. It was absolutely surreal, hundreds of photographers, and a red carpet.

TR:

For people of a certain generation this is the iconic rock and roll movie.

CG:

I guess so, when you talk to “real” bands, this is the movie they watch when they are on the road. It’s come full circle. When we played the Royal Albert Hall, I walked off stage and there was a little boy waiting, who asked for my autograph. As I was signing it, I looked over his shoulder and his dad was standing there, and it was George Harrison.

TR:

As I was watching Spinal Tap again recently, the inevitable comparisons to The Song Remains the Same, and Gimme Shelter, and name whatever other rock movie you will, come easily to mind. But at the same time, the film weirdly anticipates Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years. That is, it seems Spinal Tap not only satirizes and is informed by previous rock filmmaking, but it influences “real” rockumentaries that follow it.

CG:

I’ve actually never seen Penelope’s film. But Spinal Tap and my work in general is ultimately about characters and comedy. There was in no way any more than that in our intentions making the movie. And to me, it’s the characters and their emotional turmoils that have withstood the test of time in some ways. As to why it continues to be so popular, I have no idea. Can you imagine any other movie where an actor has played, you know, a doctor and then he’s a doctor? Yet we are actors, and we go out on these tours and play dozens of cities, and there are thousands of people that come to see the shows.

TR:

In that respect, the film also weirdly anticipates the construction and popularity of boy bands today. Because, as you say, where else could you be in a movie playing a rock star and then become a rock star. Well this is the premise of many narratives of how by bands get together, as in MTV’s 2gether [TV movie and now series], or the television show Making the Band. It’s about wanting to be a rock star, and as long as you have a certain look and can make these moves, then all of a sudden you are a rock star.

CG:

Well, I would say there are different levels of that, for instance where people are merely lip-synching, and have choreographers and all that. People are astonished to see that we actually play. Yet many of the big bands go out and are playing to tape. We don’t do that, and that’s the ultimate irony, I guess.

TR:

Which is connected to the question of what the possible relationships are between your satires, or mockumentaries, and the increasing popularity of reality television. These is something odd in that your films send up the pretensions and tropes of documentary film, at the same time that incredibly popular “reality based” television programs take themselves so seriously.

CG:

Well I’ve never seen any of those shows, I never will. To me they just seem horrible. You can call that “reality tv,” I just call it bullshit. I think it’s grotesque. But I wouldn’t say my movies have made any difference in terms of anything else, they are just what they are.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/guest-christopher/