FOR HIS FOLLOWUP to Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest decided that out of all possible topics he would make a faux-documentary about competitive dog shows. Observing Guest's migration from rock (This Is Spin¨al Tap, in which he starred) to community theater (Guffman, which he also directed) to dog shows (the er...dogumentary Best in Show), one could argue that Guest's subject matter is becoming increasingly obscure, even trivial. Guest doesn't necessarily disagree, as he explains over the phone while on a publicity tour for his movie. "I don't think triviality matters at all," Guest says in a typically even tone. "After you do [movies about] music and theater, at some point you're going to run out of things that interest you specifically." Anyway, he says, dog shows are weird. "At the highest level of these things, the competitiveness is amazing. It's like being at a rock show, where certain dogs come out and people scream and whistle."
"The thing in common with [these films] is that you have to care about these characters, or there's no movie at all," Guest adds later. Whether you care is largely up to you, and the actors: As in Guffman, the cast wholly improvises its dialogue. In fact, with all the unusual conditions Guest employs--no script, no big stars, "realistic" lighting, and such--he could be the American guerrilla faction for the, um, Dogma movement. The result for the viewer is a sometimes queasy sense of voyeurism--only the view is not of people's freakish secrets, but their banality (which, in our pop culture, is certainly the greater sin). At times the film's intimacy is not merely uncomfortable; it's also unfunny (say, fights between the shrill yuppies played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock). Other moments are poignant (one gay couple calling home to talk to their other, noncompeting dog).
"Finding that line is very important," says Guest. Take Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara's couple, who are forced to stay in their hotel's utility closet after their credit card is rejected. "I had a scene where they had brought a bed in, and you could see their laundry hanging--it was almost too sad. And there were a couple scenes with [Posey and Hitchcock] that were actually dark, where they got into how much they really hate each other. It made me laugh, but went way over the normal person's boundary."
The actors are all on a thin wire: They can't be laughing at their characters, but they've also got to believe their characters are laughable--and they must convey this dynamic without winking. Nobody here is smirking, exactly--but then nobody in the audience was laughing uncontrollably at the screening I attended, either. Ironically, the actors with the most easily stereotyped characters--Michael McKean's swishy gay man, and Jennifer Coolidge's ditzy blonde--turn out the film's most dignified and touching--and funniest--performances. (Perhaps stereotypes have their merits as a creative tool.) Some characters are just plain sad: When Guest's character performs a ventriloquist act for a silent roomful of old men, it's both grim and too reminiscent of Guffman.
Guest means well: His use of uncut, real-time dialogue is an intuitive reaction to the artifice of most movies. No surprise he's a big fan of My Dinner With Andre. "Movies are getting further and further from human behavior; they're artificial and manipulated in a way that's outside people's reality. I'm trying to do the opposite." Same goes for movie stars: "To me [the cult of celebrity] is a corruption of the culture--people can't see beyond that. You could not put Tom Cruise in this movie, because now it's Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible!"
Could it be that Guest is on his own impossible mission to fight the forces of dehumanization in contemporary media? "No," he demurs. "These films kind of flow for me and I don't intellectualize them that much. But there is a glimpse of human behavior, and maybe there's something to be said for that."