***/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras C-
directed by Frank Gallagher
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover BIG-TIME SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. There's a deception driving They Shoot Movies, Don't They? ...The Making of Mirage that almost invalidates its considerable power. I can't actually write an in-depth review without telling you that this doc-doppelgänger is, in fact, fiction--a detail conveniently omitted from the keepcase and promotional materials so as to drive home its point while you take it all at face value. I was furious once the commentary finally cemented that "subject" Tom Paulson wasn't real and that his rise and fall never actually took place--but although I question the ethics of that sin of omission, there's no denying that the film is totally convincing as the genuine article. Director Frank Gallagher and his collaborators have clearly lived at the foot of the Hollywood mountain long enough to note the kind of desperation that destroys perspective and inflates egos, and they're painfully accurate in showing how an obsession with success can be a sure path to destruction.
Paulson (played by executive producer Tom Wilson) is portrayed as someone with something to prove. Having lost a promising baseball career to a college injury, he switches his major to film, causes a sensation with his short, and lands one of those flavour-of-the-month contracts that light up the trades. But after three years of essentially getting paid to wait, he embarks on a self-financed opus called Mirage. Some time later, he's on the hook for $80,000 in completion fees for a rough assembly that most consider beyond salvation. A first-look producer immediately passes, other sources dry up, and producer friend Ari Barak promises to put up half if Paulson raises the other 50%--which of course will never happen. Paulson doesn't believe that, however, and he does his utmost to wheedle and beg anyone who'll listen. Alas, as Paulson isn't terribly articulate, his shallow artistic pretensions are completely intolerable--thus starting his downward spiral.
The film clings to no vanity while exposing the petty concerns that drive many wannabes, i.e., the desire for total control that exists above and beyond any artistic considerations. Paulson never once says anything concrete about the nature of Mirage, and most of the people who mention it in passing merely repeat its being "about failure." It's clear that he chose a downer concept to seem "artistic," as well as to play-act at being a maverick with integrity--but when it comes down to making something work he, like many before him, turns out to be all thumbs. Crucially, this doesn't mean he's a bad person, it just means he's fantastically bad at making decisions, right down to inviting a documentary crew to watch his every move. Under such scrutiny, his mistakes are magnified a thousandfold by a bunch of people practically rooting for him to crash and burn.
Indeed, They Shoot Movies, Don't They? is extremely perceptive when it comes to the interrelationship between drama, voyeurism, and documentary. By the halfway point a switch is thrown, and the film ceases to be about the deal gone wrong and instead implicates the documentary crew in the desire to succeed that drives Paulson's downward spiral. Girlfriend Adele Baughn--so affable in the earlier portions--starts to complain that Paulson won't talk to her unless the crew is around and that he's started to lie about asking her friends for money. A particularly painful interview has her explaining that the relationship would be working if the crew weren't screwing things up; by then, her dumping of our hero is pretty much a fait accompli. And so Paulson finds himself pathetically asking the documentarians for money. After all, wouldn't it be a silly end for the documentary if he didn't finish Mirage? As it turns out, what happens to him is of no concern to his chroniclers--and that final exploitation twists like a knife in the gut.
All of this would have added up to a triumph were it not for the ridiculous lie of They Shoot Movies, Don't They?'s "realness." We might have appreciated the wit of the filmmakers were we not sucked into apprehending their duplicity, but that "gotcha" reveals Gallagher and company to have been as stupid as they were smart. Afterwards, you start thinking of the moments you thought were too good to be true and realize that they were, deflating you from a depressive high instead of raising you to the true level of the film. I don't know what was ultimately proved, other than that our heroes didn't trust their own material, but it's a needless deception that blows your respect for the final product.
Goldhil's disc is as good as can be expected given the limited source material. Shot in the '90s on pre-digital video, it's predictably washed-out and dull (with gently weird skin tones to boot). The Dolby 2.0 stereo sound is not bad, if a little soft in some scenes. Audibility varies depending on the sequence, but that's par for the documentary course.
Extras begin with a feature-length commentary from Gallagher, Wilson, and Baughn that's slightly underwhelming in its vagueness. The points the film illustrates with a degree of nuance come off as truncated and half-understood, though the trio do show how their project languished for years in various states of completion before The Blair Witch Project made mock-docs trendy. A second commentary reveals They Shoot Movies, Don't They?'s torturous road to release--and maybe a few other things Gallagher and co. hadn't intended. Turns out they failed to mention the film's fictional nature to the distributors, causing understandable heartache and resentment--a long anecdote features Blair Witch's publicist, who a) loves the film as a documentary, and b) is heartlessly deceived by the filmmakers. The lengths to which our triumvirate circulate their (totally self-defeating) lie is as outrageous as the excuses with which they exonerate themselves. Also included is the trailer plus trailers for The Jury, Lost Empires, and Bellydance Performance that launch on startup.
79 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Stereo); DVD-9; Region One; Goldhil