"Sizzle": a meta-mockumentary?

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This morning, a plethora of Sizzle reviews will saturate Scienceblogs. I've no doubt that the film's science will be thoroughly dissected by more informed reviewers than I. So I'm going to steer clear of temperature trends and timetables, and instead consider how the film pitches its message.

Sizzle is billed as "a global warming comedy"; the official website claims "Sizzle is a novel blend of three genres - mockumentary, documentary, and reality." Personally, I think the film suffers from an identity crisis: it tries to fit all three genres at once, and it gets a little scrambled in the process.

Here's my perspective. The documentary genre is about message. Mixing comedy and documentary gets you the type of work done by Michael Moore, who wields both humor and sarcasm - but always in service to his razor-sharp message. The mockumentary genre (my personal favorite is Best in Show) focuses on entertainment. Blurring mockumentary with reality yields products like the "Colbert Report" (especially early episodes) and Borat: the mischievous star adopts a fictitious persona to make his befuddled real-world interviewees appear at best ridiculous (and at worst, bigoted and ignorant). Though Colbert's political and social satire are cutting, the focus is on humor, not analysis or education.

Where does Sizzle fit? It pretty much has to steer clear of the serious documentary genre (where most science films squarely fit) because An Inconvenient Truth has already filled that niche. So director and star Randy Olson has done something rather innovative - he's made a comedy about making a faux documentary: a kind of meta-mockumentary. You've got to give him credit for breaking the science documentary mold. He made me laugh out loud with some absurd fantasy sequences and a few verbal zingers between the ever-squabbling crew behind the fictional documentary. Nevertheless, most of Sizzle feels subdued and mundane enough that you really could be watching one of those PBS interviewfests with which we're all familiar - and intermittently channel-flipping to some inane and equally mundane reality show peopled by Hollywood stereotypes.

(warning - spoilers follow after the jump).

During the interviews with climate change skeptics, which I hoped would be uproariously funny, Olson is strangely bland - perhaps he didn't want to spook his targets? His cameraman Marion, in contrast, plays the Borat-like innocent, repeatedly interrupting the interviews to share his humorously incoherent support for the skeptics. It could be a great setup. Yet the potentially hilarious situation never plays out fully. It's like Olson can't bring himself to indulge in a full-on lampoon of his guests, not even USC's Dr. George Chilingar (who looks a bit like John Waters, lives in a curiosity cabinet, and promises blithely that when it comes to global warming, "the human contribution is negligible.") Honestly, I was expecting the film to go all "Colbert" at this point, and I was disappointed when it held back!

I'm guessing that Olson didn't want to turn off his audience by being intellectually self-righteous/patronizing/cruel. That's an attitude he mocks in his previous film, "Flock of Dodos," in which evolutionary biologists grouse unattractively about all those idiots who believe in intelligent design. But it's hard to call a film a "mockumentary" when it constantly pulls its punches. So is Sizzle just a sugary, comedy-coated documentary?

There were definitely periods during the film when I felt like I was watching a documentary. The characters seemed ripped from the surreality of reality television ( one-dimensional, stereotypical, self-centered, immature) yet their concerns did ring true to life. Olson's mother Muffy, for example, tells an anecdote about how the family ice skates are rusting unused because the local pond no longer freezes. That's the kind of anecdote that everyone's heard about our increasingly mild winters, which represents the personal level on which global warming is registering with "real" people. Mitch and Brian, Olson's enthusiastic but flighty financial backers, tell Olson "we are very upset. . . we just don't know why we are upset" about global warming. I had to laugh - how often have you encountered friends or family who are overwrought about perceived threats on which they're totally uninformed?

In the film's storyline, idealistic director Olson embraces the premise that Mitch and Brian's confusion can be solved with science - that he just needs to supplement An Inconvenient Truth with another, more expert-laden, vitamin-packed scientific documentary. He eagerly predicts that "the data that these scientists have got is going to blow everyone away!" and advocates festooning the film with data-heavy Powerpoint slides. Yet he can't generate interest from credible financial backers, or gain the support of his own crew (or even his mom). This eventually leads him to the same realization hammered home in Flock of Dodos: scientists don't communicate that effectively, nor do they understand what the public wants to hear. When Olson's cameraman Marion asks an expert a question, the expert answers like a "real person" - but when Dr. Olson himself asks, the expert answers like "a scientist." The message? "Scientists" aren't "real people" - at least, they don't sound that way to the public! Hmmm. . . . haven't we heard this before?

Don't get me wrong - the film captures this disconnect very effectively. One of Sizzle's more astute scenes portrays Olson excitedly presenting the "famous" global warming curve from An Inconvenient Truth to his backers, his crew, and his mom. None of them appear to recognize this "famous" graph, or care about it in the slightest. While Olson rhapsodizes about the data, the camera doesn't even bother to rest on the graph. Instead it pans from one bored, confused face to the next. A few listeners take the earliest opportunity to sneak out. As a professor, I've seen that response in my students: lethal disinterest. It's scary, and it's real.

And yet, is this well-known lack of communication between scientists and public really enough of a message to anchor this film? Didn't Olson do that already with Flock of Dodos? And is it the naive scientist/director, the blowhard climate skeptics, the ignorant public, or the emotional environmentalists who are being mocked in this meta-mockumentary? I was never quite sure. Instead of being delightfully off-balance, I was just kinda befuddled.

Sizzle ends on a bittersweet note, closing with a reality check about national wealth, responsiblity, and our overconfidence about handling/controlling Nature - a confidence badly shaken by Hurricane Katrina. Olson doesn't get too heavy-handed with the scientific content, keeping the focus on the people involved. In fact, Sizzle was so content-light, I found myself wondering if, after watching the fictional documentary, Mitch and Brian would have the answer they'd asked for - the justification for their anger. I doubt it. In the end, without the clarity of a single scientific take-home message, the film becomes a clash of personalities - skeptics vs. scientists - and we see that kind of thing on cable news channels all the time!

If Sizzle reaches audiences An Inconvenient Truth didn't, that would be great. But I'll go out on a limb and predict that a film that resembles an interview-heavy climate science documentary - even leavened with comedy - is not going to prompt a Prius-buying spree among the more skeptical demographics. (Ben Stein's right-wing "documentary" Expelled didn't do that well, either - I think most people just don't want to think very hard over their summer-movie popcorn).

Olson is preaching to the choir with his feather-light little film. Still, it's refreshing to see scientists as the targets of a good-natured ribbing. Aren't we deserving of a mockumentary now and again, to balance out all those serious PBS-style "wonder of nature" documentaries? At the least, Sizzle will give you a few laughs and remind you not to rely too much on Powerpoint - unless you're Al Gore, of course (whom I'm seeing this Thursday. Woo-hoo!)

Sizzle opens at Outfest on Saturday, July 19. The "academic/East coast" opening will be at Woods Hole on Saturday, July 26.

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If "Sizzle" had a power point to make, it seems to have been lost on all-too-many science bloggers!

I appreciate your thoughts on Sizzle, but the fact that you think Best in Show is better than Waiting for Guffman needs to be seriously revisited.

That's like saying Back to the Future 2 is the better than the original. Tragic.

Indeed, Ian. I spent the entire film wishing I was actually watching "Best In Show," which John fails to recognize as the artistic genius it is. (I haven't seen "Waiting for Guffman")