Film Review: The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek

Unfunny mockumentary parodying Ken Burns' filmmaking.

The 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America offered a brutally dry-witted alternate history in which the South won the Civil War and slavery had become not only common but commoditized. This new mock documentary about the Civil War is more a parody than a satire, parroting the tropes and conventions of a Ken Burns work without offering any deeper point. If one can think of C.S.A. as a piece in The New Yorker, then The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek is from one of those Mad magazine imitators—Sick or Cracked, perhaps: perfectly craftsmanlike and with good art, but just not, y'know, very funny.

Starting with a pointless mock credit for filmmaker "Grace A. Burns," the faux film tells the tale of the Union Army's 13th Rhode Island regiment, led by gay young Col. Jonathan Franklin Hale, whose inner circle includes the regiment's mascot, 73-year-old Chinese immigrant Li Shao-zu, nicknamed General Li (get it?); former slave Elijah Swan, the nerdy engineer-savant son of a white Southern mother and her personal Mandingo; and Rowena Harris a.k.a. Rowena Oaks, Candie Apple, "Poison" Apple and Nick Brody, a one-armed teenage prostitute disguised as a boy drummer. (I presume the identical character name as that of Damian Lewis' starring character on "Homeland" is a coincidence, given that this was completed in 2010, the year that TV show debuted in the fall.) These characters, who appear only in "archival" photographs and in voiceover, are modeled/performed by Matthew Ludwinski, Feng Tien Lui, Barron A. Myers and Cheri Paige Fogleman, respectively.

Through letters, photos, newspapers and other 19th-century artifacts lovingly panned across in trademark Ken Burns fashion, we learn how West Point-educated patriot Hale loved a fellow cadet, who betrayed him by leading a regiment for the Confederacy. Hale, bounced around by superior officers disconcerted by his "unnatural" proclivities, ultimately gets his own command, which for reasons too complicated to explain winds up wandering around the war as something of a freelance regiment getting into battles wherever. The 13th R.I. makes a final valiant stand at Pussy Willow Creek, 40 miles from Washington, D.C., saving the capitol. Given the less than recruitment-poster nature of its leader and chief advisors, however, the official record relegated the regiment to a footnote. Interspersed are talking-heads historians and other commentators.

The "archival" ephemera are very convincingly done, and the parodies of period songs, while not a patch on those in A Mighty Wind, have the proper feel. This independent feature is clearly the work of a skilled filmmaker—the problem is that it's not the work of anyone with any skill for comedy.

The overlong opening sequence, for instance, is one long, repetitious and stereotyped gay joke, with Hale's peers commenting about his perfectly coiffed hair and tight pants. The silken-voiced, omniscient narrator sometimes breaks the fourth wall for a conversational aside and the occasional vulgarity, to an effect more incongruous than humorous. And is having one of the experts unknowingly make middle-finger gestures while describing something supposed to be clever? Original? Post junior-high? A French expert is shown with wine and cigarettes in the background. How devastatingly incisive.

Compounding matters is that while virtually all the interviewed experts come from New York theater, according to the press notes, they are virtually all awful. I won't point out any by name, but some are unnaturally stiff, like actors reading lines, and others overact embarrassingly.

Christopher Guest, aren't you due for a new movie soon?