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[whitespace] 'Best In Show'
Guest Spot: In 'Best of Show,' Christopher Guest parodies the passions of dog breeders who live vicariously through their prize pooches.

Guest Credits

From 'This Is Spinal Tap' to 'Best in Show,' Christopher Guest knows what makes wannabe show-bizzers tick

By Richard von Busack

CHRISTOPHER GUEST brings a certain nobility to deluded show-biz types. Harlan Pepper, Guest's character in his new mock-umentary, Best in Show, owns a prize bloodhound. Pepper also has a hobby on the side--he's a student of ventriloquism. At the end of Best in Show, Pepper gives a performance of a cowboy-themed vent-act for some disgusted American Legionnaires.

Pepper has something in common with the would-be Broadway baby Corky St. Claire in Guest's Waiting for Guffman and the rock legend Nigel Tufnel. Guest played Tufnel in the 1984 Rob Reiner film This Is Spinal Tap, which is being re-released this week with louder "Dobly" sound (as the word is mispronounced in the movie). Presumably, the Dobly system is turned up to 11.

Because This Is Spinal Tap was released a generation ago, there may be people who've never seen this awe-inspiring "rock-umentary" about the disastrous tour of an aging band, washing up during their American tour. They catch flak from their record company. Gigs are canceled due to the apathy of fans--occasioning that celebrated mot by their manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra): "The band's appeal is becoming more selective."

Lastly, a wedge is growing between guitarists Tufnel and David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), caused by the arrival of David's horrible, Zodiac-obsessed other half, Jeanine (June Chadwick, who is wonderful; her wardrobe occasions Ian's other famous remark that the woman dresses like some Australian's nightmare).

(All this is from the original version of the film, it should be noted. The new DVD release contains some deleted scenes previously seen only in bootlegs, including limo-driver Bruno Kirby's drunken night of Sinatra worship, a sequence that out-Cassavetes Cassavetes.)

Part of the film's credibility comes from the fine British accent of Harry Shearer, who plays Derek Smalls, the imperturbable double-necked-bass player. McKean and Guest's impersonation of a pair of lads from Squatney, London, is so good that more than a few 1984 viewers were taken in and outraged that a band this dumb merited a rock-umentary.

THE SETTING of Best in Show is the hopefully fictional 125th Mayflower Dog Show in Philadelphia. Here, Pepper and a clutch of contestants use their dogs as a temporary passport into show business.

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara play Gerry and Cookie Fleck, a couple transporting their Toto-oid Norwich Terrier ("Winky") to the show. The joke is that Cookie was once enormously promiscuous, and she keeps meeting some of the apparently hundreds of men in her life everywhere she goes.

The old boyfriends, however, are no threat to the marriage. Cookie tells Gerry, vis-à-vis an ex-lover: "He was my past; you're my future." A future with a Eugene Levy character, imagine it: the nasal gosling honk in your ear every morning. Supposedly there's an SCTV retrospective coming out on video and DVD later this year. Time enough then to detail the almost frightening talents of the comedic titans Levy (who co-wrote Best in Show), O'Hara and associates.

Scott (John Michael Higgins) and his boyfriend, Stefan (McKean), are hairburners who raise Shih-Tzus. Scott is low-profile; Stefan is flamboyant, loud and proud, as gay as a tree full of parrots. Of all the couples in the film, they're the calmest, the most in love.

Hamilton and Meg Swan (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) are the most savage caricature of grasping, infantile yuppies since the Booth-Braines in Mike Leigh's High Hopes. Hamilton and Meg had a New Millennium meet-cute: they spotted each other through the windows of twin Starbucks, right across the street from one other.

Posey looks young and brutal with a short haircut, and she plays Meg at a level of fury that never quite crosses the border into shrillness. Still, even the hint at what the Swans' sex life is is the stuff of a horror movie. They have a surrogate child, a Weimaraner named Beatrice that they're driving insane with their ambition. They get in the dog's face, Great Santini style, yelling at it in order to mold it into a champion show dog.

Jennifer Coolidge plays a bimbo named Sheri Ann Cabot, married to a 120-year-old millionaire. Her dog is a standard poodle clipped into the grisly half-skinned poodle cut with pompoms, with the gray, mottled hide peekabooing through. The dog's name is "Rhapsody in White." Coolidge does a really disturbing thing with her lips to imply a collagen job that's overpressurized. What's meant to look little-girl alluring resembles that distressing face Harpo Marx used to make to scare off pursuers.

The funniest of the lot is Fred Willard, a comedic specialist in Midwestern obtuseness: idiot presidents, bland mayors, small businessmen, square military officers, like the one he plays who books Spinal Tap for an Air Force mixer. Here, Willard plays Buck Laughlin, a TV reporter covering the show. Willard goes low and dirty for a change. Buck Laughlin is dead-eyed from too much TelePrompTer reading.

Laughlin has a stooge, too: he's partnered on camera with a nervous Briton, Trevor (Jim Piddock), who takes the Mayflower Dog Show in the spirit in which it's offered, as a serious, important cultural event. The Englishman tries--uselessly--to freeze out Laughlin, this hopeless, heedless vulgarian.

Of all the characters in Best in Show, the best-in-show Laughlin has the most tantalizing back story. Was he some sportscaster busted down to the dog-show beat? An ex-anchorman whose Percodan addiction caused him to compliment a weather-girls' boobs on the air?

Laughlin must have a long career somewhere--he knows all the newsreader inanities. They spring from him without effort: the birdbrained natterings, the tired baseball metaphors, and gouts of instant poignancy (when a vicious dog is hauled out of the ring, he intones, "She's being led off in disgrace, but she's still a champion").

This maelstrom of mad dog-show ambition evokes that quote of Napoleon's about how men will lay down their lives for a scrap of ribbon. Guest contrasts the wisdom of dogs, all natural performers, with the vainness of the people who try to pervert their pets' elegant dogness into a human-pleasing spectacle. As in Waiting for Guffman, all the characters have that Guestian quality of selective obliviousness. They're painfully aware of the minor flaws in their dogs' carriages--just as Nigel was infuriated by the miniature Stonehenge set designed for Spinal Tap. Yet, like Nigel, they're oblivious to the totality of the staggeringly uncanny kitsch, of, say, the standard poodle or Shih-Tzu coiffure.

Guest and his characters have a faith in their abilities as performers--the kind of faith called "concentration." The worse a performer is, the more concentration he needs, and what performer wouldn't envy the concentration of a Christopher Guest character? Free from self-awareness, Guest's people seem like lucky dogs.

Best in Show (PG-13; 90 min.), directed by Christopher Guest, written by Guest and Eugene Levy, photographed by Roberto Schaefer and starring Guest, Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard and Parker Posey, opens Friday at selected theaters.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984), directed by Rob Reiner, written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Reiner and Harry Shearer, photographed by Peter Smokler and starring Guest, McKean and Shearer, opens Friday at the Cameras in San Jose.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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