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The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek: Film Review

The Battle of Pussy WIllow Creek - H 2013
Eric Anthony Johnson

The Bottom Line

Although it lampoons its inspirations with uncanny accuracy, this satire of Ken Burns' documentaries isn't very funny.

Director-screenwriter

Wendy Jo Cohen

Wendy Jo Cohen's mockumentary parodies Ken Burns' "The Civil War."

The television documentaries by Ken Burns would seem ripe for parody, but The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek, a mockumentary obviously inspired by his landmark 1990 series The Civil War, misses the Christopher Guest mark by a mile. Although writer-director Wendy Jo Cohen has re-created Burns’ signature stylistic flourishes with an admirably rigorous attention to detail, she fails to infuse the proceedings with the anarchic humor necessary to make this more than a sporadically amusing academic exercise.

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The little-known titular conflict supposedly occurred in 1863, when the 13th Rhode Island Infantry defeated a much vaster force composed of Confederate and British soldiers, saving Washington, D.C., in the process. Among the central heroes of the battle profiled at length are a gay, cross-dressing colonel who once carried on a torrid affair with a fellow cadet, later turned Confederate enemy, at West Point; a Chinese general/launderer who uses the I Ching to formulate his battle strategies; a biracial former slave who’s a genius at inventing; and a vengeful one-armed teenage prostitute in male drag.

Unctuously narrated by “J. Winston Barrymore,” the film features everything you’d expect in an actual PBS documentary, including extensive commentary from an assortment of talking heads; old-school, B&W intertitles; long pans across archival photographs; heaping doses of period music; lovingly photographed documents, maps and historical artifacts; and excerpts from vintage letters and diaries read by a team of actors. There’s also footage from a filmed 1932 interview with an old woman who witnessed the battle.

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That all of this fakery is presented in highly realistic fashion, albeit with a comically skewered bent, is obviously the point. But too much of the purported humor -- often relying on cheap jokes revolving around sexuality and ethnicity -- falls flat. Not helping are the stilted performances by the faux “commentators” that are often broad without being particularly funny, at least for this reviewer. Others no doubt will disagree, including Burns, whose laudatory blurb is featured in the film’s promotional materials.   

Opens: Friday, March 1 (WideSphere Films)
Cast: Emily Mitchell, Christopher Lukas, Matthew Ludwinki, Tim Cusack, Zeb Hollins III, John Redmond, Andy Sandberg, Maureen Brooks, Emilie Bonsant, Biraj Lala
Director/screenwriter/producer/editor: Wendy Jo Cohen
Director of photography: Matthew Howe
Costume designer: Ms. Marni
Composer: Patrick Derivaz
No rating, 96 minutes