Monday, 19 April 2010


Michael Moore - 2002

Whenever we 'read' a documentary we are concerned with 4 principle issues.
1. What argument is the documentary making?
2. What is the role of the documentarian in this text?
3. What techniques does the documentary use to make its argument?
4. What techniques does the documentary use to establish itself as realistic?

The latter is a key concern of documentaries if they are not acceptable as realistic then they are not documentaries. To achieve a level of realism such that the text is accepted as realistic is the minimum goal of a documentary. So when ever you 'read' a documentary you must consider what its discourse of realism is.

1. Polemic - In many ways Moore is more a polemicist than a documentarian in that making an argument is his most important goal. This is not necessarily a bad thing as all documentaries contain ideological content and Moore foregrounds his own ideology so that we can engage with it; a form of polemical honesty. Documentaries that claim to be just showing 'x' as it really is are constructing a claim to truth and are in many ways more suspicious than documentaries with very strong arguments because they don't wont to engage with the audience in regard of their ideology.
2. 'Facticity' - As this text is a polemic with a very specific ideological message it has been attacked, attacked and attacked again on the basis that it misleads, lies, and distorts 'the truth' (a quick google will throw up plenty of examples of this). Such criticism rather fundamentally misses the point; there is no truth to distort only representations to be constructed and contested. Moore has initiated a representational struggle over guns and fear within the USA and the many responses denigrating Moore and Bowling for Columbine represent participation in this representational struggle. Of course pro-Moore participation also occurs and he and his films have many defenders. For the moment its worth noting that many of the editing techniques used by Moore to construct his representation are common to all documentarians and that anything other than the replay of raw footage (such as Andy Warhol's Empire - his 1964 8 hour long real time film of the Empire State building) would be unacceptable as documentary if Moore's critics had their way.
3. Techniques - The techniques of documentary must always be part of our consideration when reading such a text. Consider the role of each of the following in the construction of the text.
The selection and compression of filmed material - Interviews and other film sequences are always edited often with the intention of creating a specific effect.
relation of sound to image - the sound being heard and the images being seen need not have been captured simultaneously and could have been edited together later.
editing - the process of cutting from one scene to another structures the meaning of the documentary and cannot help but have an effect on our understanding of the text.
use of narrative - narrative is a key concept in media studies and so the use of narratives in documentaries ought to warn us that more is at stake in even the simplest seemingly non-ideological documentary then the simple depiction of the real. For the moment consider;
what does the narrative include and exclude?
what is the relationship of plot to description?
around who or what is the narrative focused?
does the narrative follow Todorov's schema?
what is the mode of address of the text?
function of narrator - A narrator is present in most documentaries and is the central instrument for the presentation of the preferred reading of the text.
set-ups - It is not always possible to tell how much preparation went into each filmed section of a documentary. Some sequences of all documentaries take huge amounts of preparation and therefore need to be approached carefully.
Filmed Vs Found - There is in every documentary always a tension between material freshly filmed for the documentary and found material that is used for illustrative and/or informative (comparison/contrast, etc.) reasons. The editing process can make it hard to distinguish the two types of material.
effect of camera and crew - the presence of the camera changes peoples actions and re-actions and so it must always be remembered that every situation depicted in a documentary is artificial in that the camera would not normally be present.
entertainment functions - documentaries do not exist solely to inform and educate it is also a part of their purpose to entertain. The balance of inform, educate, and entertain is very hard to maintain and most documentaries favour one over the others.

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