Expelled and the Genre of Documentary

Oh, no.  Having run out of actual text to teach my freshmen, I’ve got no class texts about which to write.  Fortunately, I’ve been doing a bit of pleasure reading (a definite sin against productivity, but eventually I had to choose sanity) and DVD watching.  Oddly enough, people give me stranger looks around here when I say I’ve read for pleasure than when I say I’ve been watching TV.  I suppose that, given the amounts of reading and writing that we do professionally, it strikes all of us a bit odd to waste our reading energy when we could be advancing professionally.  But that’s a side thought.  On with the Ben Stein action.

Stein and DarwinI know a goodly number of Republicans whom I like personally, but I have little patience for most of the GOP’s professional noise makers.  Although Ben Stein is obviously not the same sort of public figure as the AM radio and Fox News crowd, nonetheless he seems perfectly comfortable associating with them personally even as he rails against the new public discourse for whose creation they must share some blame.  In a recent interview I saw in CSPAN he went so far as to praise Karl Rove as a perfectly moral person mere minutes after decrying the mindless acidity of modern political discourse.  (He also talked at some length about the deplorable raunchiness of late night television mere minutes before praising Jimmy Kimmel, so he has room in that mind of his for some contradiction, methinks.) But the point is that, more than some television Republicans, I find myself agreeing with what Stein supports.  Like David Brooks, he seems more capable than some of stepping back from the perpetual, high-octane campaign season and thinking about some things philosophically rather than tactically, and I respect that.

At any rate, Expelled does what documentaries do, conducting interviews with the people involved in a question of public life and situating those interviews inside a narrative framework (Stein’s is an itenerary–he goes from Washington, D.C. to Seattle to Paris and back to D.C. before landing in Richard Dawkins’s office) for the sake of making new some data that have become old.  He interviews former science professors, climbers of the academic ladder who suddenly became unemployable after mentioning Intelligent Design in papers and classes, then their bosses, who repeat standard meet-the-press lines about controversial positions having nothing to do with termination, then the professors’ former colleagues, who are far more candid about their friends’ slide into unorthodox positions and the consequences thereof.  He interviews scholars of the eugenics movement, who are quite candid about the role of evolution in the movement’s ideology and the movement’s role in National Socialist ideology.  (He is very careful to note that materialistic evolution is not a sufficient cause for Stalinism or National Socialism.)  And he ends with footage from an address he delivers to a student group about freedom of inquiry.  Most of the actual content is standard fare for those familiar to the Intelligent Design debate, but he presents it in an accessible, narrative format.

I remember, when the movie was set to release, that a number of the anti-ID scientists interviewed complained about being “taken out of context” for the sake of making the film.  The same complaints, I remember clearly, surfaced after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 hit the theaters.  Now that I’ve seen both documentaries, I wonder whether such a complaint really makes any sense, whether there is a singular “context” in which things fit.

The fact is that any human action, especially the action of speaking, has the potential to produce ripples, metaphorically speaking, that extend far beyond our intentions.  Stand-up comedy mines this reality for gold over and over: if anyone has ever heard Jeff Foxworthy’s routines on being married or having children, one has heard stories of runaway words.  From under that lovable little mustache he warns husbands never to answer their wives’ seemingly innocent questions about movie stars’ attractiveness: later, perhaps months later, when the husband asks the wife for a favor, she’ll inevitably respond, “Why don’t you get that Angelina Jolie to do it for you?  You think she’s awful sexy!”  (I realize that writing an essay about a joke is an exercise in folly, and I can’t remember for the life of me the original object of that joke, but you get the point.)

But words and acts can also have deadly serious ripples: consider the now-parabolic case of Strom Thurmond’s birthday party and Trent Lott’s (innocent, as far as I can tell) praise of his colleague’s political career.  Now I know I’ve told friends that the world would be a better place if folks like them were president, and I didn’t mean that I wished that their ugliest ideas had become public policy.  (We all have ugly ideas that nobody should want to make public policy.)  Nonetheless, Lott (who had some pride in his being a Senator) was out, Bill Frist (who has been one of the biggest White House yes-men of the Bush years) was in, and the rest is recent history.

My point is not at all that the public should ignore Lott’s comments; on the contrary, they were rightly part of public conversation.  He was at the time a Senator and one holding a leadership post, and when those CSPAN cameras are rolling, he is a public not a private figure.  Although he might have imagined himself in only one context, namely a relatively small room filled with Senators, in fact his action of saying what he said existed and exists in a plurality of contexts, each with the potential to make something different of his words.

Likewise, the very genre of documentary assumes that a filmmaker can and will situate elements of recorded speech in contexts that differ from what the speaker imagines.  That’s what documentaries do: whereas television journalism tends to sanitize things, to maintain the reverence in which the public holds scientists and the uncritical adulation that the public heaps on soldiers and the unspoiled image that businessmen cultivate for themselves, documentaries by definition take actual film footage of what people actually say and situate them in contexts that the normally untouchable cannot so tightly control.  To do so is no doubt an exercise in interpretation, and no doubt documentary makers do so because they think that people do not think long or clearly enough about what they see in front of their faces every day.  But such is not dishonest; after all, nobody has accused Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore or Ben Stein of creating CGI fast food executives or politicians or scientists; instead, people who normally get a pass or even explicit love from the television cameras all of a sudden find themselves subject to their power in a new way, and as people do when the normal landscape of life begins to hurt a bit, they whine.

I think that, if we teachers taught a bit about the fluidity of context and the conventions of documentary and the necessary politics (whether of subversion or of status quo) that travels with every television camera a bit more honestly, perhaps the public would be able to see the silliness of such complaints a bit more clearly.  After all, when people complain about being taken “out of context,” they’re invoking a purity of transmission that is simply impossible for human acts of communication.  Certainly television cameras can also make people look better than otherwise they would have: consider just for example the early careers of the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman episodes.  In those cases journalists and other propagandists embedded (pun intended) particulars in a heroic narrative rather than an unflattering or antagonistic one.

Perhaps that might be a starting place for talking about documentaries and journalistic uses of interviews and other such things, namely the starting proposition that events, thought it has reality in its own right, only gains intelligibility when human minds theorize their relationships with other events.  Beginning with that Gestaltic axiom might serve as a cure for the too-easy binary between “out of context” and its real alternative, which is to say a sanitized, harmless context.  At the very least the public would be able to see that the practiced and posed complaint of the lady wronged is itself a bit of documentary re-framing.



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4 responses to “Expelled and the Genre of Documentary

  1. Ludwik Kowalski

    You wrote “Having run out of actual text to teach my freshmen, I’ve got no class texts about which to write. ”

    Please review my short new book, introduced at:


    P.S. This is an educational book for those who know very little about tragic aspects of Soviet history. It mixes well-known facts, and descriptions by survivors of gulag camps, with comments and observations worth discussing. The topic deserves it.

  2. I apologize for my unclear statement. What I meant is that the rest of my freshman comp semester we’re devoting to preparing their semester-end portfolios. There are always good books to teach.

    I’m afraid my areas of expertise, even stretched as I like to stretch them, likely will not extend to Soviet history any time soon. I do appreciate the comment, though, and I hope you continue to read the blog.

  3. ahandkerchiefsandwich

    I tend to find both Brooks and Stein to be problematic for precisely the reason you mentioned at the beginning of your post. Both have a particular cache of ethos that they draw upon to make their partisan arguments. Stein is a bit of a Charles Van Doren figure, a figure with a little bit of an academic background, whose ethos comes largely from appearing to be an academic in television and film settings (ironically, one of which is also a quiz show). Brooks and Stein are both wolves in sheep’s clothing. I would rather, in a way, have figures like Limbaugh, whose deceptions and agendas are more obvious. Nazi’s are a staple of conflation and juxtaposition for Limbaugh, and I was not surprised to see them make an appearance in Expelled either.

    The documentary is also an imperfect genre, because it is more narrative than rational appeal. The danger here is that it purports to be something other than what it is, entertainment. After all, just like a quiz show, it is the drama and the characters of the documentary that are most important, or at least the most compelling part of the content. Whatever else it is, the documentary must first be entertaining. This is the “context” of the documentary. When Stein takes figures like Dawkins out of context, he is really taking them out of the context that they see themselves in, and into the role of a character in the documentary’s drama. Figures like Dawkins often deserve to be caricatured for the pleasure they derive from attacking their opponents. This is a context that many people already see him in, and surely a context he himself must not find comfortable. However, Ben Stein arguably does no better when his discussion implicitly becomes a discussion of the characters of the argument, rather than the argument itself. Where Stein does deal with the argument itself, it too must be cast into an entertaining narrative which often means a heavy dose of ethos, and pathos. The argument itself gets very little treatment, and when it does, it is rife with logical fallacies, and by necessity of the form, underdeveloped threads.

  4. Interesting. I tend to think of Brooks and Stein as differing in content as well as form from the pseudo-populist wing of the GOP, largely because they appear more capable of detachment.

    With regards to documentaries and perfect genres, I’m inclined to say that if anyone ever sees a perfect genre on the road, that person should kill it. I think documentaries are good food for thought precisely because they act out in big, easy-to-spot moves the sorts of rhetorical dances that always accompany public figures’ public speech. I suppose it’s because I’m a teacher of Plato, but I appreciate that there’s a place where one can look at big blatant patterns for the sake of training one’s eye to see the subtler patterns in the more polite genres of mediated speech.

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