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October 31, 2004

Documentaries and Argument

Inspired by George's discussion of his planned course for Spring 2005, I've begun thinking about what I'll be teaching next semester in my English 1102 freshman composition classes. Right now, I'm thinking about focusing the class on documentary film. It's the topic that I'm most passionate about right now, and the topic would certainly lend itself well to paper assignments in that many documentaries structure themselves as argumentative.

I've just begun thinking about this topic in earnest, and I haven't yet decided what the course would look like. I imagine that it would heavily favor contemporary documentaries (films made in the last ten years), but I would also feel the need to teach some foundational docs, too. A tentative list might include:

I'd also be interested in teaching a Maysles Brothers film, and I'd like to include a "rockumentary," probably Don't Look Back. My list is heavily tilted towards American political docs, so I'm trying to find ways to either reduce that emphasis or to simply run with it. And with Capturing the Friedmans, I'd love to supplement that discussion with clips from An American Family or something similar (maybe Seven Up?). Because I haven't quite decided what I want to do with the topic of documentary film, I'm still trying to put together an exact list (given the limitations of the class, I'm guessing I'll do 6-7 films, tops).

In addition, rather than doing a "group hypertext project," I've considered requiring that groups make a short 5-10 minute (?) documentary film using equipment checked out from Georgia Tech's library, which they could edit using iMovie, which is available in many of Tech's computer labs. That idea is pretty tentative right now. I'm not sure how much tech support I would need to provide, and it's possible that supervising 15 student film projects might be more than I want to take on right now. On the other hand it could be pretty damn cool, especially if 1-2 of the student groups put something cool together. Right now, I'm leaning towards a "more traditional" group hypertext project where students could research a documentary film or filmmaker, although I'm unsure how that would work right now.

The only drawback that I can imagine is that it would be a royal pain to arrange for students to see all of the films I'd like to teach. Some of them aren't widely available (according to IMDB, Titicut Follies isn't even on VHS or DVD, so that's probably out), and if I schedule an evening screening time, I imagine that a significant percentage of my students won't be able to attend.

Posted by chuck at October 31, 2004 10:51 PM

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I like your list. If I was doing a rockumentary, I'd have a tough time not going towards Gimme Shelter or Imagine, but those might be a little on the nose. And any American Family episodes you could show would be brilliant and topical.

Posted by: Dylan at October 31, 2004 11:40 PM

"Gimme Shelter" is an interesting choice--I've certainly hought about it. I watched the Maysles Brothers' Salesman tonight, and it uses direct cinema really well. The DVD has some really good extras, too, including an interview with the filmmakers.

Posted by: chuck at November 1, 2004 1:42 AM

I just watched and was quite fascinated by General Idi Amin Dada. You could have great class discussions talking about how he ate the flesh of some of those he tortured to death so their spirits wouldn't haunt him, and then compare that to some of the foreign policy "realist" material written about him at the time.

Posted by: Jonathan at November 1, 2004 10:26 AM

Now *that* would provoke some interesting reactions. Not sure that I've even heard of that doc, though. I'm assuming it's available here in Atlanta?

Posted by: chuck at November 1, 2004 10:51 AM

It's at Videodrome, which you should really check out if you haven't yet. The subtitle of the documentary is "A Self-Portrait," or something like that, as the types of footage they were allowed to shoot was quite restricted, but his utter insanity comes through quite well.

Posted by: Jonathan at November 1, 2004 2:59 PM

I think "This is Spinal Tap" might be fun to show, especially if you get the students to watch it (both without and with the DVD commentary) for its successful attempt at a parody of the documentary genre and for the resulting creation of the actual band Spinal Tap. I'm not sure if there were any mockumentaries before Spinal Tap.

Posted by: Chris Martin at November 1, 2004 3:26 PM

The Albert Brooks movie "Real Life" is a great satire of "An American Family." Because so many students will have seen other reality TV shows, I think it could work pretty well.

I actually have the DVD for Spinal Tap out right now, and I've heard the commentary tracks are amazingly meta. At the very least, I'll show clips in class & talk about how the film parodies documentary tropes.

Posted by: chuck at November 1, 2004 3:43 PM

Oh, and Jonathan, I'll go to Videodrome and check out the Idi Amin film. I habitually go to Movies Worth Seeing, so I'll use this as motivation to try Videodrome. Missed your comment before because of the multiple responses to this entry.

Posted by: chuck at November 1, 2004 3:49 PM

I heartily second the suggestion of General Idi Amin Dada. http://pullquote.typepad.com/pullquote/2004/04/general_idi_ami.html

Consider Wiseman's High School in lieu of the infamous Titicut--first-year undergrads would probably relate better to that, and maybe you could pair it with PBS's recent American High School?

Also, I suspect you will find that Thin Blue Line will probably prove as elusive as Titicut--even the video I worked at opposite Morris's offices couldn't get a copy. What about using his Switch ads for Apple and MoveOn to show the appropriation of documentary technique?

Or you could show a Riefenstahl Olympiad--the template for filming sports to this day.

Posted by: cinetrix at November 1, 2004 9:20 PM

All great suggestions!! There are 1-2 local video stores here in Atlanta that have copies of Thin Blue Line, but as I recall students did have a hard time finding copies of the film this past summer. Maybe I'll do Fog of War instead. I do enjoy teaching TBL, though. Will be hard to take that off the list.

High School's a good call, especially with the PBS doc as a point of comparison. And I used to teach Olympiad at Purdue, and it worked really well. If I could be sure that it was available, I'd teach The River, but, again, availability is a big factor. This is another reason why the course will skew towards the contemporary.

Posted by: chuck at November 1, 2004 10:11 PM

If you're considering Morris and want to avoid the more overtly political, have you thought about Fast, Cheap, and out of Control? It should be fairly available, as I've seen copies floating around out here in the boonies of Carrollton, and it would definitely be a departure not only from politics but from a number of other conventions as well.

Posted by: Eric at November 2, 2004 9:49 AM

Good suggestion. I'm not *that* worried about the docs being political, so I'd have no problem with Fog of War, but Fast, Cheap... is a fun, interesting doc. I might even do two Errol Morris films....

Posted by: chuck at November 2, 2004 9:58 AM

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