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New book explores awkward moments in film and media

May 7, 2014

Television shows like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and 30 Rock have built large followings around their use of awkward and cringeworthy comedy. But according to Jason Middleton, assistant professor of English and director of the film and media studies program at the University of Rochester, the use of staged “awkwardness” in documentaries, TV, and in videos on YouTube extends far beyond the domain of contemporary popular culture.

“When people think of comic elements in documentary film they typically think of Michael Moore, but this approach was used in some of the earliest documentary films like Nanook of the North,” explains Middleton, who points to staged scenes and comic interactions between the actor and filmmaker in the 1922 silent documentary. “The things for which Moore was faulted—from his use of comedy to his failure to uphold objectivity—are consistent with the history of documentary films.”

This deliberate use of “awkward humor” is the subject of Middleton’s new book, Documentary’s Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship. Published by Routledge as part of its Research in Cultural and Media Studies series, the book explores awkward moments in film to help historicize cultural irony and track how it arises in documentary films and reality-based media.

Described by Middleton as “disrupted encounters on film,” awkward moments emerge in strategies by filmmakers, like Moore, who use irony to convey serious political issues; in portrait films like Grey Gardens, which explore the lives of eccentrics or “outsiders”; and in film hoaxes, like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, which raise questions about authority and authenticity.

Trailer: This is Spinal Tap

In his book, Middleton establishes a historical context for the emergence of awkward humor in documentary filmmaking—especially the inspiration that Moore and his followers drew from the 1984 mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, in which Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest parody not only an aging metal rock band, but the very conventions of documentary filmmaking.

“People think the comedy is rooted in the actors’ performances and the funniness of the improvised dialogue, but there is more to it,” says Middleton. “Those forms of humor become closely tied into a parody of documentary film conventions, bringing to the foreground elements of filmmaking that are meant to be invisible.”

Trailer: Grey Gardens

According to Middleton, what becomes interesting is that the comedic style that was meant to be a parody of a documentary gets reincorporated into actual documentary filmmaking via filmmakers like Moore who take comic approaches to real world social and political issues.

In addition to exploring the influence of mockumentaries on documentary films, the book examines awkward moments through hoax films and reaction videos across a range of media.

“Historically documentaries have used techniques to minimize awkwardness through the comforts of authoritative narrators or the distancing style of observational camerawork, but new reality-based formats have become increasingly reflexive and ironic, ignoring older models with somber and informative tones,” said Middleton.

Through an understanding of how awkward humor works, he hopes to explore the ethics of how real people are treated and represented in these films, “and the complexities and ambiguities of how we, as viewers, experience things as real or not real in the contemporary context of digital media.”

Middleton’s research interests include film theory, documentaries, experimental films, horror films, and cultural studies. He is the co-editor of Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones (Duke University Press, 2007) and is currently working on a book titled, Volatile Visions: Process and Decay in Film and Video.

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Category: Society & Culture