Complexity and Documentary Narration

In the previous post, I griped about scholarship that facilely dismisses other viewpoints under the guise of "complexity." But it's worth pointing out a rhetoric-of-complexity example that is not facile (at least I don't find it such) and in fact appears in a useful, well thought-out book. The introduction of Paul Ward's Documentary: The Margins of Reality (part of Wallflower's Shortcuts series), contains this caveat:
"'Documentary' in the twenty-first century is a complex set of overlapping discourses and practices, and we need our theories, critical approaches, and – perhaps most of all – our documentarists equipped to recognize and deal with this fact." (3)
What interests me about Ward's claim is that in general he does not commit any of the sins I complained about yesterday. He does provide something positive, namely, a case for the importance of documentary animation as an object of study. Later, he sticks up for Nichols' typologies against complaints that they do not explain everything. ("In disagreeing with some of Nichols' points or conclusions, some of his critics appear to go overboard and reject the categories themselves." [21]) Finally, there is a case to be made that the forms of what counts as "documentary" have multiplied since, say, the 1970s.

Yet the recourse to complexity raises my skepticism. Is documentary so impossibly complex today? For the scholar, perhaps: we have more kinds of films we need to understand as "nonfiction" and we have some good reasons to resist the centrality of the Griersonian definition. But for the maker, documentary can be as straightforward or complex as she wants it to be. There continues to be a finite number of hegemonic documentary forms that we can identify as such. Those working in reality TV or making for PBS are certainly aware of other "overlapping discourses" but know as a matter of professional practice how to suppress those discourses. Moreover, even those working in a counterhegemonic vein adopt shared stylistic devices and thematic tropes. Our models may need to change, but I still believe the field of doc studies undervalues simplifying models.

This applies even for Ward, who after extolling Nichols' taxonomy, urges revising it in favor of a dialectic model and assessing "how these modes are taken up and used in specific contexts" (which he seems to analyze on the level of the individual film). We do need to break the shackles of canonicity in documentary studies. And we do need a revision of Nichols' taxonomy (which, mind you, I find useful enough to teach in my intro to film analysis class every semester). But rather than dialectics or infinite contextual hybridity, my preference – and one goal of my research – is to find typical narrational patterns in documentary. These patterns are related to the documentary canon and the Griersonian definition yet are not reducible to it. They will by nature exclude many examples of nonfiction film, but will provide explanatory power for a large subset.


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