Monday, September 14, 2015

Fake Inductive Structure

The Search for General Tso
dir. Ian Cheney, 2014
Genre: Quirkumentary/Cultural documentary
Streaming on Netflix, available on instant video

For some reason it is hard for me to pinpoint the genre of The Search for General Tso, even though it is similar to many mainstream feature documentaries and even though the film fits pretty neatly with what I call postclassical documentary narration. The film, a cultural history of the Chinese-American restaurant staple, is a mix of expert testimony, interviews, B-roll, and illustrative animation graphics. In this sense, it is a formally safe rather than innovative doc, but is pitched as such, to a general interest audience. On these terms, the documentary does a terrific job of seeing the big picture in the small, by using culinary history as a hook for an exploration of Chinese diaspora, US immigration policy, and a series of secondary issues. 

The film presents itself as a detective story (the search for origins) and unlike some investigative documentaries, this one does not filter it through a 1st person persona (The Jinx) but rather moves the investigative narrative onto an objective narrative structure. The decision pays benefits, as when the an initial framing of General Tso Chicken as (inauthentically) Chinese-American starts with juxtapositions of the U.S. and Hunan province.

Eventually, though, the film confounds a one-note critique of inauthenticity, and the structure subverts spectator expectation.

The 3rd person nature of the investigation does highlight the artifice of the detective story hook to begin with. The documentary withholds information that the filmmaker very likely would have had at the beginning in order to create the enigma and the clues for solving it. One could see this as a MacGuffin (The Search for General Tso is not the most engaging mystery, though I found the cultural history fascinating). But I see a larger principle at stake, namely the false-inductive structure of postclassical documentary. The film positions the spectator to have an experiential relation to the revelation of information when in fact the revelation has been overdetermined from the outset of either filming or editing.

The stakes of this fake-inductive form varies considerably from the two modalities of postclassical doc: character-driven (observational) or expository. The Search for General Tso is the latter and therefore does not "breathe" as much as something like The Overnighters does. But a similar backward plotting is involved.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Medium Term Scales of Innovation

Costa da Morte
dir. Lois Patiño, 2013
Genre: poetic documentary
Not currently in wide distribution

There is currently an excitement that generates a lot of documentary work that is in a similar vein. Static shots, locked down camera, often in telephoto or at least long shot, digital cinematography, and sound design done in "close up." I thought of these when watching Costa da Morte, a poetic documentary about the Galician coast and the villagers' relation to their landscape. I do think that Lois Patiño has a distinctive eye and that Costa da Morte activates the tropes of contemporary poetic doc for interesting thematic ends. And at times (such as the passage of the seasons), it departed from a strictly contemplative pace. But in so many ways, it feels like one example of a larger genre and hews fairly closely to that genre.

Which makes me wonder about the time-scale of aesthetic innovation. I still think the poetic approach seems fresh, in part because so many technological and narratological developments are interacting in various permutations. But at some point, maybe soon, maybe in the medium term, these tropes will likely seem like cliché.