New Faculty Publication: Jason Middleton, “Documentary's Awkward Turn”

April 17, 2014

Cover of Despite the prominence of "awkwardness" as cultural buzzword and descriptor of a sub-genre of contemporary film and television comedy, it has yet to be adequately theorized in academic film and media studies. Documentary’s Awkward Turn contributes a new critical paradigm to the field by presenting an analysis of awkward moments in documentary film and other reality-based media formats.

It examines difficult and disrupted encounters between social actors on the screen, between filmmaker and subject, and between film and spectator. These encounters are, of course, often inter-connected. Awkward moments occur when an established mode of representation or reception is unexpectedly challenged, stalled, or altered: when an interviewee suddenly confronts the interviewer, when a subject who had been comfortable on camera begins to feel trapped in the frame, when a film perceived as a documentary turns out to be a parodic mockumentary. This book makes visible the ways in which awkwardness connects and subtends a range of transformative textual strategies, political and ethical problematics, and modalities of spectatorship in documentary film and media from the 1970s to the present.

"This book brilliantly analyzes the formal techniques, affective qualities, and ethical implications of the comedic turn in documentary film and reality television that was instigated by the work of Christopher Guest and Michael Moore and has culminated in prank films and reaction videos. Jason Middleton presents a sophisticated and readable rumination on a serious subject, drawing upon theoretical discourses of comedy, spectatorship, and shame to argue that intentional and unintentional awkward moments define the temporal and emotional lacunae of the post-Fordist workplace depicted in The Office; destabilize documentary authority itself in films by Sacha Baron Cohen and the Yes Men; and promote ethical detachment in de-realized images proffered by reaction videos." --Maria Pramaggiore, North Carolina State University, USA

"While there have been many studies that theorize the idea of the spectator with relation to class, race, and/or gender, ‘awkward’ humor has never really been examined with such a precise focus as it in this book. It will make a unique and lasting contribution to spectatorship studies, and moves well beyond work already done in the field, in a style that is refreshingly free of jargon, and written in a direct, accessible manner." --Wheeler Winston Dixon, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA

"This book offers a brilliant plumb-line that cuts through, and links, unanticipated bodies of contemporary nonfiction media to the affective, ethical, political and funny claims they make about the world and for their audiences. Looking to a diverse and complex body of programming, including mockumentary, reality TV, social media, and television, Jason Middleton uses the most contemporary of tropes—Awk-ward—to reveal how and why we are forced to, or enjoy, looking away. The disrupted encounters he focuses upon, which induce shame, contempt, implication or insulation, tell us much about our contemporary spectatorial delight in a documentary unknowing that occurs through broken encounters fuelled by misrecognition, deception, displeasure, or the absence of an ethical response." -- Alexandra Juhasz, Pitzer College, USA

Routledge, 2014