The American Personality Documentary: Fetishization, Nostalgia and the Working Class

By Starowicz, Caitlin | CineAction, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The American Personality Documentary: Fetishization, Nostalgia and the Working Class


Starowicz, Caitlin, CineAction


In 2002, hell froze over when a documentary became one of the highest-grossing films of the year earning over fifty-eight million dollars internationally and becoming the highest-grossing documentary of all time.

Of course, this film was Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (2002), which quickly became an international phenomenon unto itself. Since then, lightning has struck twice. Moore's next film, the 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11 beat this record by over 600 percent, earning in excess of 222 million dollars. This unpredicted success, in what many thought was a dead cinematic form, was heralded by many as a documentary renaissance; an outpouring of new documentaries saw the light of day, such as Mark Achbar's 2003 film The Corporation (2003), Dan Oilman and Chris Smith's The Yes Men (2003) also of 2003, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me (20, released in 2004), Spurlock's 2005 tv series "30 Days", Moore's Sicko (2007) and his 2009 film Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), up until Spurlock's most recent release that opened this April, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011).

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However, this documentary renaissance seems to have made a detour from the established path of documentary; they all foreground an inordinate amount of focus on the personality of the filmmaker himself, more so than documentaries in the past. Please note that I make reference to "his personality" on purpose because this new slate of documentaries is extremely gendered. Regardless, these films bear a striking incongruity with the documentary doxa of their predecessors.

So where does this documentary renaissance fit within the paradigm of documentary cinema? I would like to put forward the assertion that they represent an entirely new style of documentary. They are divergent from most established ways of interpreting documentary within scholarly discourse. These films mark a new mode within the cultural field, a mode which I will term the "personality documentary".

The personality documentary is marked by an unprecedented focus on the persona of the filmmaker himself where the personality invades the film to the point of becoming a performance which overshadows the content itself. Gone are the days of cinema verite with the hidden man behind the camera--the personality documentary is about the man behind, in front of, and all around the camera. This performance of personality becomes a form of masquerade in which the filmmaker plays a specific character for the camera, commenting on sociopolitical issues. As Michael Chanan puts it in The Politics of Documentary, "[t]he films of Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore, as well as titles like Super Size Me (2004) and The Yes Men, represent a mode of political reportage in which the filmmaker's personality invades the film, which consequently becomes highly performative; the style, which has a strong resonance in the US, is highly gendered but also adopts a satirical and ironic stance." (1)

However, it is important to differentiate this form of performance from previous types of documentary. This personality mode of documentary is a relatively new phenomenon which is divergent from performative documentaries where the appearance of the filmmaker on camera is used to illustrate the subjectivity of the mode of representation. For example, when Marlon Riggs appears naked and exposed in Tongues Untied (1989) chanting poetry, it is to express his subjective experience as a gay black man. His appearance foregrounds the subjective positioning of his film. Contrast this to Michael Moore's boisterous and baseball cap-wearing personage in his films. Moore serves as a rotund guide and Everyman "telling it like it is." Here, his appearance serves to denote a sense of collectivity rather than subjectivity--Moore's presence is showing what it's like for all John Does across America and not the subjective positioning of Michael Moore as an individual. …

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