This semester I am teaching a course about the history and developments of mass communication theory. One of the key themes that keeps appearing is how theorists construct the relationship between the media and the audience. In the early theories (1920s-1960s), the audience frequently is constructed as weak and unable to withstand the influences of the media. More optimistic theories allow the audience some agency, but only some.
John Dewey, fortunately, gave the audience more credit for withstanding media influences. Later theorists finally grant audiences more power in interpreting media messages, so why don’t current writers acknowledge the possibility that audiences can spot a mockumentary?
I’m Still Here, the performance piece featuring Joaquin Phoenix, has drawn way too much attention during the last year and a half or so. Speculation abounded as to what was going on, as Phoenix’s sudden behavior change left people baffled. Once Casey Affleck admitted that the documentary was fake, the behavior and the piece suddenly made more sense.
But not everyone took kindly to the extended hi-jinx. One columnist’s sub-headline reads, “Fake documentaries making suckers of audience[s].” Documentary scholar Alex Juhasz pinpoints the truest moment of mockumentaries with the “reveal”. Without the reveal, the mockumentary remains just a documentary.
The mockumentary breaks the “documentary contract” that Bill Nichols claims that documentary makers make with their audiences. This contract — which is implied, at least in the U.S. — ensures that documentary makers adhere to representing the truth. Granted, the truth is an overly simplistic marker for categorizing a documentary, but then again, the basic idea of reality gets flattened into a simplistic concept as well. Reading reality through rhetoric allows ways for talking about it, but doing so also limits the possibilities. But by breaking this contract, the mockumentary shows that it represents no reality and it tells no truth.
But audiences often debate the veracity of documentary, so why would they not be able to see through a mockumentary? Viewers might catch flaws within the text itself, they might find coverage about the texts in the press or online, or they might have a healthy dose of skepticism, just to name three possibilities. Directors such as Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) are skilled in the mocking of culture through mockumentary. Information found online might confirm the details within a mockumentary, or even reveal them to be false.
Further, documentary conventions no longer hold the same strength cue to a text being a documentary as they used to. Almost every long-running TV show now does a documentary episode — ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy is a recent example of this. The Office’s key premise is a documentary team filming what it is like working in corporate America (or England, in the original). District 9 features documentary techniques of talking heads and jiggly cameras to augment its sense of realism.
Why, then, must they wait for the reveal for the affirmation or must they just serve as “dupes” to the mockumentary’s supposedly hidden secret of being fake? Am I just being too optimistic here?