Documentary's Awkward Turn

Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship

By Jason Middleton

© 2014 – Routledge

186 pages | 20 B/W Illus.

Purchasing Options:
Hardback: 9780415721073
pub: 2013-12-16
US Dollars$145.00

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About the Book

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.


"Middleton’s work…lays the theoretical foundation for empirical research on the specific effects of such awkward moments on viewer experiences…[I]n Middleton’s hands ‘awkwardness’ becomes a useful tool for understanding crucial aesthetic and ethical issues of contemporary film and media." -- Trent Griffiths, Deakin University, Australia, in Studies in Documentary Film

"This is a scholarly, lucid book written in a clear and engaging style. It presents a powerfully expressed argument and makes a unique contribution to the field of spectatorship that will certainly appeal to scholars of documentary, reality television and comedy studies." -- Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs,University of Salford, UK, in Comedy Studies

"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

Table of Contents

Introduction. Awkward Moments 1. Awkward Aesthetics: Michael Moore and Christopher Guest 2. Awkwardly Reflected: Mirroring Anti-Celebrity in the Portrait Film 3. Awkward Satire: Comedies of Deception 4. Awkward Extremes: Reaction Videos and the "Reactive Gaze" 5. Awkward Moments, Endless Days: Feeling Time in The Office

About the Author

Jason Middleton is Assistant Professor in the English Department and the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, and Director of the Program in Film and Media Studies, at the University of Rochester, USA. He is co-editor of the book Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones (2007).

About the Series

Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies

Cultural and media studies are now well-established as important academic disciplines and are inspiring new research into a wide range of pertinent issues. This series presents outstanding research in these subjects, helping to shape the direction of future inquiry.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
ART / Popular Culture
ART / Film & Video
HUMOR / General
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Popular Culture
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Media Studies