By this oxymoron I mean:

  • that contemporary (and past) media manipulations and deceptions exist on the internet in increasing numbers and with expanding reach
  • these have fomented crises during the recent election and current administration, as well as in the past
  • there are and have been lived, material consequences (of serious concern) produced in the confusing wake of this structuring contradiction, including the election of our current President (see #100truths-#fakenews #3 and reading list, below).

For more complexity see:

  • “Triumph of the Will”: Document or Artifice?, by David B. Hinton
    “What struck me about the way that Trump supporters view Trump is how similar it is to the ways in which Hitler was also viewed. Leni Riefenstahl was instrumental in creating the spectacle and artifice around Hitler and the Nazi party, and the ways that Trump has uses fake news mirrors some of that (even beyond the similarities of some of his proposed policies).”  Recommended by Jennifer Jee Cho, MA Candidate, Cinema & Media Studies, USC
  • Framing the Internet in the Arab Revolutions: Myth Meets Modernity, by Miriyam Aouragh
    “The attached article supports the idea of needing a more critical citizen engagement with the internet. Something else that this article does in a very understated way is point out that the relationship between the internet and produced fakeness/realness changes based on where/when we are in the world. Your op-ed points out that, in a Western/American context, the internet is our source for producing, consuming, and sharing fake content. But it’s just as important to note that the internet can become a place of very real Western (re)configurations of non-Western narratives, cultures, and social and political structures, effectively acting as a tool for the production of neocolonialism and its real effects.” Recommended by Mary Michael
  • My book, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited with Jesse Lerner, University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
  • #100hardtruths-#fakenews: a primer on digital media literacy



This post is late in the news cycle of this media event because I tried, unsuccessfully, to publish it as an Op Ed. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, an unfortunate scandal played out at Pitzer College, where I am a Professor of Media Studies. At a student senate meeting, a small group of students requested the establishment of the Caucasian Culture Club. After lengthy questioning from the senators, engendering insensitive justifications, the request was denied.

Overt racism within a liberal institution, however, is not the scandal I am considering here. Rather, it was this following revelation: the white clubbers were performing their offenses while playing a role at the behest of three students of color. They wanted footage about racial silences at the college for a mockumentary they were making for a documentary class offered by my department.

Two weeks of difficult intellectual and ethical conversations ensued on the student list serve, in town hall meetings, and in our campus media: does the greater good of revealing what might otherwise be unspoken justify the pain of those who are misled along the way? Do various traditions like documentary, ethnography or even the news, have different standards regarding the treatment of human subjects? Do the time-honored institutions of artistic license and academic freedom protect students from other shared responsibilities?

Within our small campus community, we learned a great deal from talking together about these hard questions, ones not isolated to this incident. For our culture is littered with forms that mix truth and fiction, reality and entertainment, documentary and storytelling. Fake or entertainment news like “The Colbert Show” or “E Entertainment News,” fake documentaries and fact-based fictions like The Devil Inside or Cloverfield, and all of bogus “reality TV” are ubiquitous within and perhaps even definitive of our media moment. I believe that the larger culture could learn from the kinds of conversations we had about these issues on our campus.

In F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, I suggest that for talented artists, mocking forms known for their sobriety allows for harder conversations about truth, identity, or history. Meanwhile, in my more recent book Learning from YouTube, I express the less optimistic opinion that the faking of facts, authenticity, and expertise have become an accepted and even normative mode across our culture: for both every day YouTubers and much of the dominant media they emulate.

However, while most of these forms remain entertaining and pleasurable—instilling the satisfaction of insider-knowledge and the comedic reach of parody—we are also beginning to encounter instances where an ever-more uncertain or shifting blend between fact and fiction is causing pain.

For instance, the intense scrutiny by an international Internet audience on the factual ups and downs of the “Kony 2012” video may have contributed to the emotional breakdown of its director, Jason Russell, even as so many African vbloggers righteously attest to their own anguish caused by seeing the over-simplification of their continent’s political turmoil in the name of activating media-weary youth. In this case as well, its authors believed that a greater social good—produced by powerful story-telling forms and their associated feelings—gives them license to play somewhat loose with facts.

But in such confounding situations about the role and ethics of fact-based media, are we best served by only attending to the suffering of those who are misled, or by also asking larger questions about a culture of misleading and its new forms and old institutions? In the case of a retraction that ran on Friday, March 18 on “This American Life,” the players are as sacrosanct as National Public Radio, the New York Times, and Apple. Here, the discomfiting admixture of art and journalism occurred in “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an excerpt of the acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey that ran on This American Life.

In “Retraction,” Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, thoughtfully and with some felt embarrassment and even seeming grief revealed that “the most powerful and memorable moments of the story all seem to be fabricated.” And so this story, too, inevitably played out in relation to the private pain of Ira Glass, and his listeners: “we are going to talk to Mike Daisey about why he lied to all of you, and to me, off the air, during the fact-checking process.” However, by playing the pain card, this story of real wrongdoing is only understood at the personal, and not formal, institutional or political, levels.

Certainly, deceiving a national radio audience, and its producers, about worker abuse in China is itself a violation worthy of attention. But the nature of this violation becomes less clear when that national audience is listening to “This American Life,” itself one of the range of contemporary media practices that structure reality like fiction so as to move, entertain, and inform audiences. Daisey explains, “Everything I have done is bent towards that end, to make people care.” He admits that he lied in pursuit of telling what he thought to be a greater artistic truth, but he continually insists, to an ever more aggrieved Glass, that he did so as a theater artist and not a journalist, and his mistake was putting his work into a new context.

In response, however, Glass doesn’t take the more transparent road: acknowledging that this context-confusion is partly of his own making. For certainly, genre-bending shows like This American Life influence the shifting norms of storytelling. Their programs may be fact-checked like real journalists, but other norms of the profession are adapted to allow audiences to feel. But Glass avoids larger and more self-critical conversations about the pervasive use of fabrication, entertainment, and fiction within contemporary media, or his own show. Instead he chooses to at once verify the journalistic chops of This American Life and vilify the behavior of Daisey. He brings in reporters from “Planet Money” and The New York Times to humiliate Daisey into his own retraction, making Daisey the scapegoat for a cultural and institutional shift, or perhaps spread. Glass says to Daisey, “I have the normal world view. If you say something happened to me, then it did.”

Given these changing norms, however, in our contemporary media environment we need more than a normal view from our best journalists. We need critical frameworks to understand how Daisey, Glass, and mainstream institutions, like NPR, are honestly thinking about, using, and changing the uses of subjectivity, fiction, storytelling—and the real emotions they bring to bear—to allow audiences to know, and to care, in an ever more noisy, unfeeling, and uncertain world.

I have some passing interest in horror (I teach a class on it), I am supposed to be an “expert” on fake documentaries, and my recent concern is user-made video. Thus, I feel some professional obligation to see (and then write about) films in the fake register that are either big-grossing or viral-wonders (i.e. Paranormal Activity, Catfish, I’m Still Here, Taking Woodstock, Exit Through the Gift Shop, or “the lesbian blogger Amina“), just to stay current. But I won’t go to see Devil Inside at a movie theater, and even when I catch it streaming on Netflix, I’ll still be sorry.

Why? Well first of all, it’s reputed to be a very bad movie, and given that even the movies that the general audience tends to like leave me underwhelmed, the crowd’s “F” rating is a strong enough detraction. But more importantly, for me, once you choose to go into self-reflexive mode, you need to be smart as well as crafty. This is the piece (intelligence, commentary, critique) that is missing in our culture’s current obsession with parody. It’s easy enough to fake style: every day users do this as a YouTube pre-req.

But to attach that falsification of an artistic norm to an idea, any idea, about that norm, that culture, the truth, history identity, movies, technology: now there’s the rub. However, since I believe that disbelief attached to mean-spirited mockery is itself the cultural norm and form then perhaps there’s another way to see this. Devil Inside is not a fake of anything, it is the thing itself, which means it is not self-reflexive, which means it can be dumb, but even so, I don’t need to see it, given how swamped I am anyway, by all the other dumb things that come my way given my now-generic interest in fakes (see my personal rub above).

The third day of my show PerpiTube: Repurposing Social Media Spaces brought this remarkable and unexpected video by Shu Lea Cheang.

Unexpected in two senses. First, I had thought my old friend Shu Lea would push the limits of this show by presenting some aspect of her vast and cutting edge cyber/porn/viral/performance oeuvre. I was prepared to gently remind her that we were showing the work to young people, and an YouTube. No such conversation needed to ensue because instead she allowed us to see les cles. And here’s the second unforeseen experience. I write and think about almost too many media objects that sit on YouTube and smugly mark the line between documentary and fiction in ways that have become ever more predictable, benign, and expected. I have conjectured  this saturation may not be good for queer artists. And yet, Shu Lea’s quiet meditation on family love, intimacy, and the profound in the mundane is ever more interesting as an unstated exploration of the relationship between these themes and technology and visibility. Who is shooting these seemingly real people? If it is Shu Lea, how ever could this radical gender-queer new media pioneer be close enough to these seemingly working-class French people  that she could capture a moment of such intimacy and quiet? If it’s not Shu Lea, how is this her film? Did she chance upon the footage? Find it online, to then edit it with such grace? What ever could it mean to remake moments of others daily familiarity? And if they are actors, how could she script such a delicate and strange interaction, the kind that life produces in a way that fiction seemingly can not? And what does such complex and tranquil artistry mean when made visible in the frantic frenzy of YouTube? The mystery of the Mother’s angels meets the unfamiliar of Shu Lea’s forms in an elegant coupling that reminds me that the internet, and YouTube, has the capacity for depth, in the making strange of its own consolidating norms of volume, speed, over-sharing, spectacle, and irony.

Across this blog and throughout my video-book I’ve worried about the “ironic free-fall” currently defining video on YouTube and the mediascape more generally. I’ve suggested that the hold of the fake and insincere has become so deep that even the sincerity card can no longer be played (by our president, no less!) So, imagine my surprise when earnestness is pleasantly pulled off by no less then hipster, indie smart-guy, Miguel Arteta, and an strong cast of supporting once-cynical fools (John C. Reilly, Ann Heche, Ronald Wilkes).

Just like heirloom tomatoes speak well to one too many happy meals, and crafting is a reasonable response to Walmart, it makes sense that we could only stand the pleasures of cynical unknowing for so many Offices, remixes, and Catfishes without eventually needing its reverse: earnest goodness. And this is what Ed Helms (playing Tim Lippe) produces: an affectedly unaffected look at the blessedly unaffected. The film imagines how such a man–insurance salesman, Mid-Western, milque-toast, small-town Lippe–could still exist in these callous, over-mediated, cynical viral times. A man actually under-exposed to the corruption of mediated self-knowing!

Now, we’ve seen a lot of this guy in recent movies. Childlike, prepubescent, preternaturally naive men-who-would-be-boys literally litter our screens. But these pretty-well-played-out 40-year old virgins of the Farelleys and Ferrells, Apatows and Carrells are fuel for mean-spirited (often misogynistic)  fun where the men and their films always descend into puerile bad-boydom, no lesson learned. The other version of the man-boy (as played again and again by the genre which is Michael Cera and sometimes Jesse Eisenberg), isn’t as mean as it is nostalgic and Peter-Panish. I won’t grow up, I just won’t, given that the world is so mean.

But Lippe’s (and Arteta’s) unexpected movie path is towards better mandom—so unlike those sorry, naught, silly lost boys before them—and ultimately a better viewerdom. However do they pull it off?! In the insurance salesmen talent show held in the tacky hotel entertainment lounge, our intrepid cast trains us in the new ways of sincere-viewing. Lippe sings the kind of cornball “real” bad Christmas carol-cum-insurance-commercial that underwrites the logic of current cinema misanthropy: fake “bad” performance of fake “real” person cut to close-up of either a face with an utterly blank reaction (which means a cutting lashing read just below the surface), or cut to close-ups of a subtle knowing look between two horrified, snickering friends who will only too soon unleash a mocking tirade of abuse (no doubt on YouTube). But no! In Cedar Rapids that crowd, so primed to mock, hoot, or wither away in a sea of embarrassment, instead, slowly, ponderously, on uncertain feet, decide to, well, like it, and him. Then, so do we. It’s a strange and unexpected feeling (given that it has no smarmy uncertain under-core) from a contemporary movie.

In the end, while I may not believe a pre-contact man like Lippe actually exists (even in Wisconsin), I do believe that goodness and sincerity in movies can  and am certain that left without representations that connect us to belief and hopes for betterment we’re doomed to cynical remixes of mockery, a cycle that seems (in Cedar Rapids at least) already on its way post.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fake documentary artfully mixing staged and true realist documents that represent the art market’s inability to–or need for–discerning talent, value, honesty, and “truth” given its insatiable need for new product and its crushing love of charlatan self-promoting wunderkinds. As I’ve written elsewhere, that’s already been done (Orson shoulda won the Oscar!): “bad-boy, Euro-trash pranksters bite their thumbs at the art-world that feeds them by playfully manufacturing a hoax-star doppleganger forger from thin air, then selling his misbegotten wares for millions: gotcha! But really, guys, Orson Welles did it all before, with better craft, crazier detours, and actual genius. F for Fake (1973), also a film about (male) authorship, authenticity, and the value of art—as warranted (or not) by modernist masters like Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso, and Orson Welles—runs intellectual, artistic, and charlatan circles around the pomo school-boy thrills of wheat-pasting and the endless whirlpool of appropriation.”

So why do I proclaim Banksy should win the documentary Oscar, especially given that I didn’t even think the film was that great?

-For taking to the public the truth that all documentaries are fake.

-For forcing starry eyed viewers to see that partially scripted, highly edited, fully artificed depictions of (the ideas of) our lived world are manufactured, are not the world, are documentaries.

-For making the move that all good fake docs make where the viewer feels reality slowly drop away, a queasy moment of vertigo: oh my, this is a movie! What is reality?! What is a documentary? (or when is a documentary, Dirk Eitzen’s essay that explains that it is only when we think it is).

-For reminding us (and the Academy) that all the reality programming we crave and love sits in this impure space (see my recent YouTube work for more on this line of thought), the documentary space of “the creative treatment of actuality.” Yet only a small sampling of reality programming is interested in examining this mixing in a way that produces thoughtful response: like a Documentary Oscar that would prove to be self-knowing of the changing register of documentary’s current cultural truth and value.

“At this point it is necessary to ask again why the discourse of political modernism, so clearly part of the recent history of film theory, is considered as reaching an impasse. In retrospect, the most obvious reason is the starkness of the opposition between realism and modernism, which seemed to foreclose any interest in popular cinema as irredeemably compromised by ‘dominant ideology’ in content and in form.” David Rodowick, “The Crisis of Political Modernism”

When I edited F is for Phony with Jesse Lerner, and produced both “The Watermelon Woman” and “The Owls” (Cheryl Dunye, 1996 and 2010), I rolled out fake documentary as one, powerful (and mutable) response to the very impasse of political modernism expressed by Rodowick above. The fake doc, often highly popular, plays classic realist styles against self-aware form in a fashion that can be intellectual, entertaining, and sometimes, even political. More recently, however, I seem to have made a more retro turn, or perhaps an “unfashionable” one, as I have tried to make sense of the ubiquitous, definitive use of fake documentary method on YouTube by claiming that I want more “real” docs again, or at least documentaries with stakes in (changing) the world.

I have gone as far as to suggest that “everything on YouTube is a fake documentary,” and this I still believe, and with real consequences, at least for me as a teacher, critic, and filmmaker with political (and other) goals. And therefore, my sneaky support, not so much of “political modernism,” as of media work with self-aware self-reflexive form, that is connected to political projects of world and self-changing, actual communities, and documentary claims to aims of knowing. I have understood such claims to be embarrassingly outdated—what with their calls for action in a real world, articulated goals, clear beliefs, sincerity or at least clarity, and communal practices–but have dared to wonder if our free-fall into irony occasionally needs a little nudge from the histories, theories, and practices of committed cinema and its partisan practitioners. While fiction films have all sorts of values that I adore (including many of those articulated above), I have made the recent claim that for a monumental real-life matter like Facebook, one that occurs in/about/through social network technologies, capital, and user-produced content, a more telling place to craft this particular story could be on the very social networks that the film “Social Network” uses simply as backdrop (to tell other tired macho-hubris tales). I then remind readers that Mark Zuckerberg is doing this himself, right now, and that this might be a “documentary,” albeit as far away from political modernism as one might imagine, given Facebook’s corporate imperatives and transparent forms, and yet in some chilling ways, circling back again via complex, self-aware, dialectical networked (modernist) forms and all of their competing voices, interests, and styles.

It was Chris Cagle who recently expressed in his blog that I am sneaky—only in respect to my use of political modernism, of course—and I must admit that upon the careful reflection above, I have learned that he is somewhat right. In all seriousness, it is fun to have a respected colleague respond thoughtfully to my blog, and here I return the favor.

While Catfish presents as a convincingly real fake-documentary (currently awaiting its BIG reveal), I’d suggest that it is even more interesting to think about this already interesting work as a horror film. In Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover carefully draws out the unsettling binaries that create the discomfort and unease that produce horror, and one of these is the city/country divide also then gendered male/female, respectively. This complex observation makes Catfish seem simple. The arty, Jewish city boys arrive late-night to an abandoned horse-farm in Michigan, and get pretty creeped out: all those dark pastures. At this moment, we are cued to think the movie might shift to the scary fakery of its creepy user-generated cousins, Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, but things stay more benign and less bloody, or more techy and networky, for these lucky city slickers. Facebook, and social networking more generally, are the invention and would-be provenance of urban effete geeks (see Social Network), who must eventually open the network up to the whole world, and then—scary!—uneducated, unstylish, overweight plebes (and their grotesque offspring) can join the conversation (no longer restricted to Harvard), and then, even more horrifying, they can pass for their masters by expertly making use of this self-same technology, cell phones and fake friends, and you might even enjoy sexting with one! YUCK.

What makes Catfish so convincing as a “documentary” is our disbelief that the hideously red-state Angela Wesselman-Pierce could be played by an actress (her grossly retarded sons, and nearly retarded husband serve as ethical anchor to her “real”), while it is much more obvious to the art-film viewer’s eye when Banksy or Joaquin (in their glamorous, urban, sophistication) act the part. Here the slow-witted husband’s astute commentary about the wily, provocative catfish provides the generically pleasing twist on the city/country divide, where the bumpkins prove to be more sophisticated and worthy then their movie-making masters, imminently more qualified to produce alternative personalities on-line (Tara’s alters are the metaphor we all need to understand life on the net), given the all too self-evident bankruptcy of their mundane daily lives off-line.

It came as no surprise to me when Casey Affleck at long last spilled the beans: that his tawdry expose of Joaquin Phoenix’s bad-boy decent into star-boy-debauchery was, in fact, a nearly two-year performance piece, culminating in a premier at Venice, Joaquin’s triumphantly skinny return to the red carpet (and acting), and, of course, Affleck’s well-timed reveal. For, any student of fake documentary knows that without a reveal, a fake documentary is something much less sexy–merely a documentary. While it may initially seem fascinating to pruriently revel in the paunchy, drug-addled behind-the-scenes excesses of a once pretty superstar, we’ve seen this many times before. More compelling (especially for vain directors and actors) are the cinematic skills needed to pull off such a hoax: not visible unless revealed, lucky for you if that’s on the pages of The New York Times or the couch of Letterman. Furthermore, if good fake documentaries are actually about the serious ideas of identity, community, and truth (which I argue with co-editor Jesse Lerner in my edited anthology on the genre, F is for Phony), the audience needs to know it’s a fake to get the full weight of any serious faux film’s intended impact. As a producer myself of two of these funky hybrids (director Cheryl Dunye’s 1995 The Watermelon Woman and 2010 The Owls), I am the first to admit that their real art is in the reveal: when, where, and how often you expose (on screen and off) your hand as well as your sleight of hand (see Orson Welles’ F for Fake on this magical matter).

Thus, most fake documentaries litter their texts with such reveals, as does I’m Still Here. Well before Affleck’s requisite well-timed end-game off-screen admonition, I went to see the flick already in the know (simply from reading reviews) that its end credits readily expose the fake: Affleck’s dad is credited as playing Joaquin’s, Panama (where the moving father/son intro and conclusion is supposed to occur) is listed as shot in Hawaii. If you go to a fake documentary knowing its real status, pleasures of viewing do remain, but they gracefully morph from the low (shock value, spectacle, and prurience), to the high (formal, conceptual, and sometimes even political.) If you know a fake is a fake, you watch for the reveal (what are the filmmakers showing on purpose, and where do they make mistakes), and as importantly, for THE REAL. Because of course, while fake documentaries are largely scripted, staged, and performed, as is true for all of contemporary “reality” programming, there is also, always, a tiny bit or residue or trace of the actual person, place, or conversation (what semioticians call the indexical) also caught in every single faked frame.

Joaquin’s tummy (and his assistant’s penis) serves as just such a reveal/real. To make a fake documentary (like a fiction film), you have to shoot things out of sequence (also true for real documentaries, hate to muddle things here). In any one scene, Joaquin’s bloated belly (and his wayward beard, and gnarled hair) serve to verify that something real(ly) bad is happening to the real Joaquin, who truly does need to be trim, handsome, and well-groomed to be a successful star. The film reveals that his fat body is real, and we revel in the fact that Joaquin really needs a buff bod to get paid. But in many scenes, the size of his stomach (shot over and over again, yuck, to verify the “real” descent of this man) changes, revealing that this reveal of the real is itself a trick revealed. The many-times full-frontally viewed penis of Joaquin’s sorry, abused assistant performs a similar function (as Joaquin’s constant drug-use does not, because it really could be faked, although who will ever know?), in this case using another’s manipulated body part to verify all that might otherwise be too easily manipulated, while at the same time “proving” that Affleck and Phoenix are heartless, wealthy, ass-hole, bad-boys who will use those around them like objects to get things done and make their (high art) little film.

Finally, in this sense, watching “I’m Still Here” as a fake documentary that intentionally reveals certain bodily clues to verify that it is (not) real, begs this feminist viewer to consider what it symptomatically disappears, what it doesn’t show without knowing. When the same victimized assistant shits on Joaquin’s face as payback for the constant revealed revealing of his penis (and other similar acts of planned outrageous star-bullying, or are they?), we are denied any bodily proof (which would be pieces of poop) of this extreme act: it was clearly staged, and badly so–Joaquin cleans his face off-screen. However, while faked traces of homo-social bonding and bullying litter the text as reveals (the “real” Entourage), there is nary a shot to be seen showing how Affleck and Phoenix treat the real women in their world (save two gratuitous, highly-edited, and thus hardly revealing scenes respectively “exposing” Joaquin and his boys’ adventures with call girls in NYC and blond fan-babes in Vegas). Thankfully, Affleck’s wife and Joaquin’s sister, Summer, is never seen. But nor do we see any of the largely female crew who worked on the film, perhaps because several of them actually sued Affleck for sexual harassment while making the film (now settled: see Joaquin’s blog on this matter), including complaints of transvestite prostitutes on the actual set. As any student of documentary knows: it’s actually hard to catch on film evidence of real bad boy behavior, that is, in a sexist society that is all set to cover this up, and keep it under wraps, unseen, unrevealed, and finally, settled, leaving as evidence, instead, only the boys’ own carefully planned reveals (and all this might reveal).

District 9: Faking the Future

September 20, 2009

District 9—a scary, literally-allegorical (what is that!), sci-fi blood-fest—is also told, sort of, through the structure of a fake doc. It’s also terrific.

Because the faked reality is a speculative future (albeit based ever so closely on the reality of re-location in post-apartheid South Africa), rather than say an ever-so modified present (or even the speculative past of Inglorious Bastards, another matter entirely),  the meaning and function of its phony footage becomes counter-intuitively less ironic than the banal replicas I’ve been worrying about of late.

Simply put,  we know that the fake doc footage of aliens residing in prison-camps in Johannesburg can be nothing other than fake. Since there’s no doubt or even joke about any possibility of authenticity the uncertainty and uncaring that creates the pomo YouTube mush I’ve been fixated on is effectively blocked. Instead, the link to another real of apartheid and occupation (beyond South Africa and including Iraq and Israel) becomes a solid enough stake through Neill Blomkamp’s not-even-subtle replacing (through an allegory that trumps fakery) of one sort of alien for another.