Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: ‘Expelled’, Take Two

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I’ll put some of my cards on the table regarding Expelled, the conservative documentary that slams Darwinism and pushes for the Intelligent Design theory of how we all got to be such an evolved, intelligent (please note sarcasm) species. I wrote about it briefly last week, and have appreciated the ensuing dialogue. Now, it looks like the movie won’t make it higher than the #12 spot on the documentary box office list, having made $7.3 million, and now clocking about $80/per screen averages on 400 screens. Wait, did I just say $80/per screen averages? Please, someone do more investigating into these theaters that are willing to keep a film going that is clearly not making them more money than what an old reel of Eraserhead or Lair of the White Worm would bring them. (If you don’t, I may have to.)

Still, I found Expelled one of the most fascinating documentary filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had. Largely, because I totally don’t buy any of the film’s “arguments” and shuddered at its manipulations. The central premise of the film is that there is a vanguard of revolutionary scientists who are being denied the right to explore or express their theories of Intelligent Design, but wait — 1) we’re talking about something like six individuals, which is hardly the pogrom the film makes it out to be; 2) they weren’t really “expelled,” according to various reports; and 3) these aren’t really scientists. (It’s like saying the Vatican should be censured if it doesn’t allow atheists to become priests. Sorry, faith is a prerequisite to getting anywhere in the priesthood, just like having academic and scientific credibility is mandatory to being considered a “scientist.”) For a sound debunking of the facts of the film, check out Expelled Exposed. For a defense of the film’s beliefs, there’s the film’s website.

But rather than dismiss the film for its lack of intellectual rigor in the same way that credible scientists, and most of my peers in the doc-media world, have done, I am in awe of its bold — and often competent — appropriation of all the most wonderful filmmaking tools now available. (My jaw dropped when the film credits were stylishly grafted onto Cold War archival footage, using the same technology so impressively deployed in the recent Operation Homecoming.)

I see in this as a new front in the Culture Wars that got so much play in the early 90s. It’s moved from books to documentaries, and I think everyone in the doc world should take note.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • http://chutry.wordherders.net/wp/ Chuck

    FOREIGNID: 15513
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    You may be right about docs being a new cultural front, and as I mentioned in a comment below, there are probably reasons to be concerned. To some extent, in my optimistic moments, I’m relying on an informed public that will weigh the films’ truth claims. To be sure, there will be many reviewers who will embrace the arguments in Expelled, but many others will recognize the use of manipulation, if not outright lies.
    That being said, as someone who grew up in an evangelical family, I’m well aware of the fact that there have been documentaries like Expelled that simply existed below the radar because they weren’t distributed to theaters but via churches and other religious organizations.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 15514
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Yeah, there was a spurt of docs that slammed Michael Moore, but they didn’t connect with audiences. Did that have to do more with an informed public, their lack of polish or the film’s content? I’m not sure. Let’s take a look into the future, though: President Obama mobilizes innovative reform of the prison system. Unfortunately, a riot occurs, in which prison guards are killed. Six months later, a doc starring a grimacing Rush Limbaugh ravages the President’s policy, touching on some truths, but ultimately manipulating the larger truth of Obama’s policy. The film makes $100 million at the box office, and helps usher in a Republican administration. Is that a victory for democracy? For the doc community? It reminds me of the argument against owning guns: They can be used against us.

  • http://chutry.wordherders.net/wp/ Chuck

    FOREIGNID: 15515
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I meant to respond to this comment about two weeks ago when it was first posted, but basically you’re right. I happened to catch a talk on C-SPAN by a Christian conservative who cited Expelled as illustrating the anti-Christian bias in the media, so my guess is that we will see more documentaries like these. It’s easy to forget that Moore made several docs that made only a few million (still a lot of money) before his bigger hits with Bowling and Fahrenheit.

  • http://doc-a-day.blogspot.com doc holiday

    FOREIGNID: 15516
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    President Obama defeated with the help of a documentary? Say it ain’t so! One of the central problems with docs such as the Michael Moore oeuvre and Expelled is that they preach to the choir. (That is, aside from the fabrications and manipulation of facts.) How many votes did Fahrenheit 911 change? Clearly not as many as Moore expected. How many people is Expelled going to convert to creationism? I’d love to see some serious academic work on whether documentaries actually change public opinion, and if so, how? How does the influence of docs compare to that of TV news, newspapers, the blogosphere, etc.?

  • http://chutry.wordherders.net/wp/ Chuck

    FOREIGNID: 15517
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Doc, I’ve got another book project brewing right now, but I’ve considered embarking on that kind of research, and these are some interesting, if difficult, questions. I am personally skeptical of most media effects arguments, because the causal relationships they draw aren’t very convincing. That being said, these documentaries clearly serve some function, if only to help frame the terms of the debate or to reinforce pre-existing frames for seeing the world. In a sense, it may be that the specific question you are asking is–in a sense–unknowable. Clearly, one could do a correlation between seeing F911 and voting for Kerry (or seeing Expelled and voting for McCain), but it’s far more ambiguous to suggest any causal relationship.
    I wouldn’t underestimate the effects of preaching to the choir, however. Obviously, Fahrenheit didn’t sway the election in the way that Moore intended. But films like F911 and Expelled become means by which people can support an already existing world view. I don’t think that a single film will necessarily “convert’ someone, to use a Biblical term, but it can enter into a web of discourse that includes blogs, TV “news,” and school curriculum, that helps to sustain or reinforce a belief in intelligent design. And it *may* be that the Moore effect was actually only fully felt in 2006 when the problems with the Iraq War became even more difficult to ignore.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 15518
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Doc, you’re totally right, that would be a fascinating study. I’m looking to do something similar, but, in broad strokes here, I’d agree that it’s really difficult to pinpoint actual causal effects. But I agree with Chuck that one shouldn’t so quickly slam a film for “preaching to the choir.” That term is used as much as “politically-correct” once was, and I think they’re both used to serve neo-cons and apathists to say: this is knee-jerk, liberal-speak and there’s no critical thinking going on here and so we don’t have to listen to what you’re saying because it’s not going to make a difference anyway.
    But, hey, wasn’t An Inconvenient Truth a film that “preached to the choir”? I think it’s fair to say that that film had a deep impact on the culture in that it coalesced a swell of concern about the environment, and articulated all that concern. of course, sure, one could say that, in the end, even that film doesn’t have a profound effect on how the world works, but we have to have some awareness of the spectrum of impact. otherwise, we’ll all just say we’re dust in the wind and have no reason to get off the couch.
    and i might add that when i think about this preach to the choir business, it makes me think of jon stewart. he makes the choir crack up, right? but i’d say his political views have infected (in a good way) the culture.