Comments on

Adventures with Extremists

Original entry posted: Thu Sep 27 16:29:41 2007

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Thu Sep 27 16:38:48 2007 EST

I'm torn on Theroux's stuff. On the one hand, he does cover a lot of interesting things (didn't he also do the doc on Prussian Blue)? On the other hand, he covers them in the most irritating and uninformative way possible.

His Phelps doc is Exhibit A---instead of offering insight into a fascinating, if fringe-y, group, he makes the entire doc about Louis Theroux and his heroic efforts to teach tolerance.

The moment that encapsulates it for me is the scene around the 12 minute mark of the Wesstboro Baptist Church's Sunday service. This should be one of the most crucial visual sequences of the movie, where we actually get to see the congregation communing with the god they believe has driven them into cultural exile. Instead, the camera keeps going back to Theroux---the person in the room I'm least interested in, and we soon leave the service behind so we can have more of noble, thoughtful Theroux.

It doesn't help that he doesn't seem to really understand religion, or ideology---he's like the worst caricature of a liberal as someone totally uninterested in understanding or even acknowledging the existence of the irrational passions that have been (tragically) far more influential in history than reasoned thought. He keeps choosing subjects who're driven by bone-deep beliefs and passions, and tries to get to know them "as people", which is impossible if you refuse to understand how they think about the world.

I also find him sort of insufferable as an interviewer---he always seems more interested in changing the subject's mind than understanding the subject, much less getting the subject to speak revealingly (which should be the goal of an interview, I think). His incessant badgering actually made me sympathize with the Phelps'---they may be crazy bigots, but at least they're hospitable to this spectacularly rude man.

Fortunately, the Phelps doc contains a lot of interesting information about the WBC, despite Theroux's best efforts. I'm especially struck by how they seem to court hatred as a way of bonding the group together---that seems like the best explanation for why they started protesting military funerals, thereby alienating people who might've actually been sympathetic (like the driver who "doesn't approve of the lifestyle" but still loathes the WBC for their protests). When the kid gets hit with a soda, it's striking to see how that brings all the people, especially the mothers, together in a protective circle; you can practically see their convictions hardening.

So yeah, it's good stuff, sort of. But I wish there were a better host than the real-life version of Nashville's Opal from the BBC, who seems to exist more to reinforce his English viewers' prejudices about those wacky Americans than actually offer insight into anything.

Thomas @ Thu Sep 27 17:51:52 2007 EST

Don't hold back now!

Honestly, I agree with you in a lot of ways. In both of these pieces, he does spend more time than I'd like browbeating his subjects. Theroux worked for Moore on TV Nation, I understand, and he has a similar lack of subtlety in his approach. His bit on black nationalists was also cringe-inducing, both because of his ego and his shallow approach to the topic.

But on the other hand, I do find it kind of refreshing that he's a little confrontational. I think my favorite part of these two reports is that they feature communities that are particularly splintered off in their worldview--they honestly believe that the entire world is a twisted place, rather than being able to understand their own filters. It's annoying, yes, that he keeps feeling the need to point it out. But it's also important to understand--not to be lulled, as viewers, into thinking that these people really can't be that bad, can they?

I do wonder, though, if he gets away with a lot of that kind of thing because he can be confrontational in the magic British accent.

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Fri Sep 28 12:57:29 2007 EST

Hadn't known he worked on TV Nation---that does explain a lot, though I wish he'd understood that what made TV Nation good was Moore's skill (recently, I fear, abandoned) to leaven the hectoring with comedy. The magic accent helps, but ultimately it only enhances my feeling that he's basically playing carnival barker for UK viewers turned on by the thought of America as a freakshow.

I mean, I don't think there's much risk of a viewer being lulled into thinking that the Phelps' are ordinary folks---any time we do, it'd be easy enough to get some quotes from the local police referring to (as I'm told they're known in the town) "Reverend Phelps and his inbred whelps". I actually find it notable that he never bothers interviewing Americans who loathe these guys, even though there's plenty---further enhancing my suspicion that he's sort of the BBC equivalent of MEMRI's coverage of the Arab world---not entirely false, but very deliberately sensationalized.

What I would like from a doc is some insight into its subjects: How did they end up believing the crazy things they believe? How do they relate to their community, and their neighbors (who they may or may not consider their community)? How do they deal with the isolation brought on by their extremist beliefs? What do they do when they're not being insane, or does being insane dominate every moment of their life? These are all interesting questions, and they all get shoved aside in favor of presenting Louis the Limey's Noble Soul.

Thomas @ Fri Sep 28 13:08:32 2007 EST

I hadn't thought of that, but it's true, he doesn't show anything of the Phelps's neighbors.

Very good points.

That Fuzzy Bastard @ Fri Sep 28 13:43:36 2007 EST

I still haven't seen his black nationalist doc, but I just keep hearing Opal-from-the-BBC in Nashville---"Do they carry on like that in church?" ... "I wonder how many little black and white children have yellow nightmares, their own special brand of fear for the yellow peril... Damn it, it's got to be more... positive. No, more negative! Start again. Yellow is the color of caution. No...."

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