Tag: Documentary

Blast from the Comm Class Past

I had an interesting experience earlier that actually relates back to the history of this very blog, so I wanted to use my post today to talk about it.

About two years ago, I started my blog because it was an assignment in my Comm 233 class. It was some kind of example to prove we knew how to use mass media, or that we knew it existed, or it could have just been the guy trying to force us to start doing something he felt the world would require of us.

In hindsight I’m not really sure exactly why we were given this assignment. But I do know it’s hilarious to remember that being forced to write 20 blog posts that semester was such a pain in the ass now that I have nearly 400 posts and am attempting to write something novel every day.

One of the posts I threw together in those early days of blogging was kind of my prototypical movie review, even before I feel like I technically started doing them with my discussion on The Post around Oscar season this year.

At the time I reviewed a little film called Merchants of Doubt, which looked at some of the methods large corporations in the tobacco and oil industries (among others) would use to try and convince the public that cigarettes weren’t harmful, or that climate change isn’t happening/isn’t man-made.

If you do actually believe those things… Well, I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree for now. Because I’m not looking to make this into a political post necessarily.

Funny enough I believe that’s also a line I used in that original post from two years ago, which you can read here if you want. Though I also made a bunch of comments in it about Trump on the campaign trail that very clearly suggested otherwise.

Amazing how much of a different world it was in that pre-President Trump era… But I digress.

The reason I bring up this two-year-old post is because I got the chance to rewatch the documentary during my Mass Media Ethics class this afternoon.

For the most part I don’t believe my opinion on the film has changed too much since the first time I saw it. Even disregarding the obvious liberal bias in the documentary, it has a lot of excellent work done interviewing various people from all sides of the issue as well as more neutral parties like reporters who have been researching the topic.

All in service of letting the audience know that sometimes corporations don’t have your best interest in mind, and may be willing to deceive you in very creative ways.

I mostly just wanted to write this quick post to reflect on how funny it is that the curriculums of both these classes two years apart both happened to include the same movie. Seemed like it would be a good excuse to reminisce and have some laughs in that end-of-an-80s-sitcom kind of way.

Especially considering most of that joy is likely going to disappear after I write this required essay about the film. My favorite.

Jason and Dara explore Netflix’s ‘explained.’

Jason and Dara explore Netflix’s ‘explained.’

Mom took me down a rabbit hole I wasn’t expecting to go down today.

A Netflix documentary rabbit hole.

But not any sort of traditional documentaries. No, we’ve been watching the series of mini-documentaries produced by Vox for Netflix called “explained.”

Technically it’s more like “_____, explained,” as each episode takes a different subject and dives into that subjects history, impact on human history and potential future developments in neatly packaged 15-minute segments.

For those who don’t know, Vox is a primarily social media-driven news organization that emerged fairly recently with the pretense that they would cut through the noise and succinctly “explain the news” rather than just telling it.

They do a pretty stellar job at that role and have become rather popular in just four years thanks to their well-developed infographics and other such visually-driven pursuits that thrive in the Internet age.

Thinking it over now, their Netflix series is essentially a series of documentaries that feel like some of the best YouTube explainers you’ve ever seen.

Actually, they go further than that. A lot of the editing and visual-driven style of each mini documentary feels very similar to other series birthed by people seeped in the Internet’s ways.

The one that comes to mind most immediately is Game Theory or Wisecrack, who take highly analytical approaches to popular culture, usually.

Yet that style is applied to a more traditional news format that you might expect out of televised enterprise stories or other similar organizations like Vice News.

Basically, to make that whole long story short. “Explained” feels like watching a 15-minute YouTube video developed by practitioners of classic newspaper storytelling styles.

Every episode of the series is engaging as a result of this finely-tuned combination.

However, each episode is also engaging in its own specific way. Because each chooses a different interesting topic and, well, explains them in their own way.

Some episodes, like the piece on eSports or the piece on Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, use lots of animations to show concepts that are mostly ephemeral.

Others, like the piece on K-Pop or the piece on monogamy, bring in general people from all around the world for man-on-the-street portions that speak to a deeper human interest in each subject.

Then there are episodes about the racial wealth gap or the failure of diets that seem to rely heavily on historical documents, novels and other media to demonstrate what has happened over time.

Yet in spite of all these different styles of explaining information used, each piece keeps the same core. A similar fast-cut editing style interspersed with expert interviews and well-crafted infographics. They’re all recognizably ‘Vox,’ but carry different stand-out portions based on the topic.

My favorite bit is probably the child-led recreation of how the stock market works using a lemonade stand analogy.

As you can probably imagine just from how many different directions I’ve pulled that last segment of this post in, there’s a huge variety of stories that are being told in the documentary series.

Each, on top of being visually appealing, is also very well-researched and informative. I could recount at least one thing I learned from each story.

I suppose if I’m taking this in the direction of a ‘review’ of the series, it should be obvious that I’d highly recommend everyone with Netflix check this one out.

It’s a great example of a series that’s informative and engaging, something that takes the lessons of the Internet and applies it to teaching in a way more and more groups should take into account.

There’s also apparently more coming out every Wednesday, so it’s something we’ll keep coming back to I’m sure.


Dara’s Corner:

Favorite Episodes: “!” or “K-Pop” or “Designer DNA”

  • “!” — My mom is deeply rooted in the professions of the English language like I am, and this episode was the one that she was first notified of that led to our shared interest in the show in the first place.
  • “K-Pop” — Like me, she enjoyed this episode because of the way it took a topic we were vaguely familiar with and explained its backstory in depth that we never would have expected to exist there.
  • “Designer DNA” — Mostly because the topic delved into areas of research she has already looked into while doing copy editing and fact checking for scientific magazines like “Genome,” meaning she was knowledgable ahead of the curve coming in.

Overall Impression: “The fact that it has little 15-minute interstitials where you learn something that you didn’t know necessarily, you walk away with something interesting to talk to someone else about. I highly recommend this show to everybody.”

Why you should watch Merchants of Doubt

For my Communications 233 class, Mass Communication in Modern Society, one of the things we were meant to learn about in the course is media literacy.  I say were because today is the day of our final exam so the course is technically over but… I’m not really here to get into semantics.  Media literacy was defined by our professor as having the ability to analyze the impact that forms of communications have on life.  This referred especially to being able to look at things like advertisements and being able to discern their true meanings through semiotics, for example.

Continue reading “Why you should watch Merchants of Doubt”