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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Obscene intimacies : postmodern portraiture in documentary film and television Walsh , Angela


The past several decades have witnessed a steadily increasing output of documentaries which aim to explore the intimate lives of individual subjects. Although there has been no official scholarly study delineating these films as a documentary sub-genre, they have been variously termed portrait or biographical documentaries, and they are a persistent feature of both documentary film production and non-fiction television programming. This project aims to situate these films and television programs within broader cultural shifts that have occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century, including an upsurge in the ubiquity of images, distrust in the photographic medium’s ability to access the real, and dismantling of taste hierarchies. All of these changes fit under the broad paradigm of postmodern theory and culture, a societal condition that continues to evidence itself in the current age. Despite postmodernism’s proclamation that social relationships and individualism have collapsed, contemporary portraiture documentaries still aim to facilitate a sense of connection between viewer and subject. Postmodernism intersects here with what Richard Sennett has called the “intimate society,” which is characterized by a societal impetus toward personal revelation and emotional expression. I posit that portraiture documentaries represent the collision and working through of these two competing cultural features. Following an overview of the scholarship relevant to my research in Chapter One, Chapter Two will discuss two films by the documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003). Often maligned in both critical and scholarly circles for failing to interrogate ideology in any meaningful way, I argue that his work operates on a reflexive level to suggest that images fail us when attempting to extract the intimate truth of the individual. In Chapter Three I discuss two examples of reality television series that focus on the lives of individuals, Errol Morris’s First Person (IFC, 2000-2001) and Intervention (A&E, 2005 - ), which demonstrate the persistent need to render the subject in visual terms and make the viewer witness to the most intimate and personal aspects of their lives.

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