An Inconvenient Tangent

I’m teaching a course on documentary this term, and today my students were watching/analyzing An Inconvenient Truth. I picked this doc because we’re talking about the use of personal narratives in/and public rhetoric, and I’m kind of fascinated with the “Al Gore Show” woven throughout the film.


For the most part, of course, we see Gore’s slideshow presentation and listen along with his (rapt) audiences. (As one student suggested, the director lays the prophet robe on Gore a bit heavily.) But every so often, that lecture is interspersed with Gore’s reflections and anecdotes about how he came to be offering that slideshow. And at those junctures, his voice changes, becomes low and intimate, the footage becomes soft-focus or creatively aged, and the pathos becomes a bit heavy-handed.

… as a student’s sudden snort made abundantly clear. It was the snort of a burgeoning rhetorical critic, and it confirmed my hunch about some of the risky, even reckless rhetorical choices Gore and the director made in that movie. And the personal quest angle isn’t the only one. I wonder whether the warm fuzzy fatherly feelings would work on audiences alienated by his Bush jokes? Or are we to assume that no one who voted for Bush (that’s a lot of people) belongs in this doc’s audience?

More as my students figure this all out…

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4 thoughts on “An Inconvenient Tangent

  1. Hi Ben,
    I’m teaching a special section of our advanced/second-year writing course (367) focused around digital documentary. (I think there are about 5 sections running.) We spend the first 2/3 of the quarter watching and analyzing docs, and then students create short docs of their own.

    My class is considering the use of personal/autobiographical narratives as frames for public conversations. So we’re spending a fair amount of time with An Inconvenient Truth and Born into Brothels, with supplementary clips from SuperSize Me, maybe Roger & Me, My Architect, 51 Birch Street… still playing around with the selection.

    So I’m always looking for recommendations!

  2. I’ve been teaching from An Inconvenient Truth for three semesters, and my students respond well to the movie. They’re first-year writing students, but they pick up quickly on the movie’s rhetorical moves, especially the “heavy-handed” pathos. One of the blessing of teaching the movie, for me, is that my students come to recognize that even something as “factual” (their favorite word) as a documentary is always simultaneously performative. That’s an earth-shattering realization for my students, most of whom come from disciplines where facts and objectivity reign supreme.

  3. It does seem remarkably well-suited as a sort of introduction to rhetoric in general. Textbook logos, ethos, and pathos analysis! It’s been interesting to talk about it while they’re watching it: the first day just the first 10 minutes, then 30 minutes another class, and the final half today. This wasn’t necessarily my plan, but it seems to pull apart their responses in a way that highlights the film’s progression.

    So after we talked about the issues they were having with his personal tangents and his tendency to ignore or mock counterarguments, then we watched as he did get to those refutations later. Brought up cool questions about strategies of organization…

    And I’m personally fascinated by our developing critique of the personal narrative component. But would it have worked better to just “document” his slideshow?

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