Beyond the Blockbuster: Intelligence Work by Jonathan Kahana

As we brace for/look forward to the onslaught of Summer blockbusters, we should also look to Jonathan Kahana’s Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary to offer critical and historical insight to films of a very much different stripe than standard Hollywood fare.

In the book, Jonathan Kahana establishes a new genealogy of American social documentary, proposing a fresh critical approach to the aesthetic and political issues of nonfiction cinema and media. In particular, his book “tracks a simple historical shift between two structures of feeling, from trust to suspicion.” Thus the book begins with the New Deal era and discusses how documentaries from the period “emphasize a certain directness of address and pursue the ideal of diffusing social knowledge among the widest possible audience.” However, as Kahana argues, documentaries from the ’60s onward began to reflect a “discourse of doubt and criticism.”

Kahana considers an array of iconic as well as overlooked and obscure films beginning from the 1930s and continuing to the present. Whether found online or via netflix, the films under discussion in in Kahana’s work provide a much-needed alternative to what’s out there and offer a fascinating document to a critical facet of American film.

Films under discussion include People of the Cumberland (1938), The Fight for Life (1940), Power and the Land (1940), Cicero March (1966), Winter Soldier (1972) Underground (1976), Titicut Follies (1967), Attica (1973), Four More Years (1972), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and What Farocki Taught (1997).

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