Today’s assignment was to watch Sean Dunne’s remarkable, 23-minute documentary, American Juggalo, and think about how you would have handled that assignment — to spend a couple of days in the midst of the juaggalos at their annual bacchanal in an Illinois campground each August. Factor in everything: the kind of people you’d be talking to, the heat/humidity, the safety issue. How deeply would you throw yourself into it? At least one student said she’d just have to decline the assignment. That’s something to really think about when you’re on the cusp of deciding whether or not to be a reporter/photographer or to look for a desk job. If it could all be done from the comfort of our computer screens, it wouldn’t be journalism. (Too much of it is already done from a chair.)
I picked this film because it raises as many questions as it answers. Some students said they wished it had more information about the juggalo movement — history, logistics, etc. In service to context, some wanted to see concert footage of Insane Clown Posse and perhaps also see an interview with the band. One student said she wanted some hard facts about how the weekend transpires, in terms of police presence and incident reports. We all noticed that the subjects in American Juggalo aren’t fully ID’d by name. Some of us wanted to know much more about the non-juggalo lives of the participants. We also talked about how the film made us feel — about the juggalos, about the scene.
I’ve spent most of my career fascinated by the idea that, basically, everybody’s got their somethin’. That one thing they’re sort of nuts for. Some people pick Jesus. Some pick Harry Potter. Some picked Steve Jobs. As journalists, we should be dying to know WHY and what it MEANS, what it stands for. For us, it means a lot of late nights, early mornings, rental cars and bug spray. It also means you have to interview people more deeply than they might expect. In which case, you need to be wary of how close you’re getting to having your ass kicked. You need to get more from people than easy quotes, slogans and empty sentiments. (Almost everyone in American Juggalo speaks abstractly about the ways the feel they’ve been marginalized by society. It struck me, on this viewing, that their need to feel marginalized is at least as powerful, if not more, than any actual ostracizing they’ve experienced.)
The exercise here is to think, as writers, how we would translate what Dunne and his crew captured on film into a piece of prose nonfiction that is just as spooky, lovely and revealing about one part of our culture (or subculture). American Juggalo offers up great raw material that almost begs for a good narrator/writer to come along and subtly layer some sense on it. That’s what I call a scene story.
One thing I’ve noticed in my short time teaching here, and in advising the Montana Kaimin (the student paper), is that this generation of journalists cedes a lot of the territory once reserved for feature writing to the video format. At the Kaimin, easily the most intimate journalism going on this semester comes through the video stories. The videos are often excellent. I like both, which is why I’d like to see feature writing that is just as compelling as some of the videos. Whoop-whoop.
Next, we talked for a long time about the endlessly entertaining photo galleries on the Nightmares Fear Factory’s web site. Here, at this haunted house on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, we see all of modern life and anxiety laid bare, with a notable degree of diversity. We had great fun talking about everyone’s favorite pictures, and imagining the narratives that could exist behind each. Again I want you to think about what sort of prose story you could do here — what questions you’d ask of the people in the photos. And how you would go about asking them. How to go deeper than just “Was it so, so scary?” How to arrive at deeper ideas, too — what is it about us that we need to be horrified? (I particularly liked Neil Sauer’s idea that needing to go through a haunted house attraction it’s like some people’s craving for spicy food.)
For Monday, Oct. 15: Now that we’ve done this, it’s time for the mother of all brainstorming sessions. Come to class ready to talk about your idea for a good 1,000- to 1,300-word scene story, which you need to file on Wednesday, Nov. 7. The key to it, as with both examples today, is that it needs a strong pop-culture angle. But this can be very broadly defined. My hope is that all of you look way outside your typical interests and comfort zones. Comb through listings in the Missoulian, the Independent, the Kaimin, the Corridor — and beyond. Pay close attention to bulletin boards, kiosks. Open your eyes and ears and start thinking. The goal of these stories is to take the reader into a world they wouldn’t normally visit, or have access to.
ALSO, your personal essays are due on Monday. Remember: double-spaced, two printed copies, one e-copy emailed to me and — cripes — don’t forget those SEOs.