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Griffin Blaber, “Tastes Great, Less Filling: Clayton Worfolk’s ‘San Quentin’s Giants’”

Griffin Blaber is being recognized for his original and provocative thesis that challenges the work of others. In an essay composed for FASTrack Writing 101, Blaber considers the visual rhetoric of a short documentary from The New York Times Op-Doc series. Blaber analyzes how the filmmaker uses (or fails to use) appeals to emotion, reason, and credibility. In crisp prose, he expertly analyzes specific visual details from the Op-Doc and considers the limitations of the documentary’s argument.

Commenting on how he developed his ideas, Blaber writes:

This essay was really born out of frustration with the Op-Doc itself. I really liked watching “San Quentin’s Giants” the first time through, but when I went back to watch it to try to find a meaning or some higher significance I was totally defeated. The Op-Doc really got me rooting for the prisoners and wanting to find out more about them. It made me curious enough to research prison rehabilitation programs, San Quentin’s history, and the rights of inmates. The more I tried to argue that the Op-Doc proved any of these things the more I realized it failed in its mission. I’m conflicted because maybe its mission was to elicit this kind of frustration, to compel viewers to research the prison system and its flaws on their own, but I doubt it, and I’m operating on the assumption that isn’t the case. [The student-teacher conference] was really helpful to me in thinking about analysis by deconstruction. It helped me move from blanket frustration to a place of being able to examine what frustrated me and write from that perspective.

Read an excerpt from “Tastes Great, Less Filling: Clayton Worfolk’s ‘San Quentin’s Giants’”:

Unfortunately Worfolk’s lack of appeals to ethos fails to capitalize on the sympathy built up through his strong appeal to pathos. In choosing to focus as closely as he does on interviews with the inmates, he sacrifices expert analysis of the program. When watching an Op-Doc of this type, one might expect to see interviews with guards, the warden, an expert on prison reform, or parolees and former prisoners who benefitted from the program. Worfolk includes none of those and therefore misses those opportunities to appeal to ethos. While he succeeds in conveying the players’ appreciation for the program, he weakens the credibility of his argument by limiting his interviews to the men on the field. Of course, the men playing baseball like being allowed to play baseball. Unfortunately, no experts or even third parties corroborate the players’ testimonies as to the benefits of the program. Viewers do not know if outside sources see improvements in players’ moods, if they cause less problems, or if players behave exactly like other inmates when they are off the field. The players claim baseball helps them in ways much more profound than just getting some exercise, but Worfolk fails to show whether or not the evidence backs them up. The men on the field clearly think baseball helps them, but without other credible sources, the question of whether or not baseball actually rehabilitates these men remains unanswered.

Worfolk further weakens his argument with a lack of appeals to logos. Similar to his lack of appeals to ethos, Worfolk omits statistical data and appeals to logic in favor of testimonials from prisoners as to how beneficial the program is for them as individuals. In doing so Worfolk misses the chance to prove any kind of systemic benefit to letting prisoners play baseball. The viewer remains ignorant as to questions like whether or not baseball players are more likely to get parole, what their rate of recidivism is relative to prisoners who do not play baseball, and how frequently they are disciplined. By omitting these types of facts, Worfolk hamstrings his ability to make any kind of argument as to a widespread benefit. Because his argument is limited to the experience of a handful of men, the largest significance Worfolk can prove is that baseball is immensely beneficial to those five men.

Although effective in fostering sympathy for prisoners, “San Quentin’s Giants” should not be shown at the Oxford Film Festival due to Worfolk’s failure to prove any sort of observable benefits or larger significance within the prison system. Although strong in its appeals to pathos, those appeals dominate the Op-Doc to the exclusion of appeals to logos or ethos. This leads to an incredibly effective appeal to the viewer’s emotions, but a failure by Worfolk to capitalize on the sympathy he generates to drive home a larger point about the topic of prison programs like baseball’s capacity to aid in rehabilitation. Without third party testimony or data about baseball’s effectiveness in rehabilitating prisoners, Worfolk’s argument is at best weakly proven by prisoners’ claims of transformation. Furthermore the scope of the argument is kept painfully limited. While entertaining to watch, “San Quentin’s Giants” does not have enough substance to its argument to warrant screening at the Oxford Film Festival.