“Most of us begin with a cliché – not always, but most of the time – and that’s fine, but you have to look at it from all sides and clarify it. So you start with the idea of discovery… Then you ask yourself, but why? It will inhibit the viewer’s imagination instead of opening it up… and so you renounce, slowly. Then one fine day… one fine day you realize that it’s better to see as little as possible. You have a sort of… reduction, only it’s not a reduction – it’s a concentration and it actually says more.”
Jean-Marie Straub, quoted in Pedro Costa’s “Where lies your hidden smile?”
Two recent films that are revitalizing/reconstituting/rethinking/recontextualizing the place of narrative in contemporary documentary film, and deserving of placement along side the pantheon – essayists like Dziga-Vertov era Godard, Marker, late period Kiarostami, Costa, Zhangke, early Weerasethakul - Deborah Stratman’s “O’er the Land” and Rosalind Nashashibi’s “Bachelor Machines Part 1”.
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Beginning with a long quotation on the nature of heroism (by a Lt. Col. William Rankin - a real person, although I wasn’t sure of it until later in the film), then moving to a forest strewn with carefully placed and obviously staged smoking debris, then segueing into a group of Revolutionary War re-enactors, “O’er the Land” starts out of the gate with a series of allusions and paralleling rhymes, virtually demanding its audience to put two and two together. The artfully arranged debris, coupled with another kind of staged event, that of reenacted warfare, seems to juxtapose two kinds of audiences: a paying public that is watching another public watching a staged recreation of historical events that Stratman catches on camera. Next is a series of shots at a high school football game, and we see a tightly choreographed marching band performing, as well as cheerleaders and the players themselves (along with yet another implied audience). Stratman refuses to orient us with any kind of tangible information; there are no dates, times or places, nor do there seem to be any recurring “characters” or a single train of thought. But we have a quotation from a celebrated military man, the aftermath of some destructive event, and the uniformity of various costumed groups – the fake military garb becomes synonymous with the football jersey or cheerleading outfit, and the civilian garb takes on some of the associations of military dress. In effect, one becomes less sinister while the others become more so.
But before we can settle too comfortably into some assumptions about what the film is showing us, we continue to receive more visual information. An RV dealership comes onscreen, accompanied by voice over describing the unfettered freedom such a vehicle can provide. The voiceover is trying to sell a lifestyle on wheels, without borders, free to roam. We then cut to a US Border Patrol station, with an ominous sign warning us that the national threat level is currently “orange” (I’m a little rusty on my Homeland Security propaganda, but if memory serves, orange is relatively low). A Border Patrol truck drives around, describing the various tracks left behind from people crossing into the
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Men speak without subtitles – that we understand what they are saying is not so important as is the tone of voice, the vocal inflection that indicates conversation, orders, argument, or joking. Various men constantly look offscreen while speaking – they might be the only one in the frame, but they are not the only one in the room. There is no non-diagetic sound, and the occasional intrusion of music establishes, partially, the mood and tenor of a scene. What we have here is a contiguous sense on space, extending beyond the parameters of the filmed frame and suggesting an entire parallel world. The point seems clear: it is an acceptance of the camera’s, and the filmmaker’s, limitations, and a suggestion to the audience that we actively engage in what we are not being shown (certainly, this is Bressonian to the extreme).
This notion of accepting the limitations of technology and genre informs the narrative as well (although narrative, in this context, might be better described as fractured, minimal, or even maximal, depending on one’s personal predilection). A series of 25 scenes, complete with fade to black intermediaries and with a brief, elliptical prologue, suggests any number of possible permutations – that we are seeing only 25 possible moments out of any number of theoretical scenes, that we should read the scenes linearly, like a book, or even that the scenes have been selected at random, haphazardly. What seems most immediate is that we must reconfigure our relationship to the narrative documentary and create our own interpretation, relying on sensory impressions that rhyme, to be sure, but do not necessarily congeal. There is no thesis, and even to suggest that the film is about isolation and mechanized impersonality is to impose a personal reading, and is not supported by “facts”. Such is the radical agenda of Rosalind Nashashibi’s poetic documentary.
Much like “O’er the Land”, “Bachelor Machines Part 1” does not orient us with any contextual, factual information. The filmmaker’s website, along with an accompanying dvd booklet, gives us some specifics, that these sailors are on a cargo ship “sailing from
Much of the film is spent prowling long, empty corridors, and visually, the symmetry of isolation recalls Kubrick or Ackerman. Several critics have commented on the “anthropomorphic” nature of some compositions, where the ship itself seems to take on a face.
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I’ve grown increasingly wary of the notion of “narrative” in the last few months. As our most recent presidential election has illuminated, much of people’s decision making process was contingent upon accepting this or that narrative and rejecting the, presumably opposite or incompatible, other (David Bordwell has a fascinating entry on this subject here). But aside from buzz words, more often than not opaque and aloof themselves, these particular narratives obfuscated more than they illuminated, with both parties presenting simplification in lieu of complexity. It might seem odd then, or even counter intuitive, to present these obviously abstracted films as a rejoinder to the simplified notion of narrative that is increasingly presented to an increasingly receptive populous, weaned on serial television shows to look for a beginning, middle and end in a predetermined chunk of time; narrative closure as bite sized emotional edification. But whatever these two films lack in factual specificity, they more than compensate with the demands and rigors placed on their respective audience: the necessity to glean metaphoric and dialectical relationships in Stratman’s piece, which invites the pondering of violent incursions into land, sky and the mind; and the devastating emotional isolation of Nashashibi’s mysterious and evocative conjuring of oceanic travel as a journey into the unknown.