Saturday, December 6, 2008

Two Documentaries that are changing narrative expectations:

“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 U.S. illegally. Certain indentures into the ground indicate who is crawling, or what kind of shoes they are wearing, or if someone is on there knees and elbows in an attempt not to leave tracks. We also see the Border Patrol guys covering up the tracks that their trucks leave, in a weird kind of symbiosis (the trackers not wanting to be tracked?). In one of the film’s few close ups, a raging river churns up dirt and mud in its powerful current, suggesting the difficulty and sheer physicality of crossing over into the U.S. It is an interesting rejoinder to the guard’s seeming nonchalance, as well as a stunning juxtaposition with the previous section’s RV dealership – apparently, a lifestyle of unfettered freedom and unlimited travel only extends to a certain few. There is a jarring cut from the raging water to a calm night sky, and as the camera holds on this picturesque composition, a voice over begins. We get a detailed description of a soldier (Rankin’s words, as it turns out - a long passage from his biography, being spoken by someone else) parachuting from a malfunctioning jet miles above the Earth’s surface. It is a harrowing account - he speaks of velocity and g-force in such a way as to make the dangers immediately palpable, and describes parachuting through a thunder storm. But it is a disembodied voice – no archival footage or photographs - just words and images of a cloudy sky. In the film’s most stunning sequence, Stratman’s camera travels to a machine gun festival. And it is exactly what it sounds like. Throngs of people line up to check out weapons, run an obstacle course, shoot at random burnt out cars and trucks, do target practice, and traverse what looks like a series of huts and shacks, shooting at everything in sight (except other people, I might add). While bulldozers and cranes clean up the destroyed objects, a voice over describes the festival as a last bastion for gun rights and constitutional freedom. There is a final, haunting epilogue to the sequence, as men with flamethrowers put on an exhibition for a rapturous audience. Echoes of Herzog’s “Lessons of Darkness” abound, as great swaths of orange engulf the screen, and burning embers float peacefully back to Earth against a tranquil night sky. It is evocative, certainly, of a kind of abstract beauty, but also apocalyptic in its destructive fulmination.

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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 Southern Italy to Sweden via Portugal, Britain, and Ireland.” But other than supplying a clue as to what language these men are speaking, it is arguable that such information is entirely inconsequential, even disruptive to the film’s abstract diegesis – the film ultimately stands outside of such concerns, instead offering a glimpse of another world that is simultaneously strange and familiar. The first scene following a brief prologue is a simple composition, but it does much to inform the viewer conceptually; a long metal pole with some hanging rope cuts across the frame from upper right to lower left, intersecting an image of the sun setting behind clouds. The pole remains fixed, the camera along with it, while the postcard ready image bobs and weaves with the natural movement of the ship. We are immediately oriented to the physical sensation of standing still on a moving object, and recognize that the camera is, for all intents and purposes, going to be fixed along side us. Indeed, the only images we get outside of the ship are occasional nighttime detours into large cargo holds or shots of the sea or sky as seen through windows and portholes.

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. Onion City Festival programmer Patrick Friel mentions this in the festival’s accompanying program, and obviously others have picked up on it as well. But, for this viewer, these graph-like, symmetrical compositions come across as cold metal geometry, impersonal and imposing. At one point, while filming what looks to be an argument, a crew member stands up and slides a door closed in front of the camera. The image lingers after the shot has changed - what was once an image of people has been replaced, superimposed, obliterated, by a simple, austere flatness. If anything, the cumbersome, bulky metal textures of the ship encourages a disconnect between flesh and blood people and this environment that envelopes them. Another interpretation: this disconnection as metaphor for advanced globalization in our modern era of capitalism; the inseparability of man and machine.

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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.

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