SFIFF: Ashes to ashes

Pub date April 23, 2008
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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SFIFF One of the greatest pleasures of the 50th SF International Film Festival was Forever, Heddy Honigmann’s 2006 study of the living among the dead at Paris’ Père-Lachese cemetery. Between footage of the sun-dappled necropolis in all its hushed, springtime glory, Honigmann (who received last year’s Persistence of Vision award) profiles several regular visitors, who in the course of discussing an attachment to a particular resident — whether that dweller be Frédéric Chopin or a deceased husband — reveal a great deal about how we commune with memory in our daily lives.

Echoes of Honigmann’s film can be heard on the breezes that float and whip through John Gianvito’s lean and hypnotic Profit motive and the whispering wind (Gianvito’s use of lowercase is intentional). In focusing on a very different kind of memorial landscape, Gianvito uses Howard Zinn’s oft-revised 1980 radical assessment of American history, A People’s History of the United States, as a roadmap. He’s constructed an hour-long pilgrimage to the graves, minor monuments, and commemorative plaques erected to honor America’s freethinkers and radicals.

Static shot after static shot shows names etched in stone, carved on wood, or stamped on metal: Red Jacket, Sacagawea, Thomas Paine, Mary Dyer, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Daniel Shays, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer (whose eloquent protest, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired," is now her epitaph), Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and César Chávez, to name just a dozen. America is a nation of defectors, suffragettes, abolitionists, Wobblies, anarchists, union members, community organizers, and conscientious objectors. We see commemorations of the labor movement’s bloody struggles: the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass., the Homestead Strike near Pittsburgh, and the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado. Occasionally we see signs that others have visited these sites: small tokens of solidarity left on graves, graffiti, piled pebbles. But many of the markers exhibit the creep of age and neglect.

Eschewing narration or interviews, Profit motive is near-silent, save for the ambient sounds of each site: chirping birds, the lazy buzz of insects, the occasional whiz of traffic, and most prominent, the whistling wind — though a whisper is only one part of its range. As Honigmann does in Forever, Gianvito periodically turns his camera away from the ground to watch the dance of sighing boughs or rustling plains. These almost animistic sequences remind us that the landscape has borne witness to the people who shaped it long before our time, underscoring the transience of human life and, by extension, political struggle.

The film’s jarring final minutes, however, break its meditative silence in a move that aims to establish affinities between the left’s scattered history and current protest movements. Gianvito’s dedication to Zinn seems to get the better of him, and the closing montage of contemporary protests juxtaposed against McDonald’s and Wal-Mart signs comes off as crudely didactic. The answer — or, at the very least, some incendiary spark out of the past — it seems, was blowing in the wind after all.

If Gianvito’s film is part eulogy and part rallying cry for America’s radical left, then Hartmut Bitomsky’s more conventionally structured documentary Dust (Straub) is a vanitas for late capitalism. Just as Gianvito marshals a certain poetic charge from his footage of rustling branches and swaying grass, Bitomsky’s cold yet compelling study also mines the many-faceted existential resonance of the particulate terrain it surveys.

Bitomsky’s gravelly-voiced narrator is fond of repeating a Raymond Queneau quote: "Dust always leaves a trace, no matter what; then, a trace of the trace. There’s always a trace you’ll never get." Indeed, dust is as ubiquitous as it is unremarkable. It is both the byproduct of human industry and what accretes once our industriousness has stopped. It is a bugaboo for museum preservationists, vacuum cleaner engineers, and clean room custodians. It is the cosmic prima materia from which the universe was born and to which we will all return long after the worms have had their fill. And as we are reminded in the documentary’s opening frames, dust is the very substance of film itself. What we watch are the shadows of dust, shot through with light.

From an industrial paints manufacturer, to a frighteningly OCD housewife, to a sweetly loopy artist who creates sculptural dust taxonomies, to military scientists testing for radioactive fallout from ballistics currently being used in Iraq, Bitomksy lets his unnamed subjects speak with little interruption on their Sisyphean efforts to analyze, sift through, and eradicate dust. At times, the extended and often extremely technical explanations of particle acceleration and filtration assembly can be tryingly dry. But the straightforward and de-personalized presentation of information is fitting with the film’s po-faced tone.

Bitomsky’s deadpan facade is tied on extra-tight. But faint traces of a smirk can be made out whenever he pauses on a particularly cruel irony (for instance, when he quotes military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz over photos of American and Iraqi babies deformed by in utero exposure to depleted uranium dust) or takes note of a pathetic one (a hulking, former GDR housing block imploded to make way for a shopping mall). As entropic as it is constant, dust is indifferent to human life or regime change.

Gianvito’s film clearly seeks to offer a momentary defense against our country’s tendency toward historical amnesia, though it also suggests that history may be one more notch on finitude’s marble bedpost. For Bitomsky, on the other hand, history is a dustbin.

DUST May 3, 1 p.m., PFA; May 5, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 7, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki

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