Filmmakers present statements on cultural obsolescence

SPIRAL JETTY
East Coast literati are consumed by memories new and selected in Ricky D’Ambrose’s rigorous, occasionally revelatory “Spiral Jetty.” A New Yorker since his youth, D’Ambrose rattled film culture in July of 2016 with an article part polemic, part digital cinema manifesto, part anthropological analysis of image culture for The Nation (The Nation, “Instagram and the Fantasy of Mastery” 06.29.2016), attracting the attention of film critics and scholars alike—among his champions The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. Between 2013 and 2018, D’Ambrose has put theory into practice, delivering three distinctly literary, distinctly D’Ambrosian short films and a feature, themselves each with their own formal preoccupations—shades of Bresson, Straub-Huillet and Fassbinder throughout—revealing a cinematic asceticism that privileges gestures, liminal spaces and information revealed through text over the conventional narrative.

In “Spiral Jetty,” his most recent short, Daniel (Bingham Bryant), a young intellectual who spends days in the park flipping through art books with his vacation-bound girlfriend (Jessica Pin- field), is hired by the daughter of late psychologist Kurt Blumenthal (Caroline Luft) to transcribe and detail his eminence’s personal documents, among which are correspondences, journals, articles and videotapes.

As Daniel loses himself in the work, always in submission to the iron will of Blumenthal’s daughter—herself crafting a financial and literary legacy through a constructed narrative of the elder Blumenthal’s life—he uncovers something of a mystery. But piecing together histories from a distance, Daniel is little more than a voyeur, here trading human lives (and secrets well-kept) for capital, a cog greased by the financially well-endowed.

The camera, always static, treats us as late arrivals. We might see the aftermath of breakfast or glimpses of yesterday’s news. For D’Ambrose, only scraps and detritus. Characters are treated no differently than the documents that Daniel pores over—it is information plainly stated, but always lacking explicit context. It is this asceticism and hesitancy that allows for a deeper understanding of the signifiers set forth by the montage.

If the crisp digital footage set in the present day offers a vacuum-sealed world isolated from a broader cultural narrative, footage of Blumenthal’s handheld videotapes serve as a jarring counter- point to this modern luxury, themselves revealing a film in dialogue with tragic events that brought the world into the 21st century. This late revelation is disorienting, to say the least. It is the rare moment that forces the audience to reckon with the reality of the digital era, itself an effect of late capitalism and the continuing race towards immediate obsolescence. This footage reorients the preceding 12 minutes as completely insignificant, making the check that Daniel receives for his work feel like a particularly wicked cosmic joke.

Apart from the shared title, the connection to Robert Smithson’s earthwork sculpture of the same name might seem tenuous at best. But in the presence of the “Spiral Jetty” residing in Great Salt Lake, like Daniel chasing the textual detritus of a bygone era into an absurd spiral, so do we find ourselves treading rocky terrain—the viewer, ever the impotent detective—leading indefinitely into water. And from there—ripples. The tide recedes as waves beat against the sand, your eyes drawn to the horizon.

“Spiral Jetty” is available for viewing on D’Am- brose’s Vimeo page. His debut feature “Notes on an Appearance” has just finished a successful run across the country. Expect it soon on DVD/Blu-Ray from Grasshopper Films.

HISTORYTELLING

In a bright blue classroom in Chicoutimi (Saguenay, Quebec), a teacher and her students—children no older than 10 years—are predicting the future. Hopeful speculations include the discovery of a new animal, a new tree and—slightly alarming— the development of more effective war machines. In an Innu classroom on the Pessamit First Nations Reserve (also in Quebec), students of the same age consider their cultural past, juxtaposed against an homogenized future. One child fears for her family and thinks that war might even break out on the re- serve. Another feels that with the continued dimi- nution of Innu people on the reserve, the tradition- al language will disappear entirely. Striking a note far more fearful than the Chicoutimi classroom, there is a learned awareness among the Innu children that their tradition is in trouble. Such are the lines of stratification that Guillaume Langlois sets down in his newest short subject “Historytelling,” an anthropological investigation into the separa- tions between aboriginal and colonial legatee culture in Quebec, and how the younger generation might affect it in 15 years’ time.

Because Langlois differentiates the two kinds of cultural awareness so early in the film, it is logi- cal to assume that one classroom might produce eventual defenders of regional identity, and the other develop citizens more willing to cede part of their national identity to the weight of globalization. Not that there is an intentional effort on the filmmaker’s part to generalize each classroom by its differences, but the efforts at synonymy appear rather weak at best, restricting each classroom to a strict rhetorical dichotomy that ultimately sabotages its own attempt at direct cinema. But apart from these separations, the filmmaker offers little investigation beyond students’ testimonials and—worth mentioning—a rather on-the-nose rack focus from a student to an artist’s depiction of Canada’s colonial past. Only seldom does “Historytelling” reach beyond its lines of stratification for something that feels historically urgent. And it is this lack of urgency in depiction that is the film’s biggest issue.

Late in the film, however, Langlois interviews two elderly Innu women while children play in the snow, out of focus, just in the background: “When I was young I didn’t care about anything, but now at my age I remember everything we used to do in the bush.” Here, Langlois just begins to seriously probe questions of cultural awareness, as a generational item; but, stopping short of actual investigation, these questions are dropped almost as soon as they are asked. How has Innu cultural awareness changed between two generations? Are future generations forced into relays of preserving a traditional past instead of crafting a traditional present, for the future? Innu children are aware that they will not be able to live as their grand- parents did “because there’ll be no more trees,” but the inclusion of this scene seems only to spark further questions upon which the filmmaker might have hopefully elaborated. From there, the “Historytelling” slips back into its fairly restrictive lines of compare and contrast.

For a question so immediately interesting—one of how a culture adapts to globalization against the tidal wave of time—it is frustrating how light Langlois’s touch is with his material. He opts to place sharper focus on banalities rather than on an urgent interrogation of issues, however well-articulated.

“Historytelling” is available on MUBI. Pair with Canadian Kurt Walker’s feature “Hit 2 Pass” (on Vimeo) for an experience with both works.

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