March 2, 2010
“He [D.W. Griffith] missed a certain beauty he thought had disappeared from film, from the way people saw life — ‘the beauty of the moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms in the trees. That they have forgotten entirely. . . We have lost beauty.’ On that note, Griffith fell silent.” -Richard Schickel, D.W. GRIFFITH: AN AMERICAN LIFE
Griffith’s deathbed lament has turned into something of a mission statement for a disparate group of filmmakers on the experimental side of documentary practice, who combine anthropological impulses (recording “the wind in the trees”) with a rigorously constructed visual formalism (regaining its “beauty”), blurring the boundary between fiction and non. The great French avant-gardist Jean-Marie Straub is a main influence, and seems to have popularized the quote, as recounted by director John Gianvito and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Griffith’s words have exerted almost as much influence as Straub and late partner Daniele Huillet’s austere long-take style. I’ve never found the original 1947 interview from which Griffith’s words were taken, so any help on this front would be much obliged.
I was led to three of these hybrid films: Sweetgrass (which I discussed here), The Anchorage, and Agrarian Utopia, by Robert Koehler in his Cinema Scope essay, “Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias“. Here he introduces his concept of a “cinema of in-between-ness”, which is not a movement as much as a tendency, where “a zone of a cinema free of, or perhaps more precisely in between, hardened fact and invented fiction permits all manner of wild possibilities.” Most of these possibilites, he finds, are focused on “subjects about humans working on the surface of the earth.”
The remarkable thing about this trio of films (set in the U.S., Sweden, and Thailand, respectively), is how similar they are in content, focusing as they do on work, and obsolescent work at that. Sweetgrass follows the last sheepherders through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains in Montana. The Anchorage depicts the self-sufficient life of a mother on the Stockholm Archipelago. Agrarian Utopia presents the life of itinerant farmers in northern Thailand using pre-Industrial Revolution equipment. All three are aesthetically beautiful in differing ways, and use invented scenarios in varying degrees.
The directors of The Anchorage, C.W. Winter and Anders Edström, paraphrase Griffith’s quote in the promotional material for their film, and perhaps hew closest to its intent. A hypnotic tour through the Stockholm Archipelago led by Edström’s mother, Ulla, it sets up the slenderest of plots while building a world of exquisite tactility (one caveat: I was only able to watch the film on a lo-res screener. And if any movie demands to be seen in the inky dark of a theater, it is this one. So I’m sure I’m missing some visual grace notes). The camera records Ulla’s routines, her morning swims, afternoon walks, and the wood-cutting and fish-gutting necessities of her existence. It is broken up by a few intrusions. The first is a loving visit from her daughter, Elin, who with her boyfriend Marcus light up her modest cabin with youth. The second is the ominous appearance of a deer hunter, whose presence makes Ulla visibly uneasy, and minute changes in her routines start to occur.
This plot is a construction (Elin, Marcus and the hunter are all played by actors), but Ulla plays herself, and her real home is the set. Then there is the attention the film pays to the light, shadow, and movement of the island, which turns sections of it into a nature documentary. The opening shot exemplifies this hyper-attentiveness. It starts in complete darkness, to a soundtrack of crunchy footfalls and plaintive birdcalls, until patches of moonlight leak through in splotches at the top of the frame. Then a ghostly outline is edged in light until the full figure of Ulla in a rough terry-cloth robe determinedly walks to the water. This sequence lasts over 8 minutes, completely attuned to the “moving wind through the trees” and how Ulla blends in to its flow. The use of Super16mm film produces a rough-hewn graininess to the image, and the colors are pastels leached of vibrancy, anticipating the winter that Ulla is praying to arrive. It’s a workmanlike kind of beauty.
The emphasis is not on Ulla’s goal – getting to the water – but on her presence as a body, and the presence of the foliage around her. It requires a re-orientation as a viewer, away from character arcs and towards a multi-planar focus, where the background holds as much interest as the human moving at its center. This can be a difficult transition to make, but the rewards are stunning.
This is not to take away from the suggestive mystery of the narrative, though, which produces a insinuating sense of unease through a voice-over and the spectre of the yellow-warning suit of a hunter. In her voice-over, Ulla notes the song of the larks, who stay around later into fall every year. Straight away this note introduces something “off” with her surroundings, which will build through her various chores and rests, until the wearing of a bathing-suit becomes indicative of an massive psychological shift, where solitude ineffably shifts into loneliness. It’s a remarkable moment in a film loaded with them.
Where The Anchorage maintains a constant distance from Ulla, Agrarian Utopia uses a more dialectic approach, shifting back and forth from long shots of workers arranged against the ground and sky, the romantic-heroic view of farming, to the close-ups and shot-countershots of the off-hours, when the anxiety of debt and the theater of Thai political life dominates conversations. The story concerns Duen and Nuek, two itinerant farmers and their families, trying to make a buck as the bank forecloses on every scrap of land they work on. Using archaic methods of farming, including Buffalo-motored plows, it’s a lament for the death of a working community, but unlike Sweetgrass, it’s completely invented – for this way of life is already extinct. Koehler reports that Director Uruphong Raksasad hired locals to play the part of the farmers, and rented the plot for a year from the government just for the shoot.
The son of farmers himself, Raksasad is reconstructing the final days of that working community, a passion play of bent backs, stupefyingly gorgeous landscapes, and past-due loan payments. As in Sweetgrass, Raksasang entwines the beauty of the land with the physical toll of labor and the brutal economic realities of local farming. It’s a constant push-pull of aesthetics and politics, of sunsets and bounced checks. What makes all of this sing is the facility of the performers, the beauty of the Thai landscape, and Raksasad’s sheer ambition – encapsulating the demise of local agriculture and the insanity of the political scene. The populist Thaksin Shinawatra, shrouded with allegations of corruption, was ousted by a military coup in 2006, and Shinawatra has been trying to win a proxy war for power ever since, briefly popping back up in 2008 when his former party won an election. He has since been convicted in absentia for “conflict of interest” and was sentenced to two years in jail.
He’s reportedly popular with the working class, but Raksasad draws a portrait of people sick of political manuevuring and loud empty gestures. He has one worker describe the scene by saying “the opposition and government are making a movie for us to watch.” It is a despairing political portrait that erupts with moments of sublime beauty. After a storm, a giddy hand-held camera races with the local children during a mud fight, careening along with them with joyful intensity, one of the most kinetically thrilling moments I’ve had in a cinema. But then Nuek trudges back to Bangkok, weaving through curse-wielding protestors and condescending party leaders, with the mud and sun and trudgery a distant memory. Now he’s got a factory job.