Manfred Kirchheimer’s Canners is premised on the belief that its nearly dozen subjects, all of whom spend their days collecting cans and bottles across New York City, possess psychological depths and professional ambitions that need to be illuminated. Kirchheimer’s news-segment interview approach results in nearly 76 minutes’ worth of unbroken clips that create a portrait of the city’s pulse through some of its most marginal figures. This filmmaking style recalls Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli Mai and, even more so, Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, though Kirchheimer’s target is ultimately much smaller, if not necessarily more focused.
Whereas In Jackson Heights pieces together an array of footage taken from numerous locations and across a variety of actions, Canners’s singular visual approach grows redundant as the immediacy of the subjects’ commentary begs for a broadening of scope. Take Sammy Peralta, an immigrant who claims he can make nearly $1,000 a day collecting recyclable items. He compares his gaming of the system to being in the mafia and attributes his success to an intricate knowledge of the city and its population. Rather than supplementing Peralta’s claim with visible evidence of such riches or a mapping of his expertise, Kirchheimer cycles to the next subject. The alarming claims made by several of the “canners” demand some sort of follow-up, whether through supplemental material or pointed questions of Kirchheimer’s own.
These omissions do lend Canners an insularity that sometimes works to its benefit. A pair of men displaced by Hurricane Katrina explain how their turn to canning initially came as a matter of necessity and daily survival but has since proved a useful source of consistent income, albeit less than they’d like. Their testimony never verges on the hyperbolic and serves as an inherent counterpoint to Peralta’s own. Moreover, as the two men from New Orleans explain their hopes of becoming substance-abuse counselors and finishing their degrees, the camera’s steady capturing of their resolve proves a peerless substitute for any sort of contextual or explanatory material.
Still, Canners plays a bit too infatuated with its subjects and for reasons not wholly clear by the film’s end. Throughout, several interludes featuring piano-lounge tunes and wide shots taken from the Brooklyn Bridge suggest that the canners are less oppressed or disenfranchised than they are bright fabrics within the city’s greater tapestry. Kirchheimer’s filmmaking beguiles through its certainty that locating the specificity of the canners’ daily lives constitutes an inherently humanist, even profound act. Yet the film only devotes itself to that task in obvious ways. As Peanut, a career canner, pals around with the two garbage men collecting her bags, it’s a predictable glimpse of the small bond that results from repeatedly crossing paths with an acquaintance in your neighborhood: friendly, warm, but by no means intimate.
And intimacy, ultimately, is what the film comprehensively lacks—intimacy, of personage or place, that’s capable of reaching past the outward view of the canners’ daily grind and locating a startling truth about these men and women. Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side locates its disenfranchised subjects’ anger by penetrating their worldview through embodied sex scenes, diatribes, and acts of violence. The result is ambivalent and prevents an easy narrative about the larger group of people from taking shape. The cumulative effect of Canners is too pleasant and polite to function as a statement greater than a modest humanitarian document of a particular time and place.