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Radical Alternatives: Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

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Radical Alternatives: <em>Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind</em>

An alternative history of the United States as seen through its monuments and memorials, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is at once an eloquent tribute to the oppositional figures (both the house-hold names and the anonymous toilers) who helped shape the country’s authentic history and a lament for a time when such genuine opposition was possible. Taking his inspiration from Howard Zinn’s perennial favorite A People’s History of the United States, director John Gianvito travels around the country filming the gravesites of Zinn’s canon of heroic American figures, along with plaques commemorating strikes, uprisings, and massacres. Lacking narration, the film’s text consists entirely of the words etched on the commemorative signage, the plaques’ writing constituting a corrective to the selective amnesia that eliminates scores of important figures and events from the historical record.

Gianvito’s working method is to fix a given plaque in medium shot against a situating backdrop before moving in for a closer look, allowing the viewer ample time to read through the text. Although no words are spoken on the soundtrack, Gianvito concocts a dense and striking audio mix that combines and amplifies the various ambient sounds captured around a specific monument. In concert with the glimpses of modern life that peek through in the establishing shots, this method allows the filmmaker to create some singularly odd juxtapositions. If plaques and memorials tend to take on the quality of museum pieces, reducing the vibrancy of passionate engagements to forgotten placards that comfortably inoculate the viewer from any direct involvement with a historical event, then Gianvito uses this very tendency to comment on the interrelationship between an engaged past and an indifferent present. As the filmmaker’s camera fixes on a roadside plaque commemorating a labor uprising, an eighteen-wheeler rushes by, the sound amplified to ear-rattling intensity. Without insisting upon any dialectic relationship between the ethos represented by the plaque and the ethos of modern commercial society that makes such organized revolt pretty well impossible, Gianvito here effectively positions us in a world in which the latter triumphs while the former is passed over as rapid-pace modernity unheedingly zips by. His film serves both to restore this discredited oppositional culture to its privileged place (paying solemn tribute to its leading figures through unhurried framings of their graves) and to remind us of its very discrediting (a remembrance of a more engaged past).

Intercut with the footage of memorial markers are two series of images which literalize both sides of the film’s title. The less interesting of the two are very brief animated sequences, drawn by Gianvito himself, that illustrate frenzied capitalistic activity, making explicit the film’s thematic concerns (and, in their fast movement, contrasting with the measured photography of the rest of the film). While these sequences seemingly add little to the work, at one to two seconds a piece, they also do little to interfere with the film’s carefully structured pacing. More significant are a series of lyrical shots that separate the memorial sequences, taking in tree branches, the sky, and other natural settings while the soundtrack resonates with the sound of the titular “whispering wind.” Whatever thematic opposition Gianvito might be suggesting between a “pure” nature (which he is content to view uncritically) and an oppressive civilization built on extermination and exploitation, these sequences work best as a hypnotic analogue to their more “content-filled” counterparts, the two strands weaving together into a seductive tapestry that provides an eloquent expression of hope and loss and offers a moving lament for an alternative America.

The film ends with a fast cut montage of contemporary activists engaging in peaceful protests along city streets, the tone of the film changing from the slow and meditative to the forcefully immediate. Seemingly designed to suggest a continuity of intention between a prior oppositional culture and contemporary grass roots movements, the footage—in which the protests come across as both chaotic (thanks to Gianvito’s rapid editing) and ineffectual—suggests more of a contrast with the past evoked by the rest of the film than any kind of affinity. Much of this contrast may have to do with the nominal social gains achieved through the sacrifices of the revolutionary figures of the past. In today’s America, workers are no longer gunned down for striking, minorities are granted (in theory) the same rights as whites, women can vote. And yet, beneath the facade of a free America, social inequality remains as present as ever and opposition is only tolerated when it poses no real threat. Lacking the rallying points of the more visible injustices of the past, contemporary opposition fails to register with the same immediacy. As such, the film’s ending is marked by a welcome ambiguity; Gianvito seems to want to celebrate a contemporary spirit of resistance, but he is too aware of the ultimate triumph of a deadening consumer culture—witness several shots of McDonald’s and other corporate behemoths peeking out through the trees—to view this spirit with any degree of confidence. In the end, all he can do is raise a lament for a past in which such spirit seemed a genuine possibility and turn a critical eye on the ways in which, in the years since, our country has failed to take up the once tenable promise of more radical alternatives.

Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.