A lone headstone laid in a field, weeds nearly obscuring the inscribed words “Gone but Not Forgotten,” is perhaps the key thematic scene in John Gianvito’s hour-long video elegy Profit motive and the whispering wind. Simple graves, imposing tombs, historical markers, and commemorative signs dedicated to the memory of American progressive or radical heroes and martyrs are observed in long shot, then sometimes in leisurely close-up to absorb the epitaph or marker’s text in full. (Occasionally Gianvito will zero in to note decay, in the illegibility of aged words on marble, or the worms crawling on William Lloyd Garrison’s crypt.) Always recorded in what appears to be high spring or summer, the succession of memorials is reverent but never somnambulant; the winds don’t only whisper, but occasionally roar violently through the lush grasses and tree-limb canopies. The conspicuous sound design is also loaded with hissing sprinklers, whirring mowers, and noisy ambient traffic; several totems honoring massacred Native Americans or miners stand on highway shoulders or at rest stops. Have these suffragettes, union workers, educators, and activists been given special places in the memory and the landscape, or are they neglectfully lost in cemeteries, state-sanctioned statuary, and dutiful, academic lip service?
Beneath the meditative procession of sites, Gianvito layers an anxiety built into most viewers’ gaps in 17th-to-20th-century U.S. history; for every Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, and Thoreau, there are several names likely to puzzle all but the best-read buffs, at least until you can check Google (or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, from which Profit was inspired). Bursts of animation—washing hands, arguing and bellicose men—and the cumulative sense of endurance of the longstanding monuments and their honorees keep the act of posthumous witness vibrant, not ossified or ritualistic. Unfortunately, Gianvito concludes with an overreaching link to contemporary activism, introduced by foliage-obscured shots of facades of Shell, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s. (There’s no legacy, or transcendent epiphanies, in the failures of anti-Bush activism of recent years.) An unfortunate reminder of Gianvito’s hamfisted polemical fiction feature The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, it’s a concluding misstep. Profit otherwise keenly connects these giants of America’s past to the living more quietly, in the presence of labor and feminist buttons next to flowers on gravesites, or the plea etched on a female organizer’s tomb: DON’T IRON WHILE THE STRIKE IS HOT!
Far less successful at going in one era and out the other is Hidden in Plain Sight, a quasi-diaristic attempt by New Yorker Mark Street to glean commonalities of life and distant history in his travels to Santiago, Dakar, Hanoi, and Marseille. Like a tourist with an anthropologic bent and a better-than-average eye for capturing sidewalk food vendors, laborers, armies of cyclists, and retail curiosities like a clock crowned with an illuminated image of Ho Chi Minh, Street takes his cue from André Breton’s dictum “The city is the only field of experience”—but his is a general gaze with negligible direction because his intuition doesn’t lead him much of anywhere. Early scenes in the Chilean capital of the presidential palace, while Salvador Allende’s final telephoned words during the 1973 coup are heard, don’t shake off their archival identity, and a later visit to hilly Valparaiso (birthplace of Allende and his vanquisher Pinochet) doesn’t prompt anything but a digression about earthquakes and the videographer’s pleasure at witnessing urban “rupture.” Superficial anecdotes of Ho Chi Minh’s life in three of the cities are a similar dead end. Titling sections of Hidden “Wandering,” “Learning to Look,” “Torn Apart Again,” and “Synthesis,” Street’s allegedly scientific model yields little data except, presumably, to him, who finds he sees home with new clarity after his travels. His expanded vision remains mysterious, beyond the sight of bikers toting banh mi in both Hanoi and the Lower East Side.
Profit motive and the whispering wind @ the Tribeca Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.