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Profit Motive And The Whispering Wind (#110 of 4)

New York Film Festival 2010: Robinson in Ruins

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Robinson in Ruins</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Robinson in Ruins</em>

Robinson in Ruins, the latest film from British filmmaker Patrick Keiller, is an incredibly dense experimental documentary/cine-essay that tells a tale of the titular Robinson, recently released from prison and currently traveling through England photographing various landscapes while ruminating on a heady combination of historical, political, economic, agricultural, and architectural topics.

But Keiller has an interesting way of telling his “story,” such as it is: His film consists entirely of static shots of Robinson’s filmed landscapes—wide-open nature, wheat farms, opium fields, military bases, historical landmarks, and plenty more; once in a while, even some human figures pop up on the sidelines, while Keiller’s voiceover narration provides running commentary over the images. The style will most likely be familiar to Keiller acolytes, of which I am admittedly not one; this is the first film of his I’ve seen, and while I can’t say I was riveted by every single minute (the film tends to become especially dry and academic when it delves into the nooks and crannies of the history behind a given British landmark), there is enough formal interest and visual beauty in it that it makes me interested enough to explore his previous work—which includes an earlier installment in the Robinson saga, Robinson in Space.

On John Gianvito and Vapor Trail (Clark)

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On John Gianvito and <em>Vapor Trail (Clark)</em>
On John Gianvito and <em>Vapor Trail (Clark)</em>

John Gianvito’s new documentary, the first of two films focusing on decommissioned, and hazardous, U.S. military bases—one named Clark, the other Subic—in Pampanga province, Philippines, takes its title (minus parenthetical) from the contrails left behind by airplanes at high altitude. A pre-credits sequence shows several such images, in addition to a rolling stream at sunrise; the driver’s-eye interior view of a car, signal clicking, as it prepares to turn (which way unspecified); and faded photographs that depict, we will come to learn, incidents and asides from the Philippine-American War (1899-1913). What connects these disparate objects/mo(ve)ments is a shared sense of impermanence—the feeling that everything we’re viewing is fleeting and, likely, soon forgotten.

The three Gianvito films I’ve seen—this, 2007’s Profit motive and the whispering wind, and, my personal choice for best of the ’00s, 2001’s The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein—share a fascination with, and in some way seek to redress the human propensity toward cultural-historical amnesia. I’m sure some would consider this a more recent mindset, one exacerbated by the ever larger and larger number of ADD-distractions that prove detrimental to more reflective and perceptive thought. (This, to me, is its own kind of amnesia: though based, admittedly, more on feeling than fact, I gather we’ve all of us been creating false histories—dicking each other over whether wielding bones or iProducts—since at least the Upper Paleolithic.)

Radical Alternatives: Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

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

Tribeca Film Festival 2008: Profit motive and the whispering wind and Hidden in Plain Sight

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Tribeca Film Festival 2008: <em>Profit motive and the whispering wind</em> and <em>Hidden in Plain Sight</em>
Tribeca Film Festival 2008: <em>Profit motive and the whispering wind</em> and <em>Hidden in Plain Sight</em>

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?