[UPDATE 6.14.05, 8.27 am: edit to correct stupid day/date mistakes.]
Yesterday was an up-and-down day at documentary boot camp — more up than down, though it ended on a stunningly bad note.
Sunday, June 12, 9.00 am
— El abuelo Cheno y otras historias (dir. Juan Carlos Rulfo, 1995, 30 min)
— Salvador Allende (dir. Patricio Guzman, 2004, 100 min)
Sunday, June 12, 2.00 pm
films from “Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan”
— Me and Mr. Marshall (attr. Stuart Schulberg, 1949, 13 min)
— Es Liegt an dir! (It’s Up to You!, dir. Wolgang Kiepenheuer, 1948, 16 min)
— Houen Zo! (Steady as She Goes!, dir Herman van der Horst, 1952, 21 min)
— Nicht storen! Funktionarsversammlung (Do Not Disturb! Meeting in Progress, dir. Hans Herbert, ca. 1950, 16 min)
— Aquila (dir. Jacopo Erbi, ca. 1950, 21 min)
Sunday, June 12, 8.00 pm
— Los Angeles Station (dir. Leandro Katz, 1976, 7.5 min)
— Oh! Uomo (dir. Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, 2004, 71 min)
So, on the up side: The morning’s program was stunning. These two films, particularly in sequence, bring the viewer into a sense of first, the importance of memory in giving life significance, and second, the impossibility of measuring the present against idealized memories of the past. Salvador Allende was particularly stunning, less for its portrait of Allende himself than for Guzman’s sense of alienation and exile, and for the impossibility of confronting the past in a Chile that wants nothing more than to forget.
The Marshall Plan films were, by contrast, more interesting as period pieces than as films; different pieces had different kind of charms, but they were often clunky and obvious. Aquila was pretty hamfisted, and yet bizarrely fascinating: The Bicycle Thief gets a job at a refinery, and everything’s okay!
Leandro Katz, in the evening session, gave a fantastic talk about his installations before showing the brief but haunting Los Angeles Station. This was followed by Oh! Uomo, which was for me the low point of the day. This film is the third in a trilogy of films about World War I, which repurposes footage of refugees and other people damaged by the war. Other critics find the film moving, with a substantive message about the horrors of war; perhaps I’d have come to that conclusion, too, if I’d been able to make it all the way through the film. I was already exhausted and nauseated when it began, though, and when, after 35 minutes of flickery, grainy images of deformed and starving children, and of injured and tormented soldiers, there was suddenly a much too close up image of an eye, clamped open, about to undergo surgery, and then there was a needle — and I could take no more.
I have never before, not once in my entire life, walked out of a film. I’m a little shocked that I walked out of this one. But I could not help but feel brutalized by the images, and more than a little angry about it. I spent my entire walk home, and some time after, trying to piece together a point to all that: it’s got to be something much more significant, something much more complex than “the brutality of war” in order to make me watch. Because if there’s nothing more than that — look at the damage that war can do! Man’s inhumanity to man! — for SEVENTY-ONE minutes, then it seems to me that these lingering images of malnourished and broken babies become about nothing more than shock value, a gratuitous, exploitative means of getting the viewer’s attention. And where’s the difference between that and Faces of Death?
I’m headed back this morning, though I’m dragging my feet a bit — last night left a very bad taste in my mouth.