This Land Is Your Land
Midway through John Gianvito's 2001 feature, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, set in 1990-1, a recently returned Gulf War vet drives out into the New Mexico desert with a friend, at first unable to tell her of his experiences in battle. Off the side of the road, he finally details the horrors he saw on the notorious "Highway of Death" running from Kuwait through Iraq, where over a thousand Iraqi vehicles fleeing the retaking of Kuwait City were strafed by coalition air fire, killing an untold number. After he sketches a map on the ground with a stick to show how the attack occurred, and explains the grisly aftermath he witnessed, his companion angrily kicks his sand-drawing apart. "This is horrible," she cries. "Let's just forget it."
Gianvito's most recent work, Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007, screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York August 1-7), replies to this character's desire to scrub out the difficult elements from history—to erase them from the earth, literally. Unlike his previous film, however, Profit motive has neither a narrative nor characters in the usual sense. Rather, the film is structured as a catalog of public monuments dedicated to individuals, both famous and obscure, who opposed the excesses of American power from within: war resisters, rebellious slaves and workers, fighters for religious freedom and civil rights, feminists and abolitionists. Gianvito shot this collection during three years of travel crisscrossing the US; his film reorders them chronologically according to the year of each subject's death. Calmly presented as fixed-frame shots, occasionally punctuated by unrushed moments of multiple-perspective montage, the sequences only rarely feature living human figures, though many of the gravesites include stylized statuary depicting the dead. The overall atmosphere is bucolic: most of the memorials have been placed in green landscapes or small gardens, shaded by foliage and nestled atop manicured grass, while some historical plaques sit awkwardly on exurban highways or in urban downtowns. A handful lie in states of neglect, like a weathered stone block marking the place of death of Wampanoag leader Metacomet (or "King Phillip"), now occluded within the tangled re-encroachments of the forest.
As Gianvito's evidence proceeds, Profit motive builds into a counter-history of America, beginning in the colonial era with a memorial to Anne Hutchinson, a religious dissident in Puritan New England; the last grave is that of Philip Berrigan, a longtime peace and anti-nuclear activist who died in 2002. The roster of names is inspired by A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn's resolute reconsideration of American history from the viewpoint of those outside the ruling class. The film concludes with an earnest but disjunctive coda depicting a contemporary activist march whose circus-like atmosphere contrasts with the quiet dignity and clarified purpose conveyed elsewhere. The sentiment of Profit motive and the whispering wind is late Marxist, arguing for a vision of never-ending struggle shorn of any hope for wholesale redemption. In Gianvito's film (and Zinn's history), the oppressed have always been oppressed; radical leaders and movements have always fought against this subjugation; and the capitalist agents of the profit motive, here depicted in bustling black-and-white animated sequences that interrupt the otherwise quiet flow, have never ceased to press for domination. Though it chronicles numerous battles, protests and revolutions, the film's vision of history is arguably as static as its cinematography.
Yet to reduce the impact of the work to this message would be a distortion. For another, more enigmatic thread runs through Profit motive: that of the land itself, signaled through an opening sequence of geological close-ups, and the "whispering wind" of the second half of its title. The seemingly eternal calm of the natural landscape—frequently depicted on its own, beyond the memorials and gravesites, in fields of swaying grass or wooded groves—contrasts sharply with the violent tales of conflict and misery referenced in text on the markers themselves. While the film asks us to read landmarks, trying to read the land itself is not as simple: this tension comes to the fore in a single shot of an unmarked patch of turf near Philadelphia, which follows an intertitle explaining that this may, perhaps, be the resting place of 19th-century labor leader Uriah Smith Stephens.
The sounds of birds and nearby traffic bleed into many shots, but the most constant sound is that of the wind. Gianvito allows ample time for breezes to rustle through the grass and trees, and sometimes into his microphone, providing bursts of thick, organic noise, calling to mind similarly air-whipped bits of audio brut in Jonas Mekas's likewise melancholy diary films. In interviews, Gianvito has mentioned that the wind and other elements of nature may reflect his own pantheism, and he has cited a quote that D. W. Griffith may have contributed late in life: "What modern movies lack is wind in the trees." In addition to its material effects, wind has long symbolized political change—consider Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" or Scorpions' Cold War metal ballad "Winds of Change." If so, the change depicted here is long and slow, maybe even eternal.
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Whether depicted in lavish CinemaScope or loving small-gauge, cinematic landscapes are rarely neutral: think of the potent import they bear for dusty westerns or jungle-bound war films. But Gianvito's more visionary attempt to ponder the landscape itself, rather than deploy it as mere symbolic background, has its own precedents and parallels. A key ancestor may be signaled by Griffith's quote. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes, Jean-Marie Straub revived this same epigram at a screening of Straub-Huillet's Trop tôt, trop tard (Too Early, Too Late, 1982), a film that allows for its own Marxist interpretation of the land. Trop tôt counterposes long, balletic shots capturing first the French countryside, and later Egypt, with audio recordings of readings from passages by Friedrich Engels and Mahmoud Hussein on the history of class struggle in these nations. As in Profit motive, the viewer must reconcile the violence of the past with the stern beauty of the camerawork and landscape: "The very slow pans," as Rosenbaum further observes, "always move in the same direction as the wind."
In the American avant-garde, James Benning and Peter Hutton have crafted epic 16mm landscape films with varying degrees of overt political significance. Many of Benning's early films, from The United States of America (1975, made with Bette Gordon) through Deseret (1995), conveyed stories of political transformation in the U.S., both past and present, through a juxtaposition of long environmental takes with text or spoken language; more recent works like Los (2004) and RR (2007) include virtually no words beyond incidental signage, sticking instead to ambient sounds, though they remain effective as social portraiture. Hutton's silent At Sea (2007) follows massive cargo ships from their high-tech first-world launch to their low-tech third-world dismantling, providing a panorama of modern global capitalism without need for commentary.
Other filmmakers have eschewed language altogether but added emotive music, as in Deborah Stratman's momentarily guitar-blasted suburban dystopia In Order Not to Be Here (2002) or Travis Wilkerson's National Archives V.1 (2001), which reprints military bomber's-eye footage of air-strikes over an eerily placid Vietnam, set to a mournful slow-twanging composition by Jim O'Rourke. With these works and others, experimental landscape film has become a subgenre of its own in recent years: other notable instances include Jem Cohen's sprawl opera Chain (2004), Thomas Comerford's pinhole-camera essay Figures in the Landscape (2002) and Redmond Entwistle's Paterson-Lodz (2007), which muses on glass sculptures cast from the sites of early-20th-century workers' strikes.
A closer parallel to Profit motive and the whispering wind can be found in the work of Bill Brown, whose career consists of delicately crafted 16mm travelogues shot across North America, set to diaristic musings on how history remains evident—or not—in local architecture and environment. Like Gianvito, Brown is drawn toward the official narratives of plaques and monuments, but views their material link to the past more cautiously, hesitant to grant history any definitive, overarching fable. In The Other Side (2006), a journey across the American-Mexican border, Brown comments on a makeshift roadside memorial, marking an immigrant group's deaths: "The place strikes me as an unlikely spot for a bad thing to have happened. But maybe it's always like that. You go to a place where something awful happened and you just wind up noticing how pretty the trees look in the late afternoon sun."
FURTHER READINGBenjamin Strong's interview with John Gianvito (Fanzine)
Michael Sicinski's interview with John Gianvito (Cinema Scope)
John Gianvito on Straub and Huillet (Undercurrent)
Mark Peranson's interview with James Benning (Cinema Scope)
P. Adams Sitney on Peter Hutton (Artforum)
Ed Halter is an author, critic and curator whose writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Rhizome, The Believer and many other publications. He is former director of the New York Underground Film Festival and a founder of Light Industry, a new venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.More articles by Ed Halter
Author's Website: EdHalter.com