Tuesday 3 November 2020

History repeating itself: "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind"

Further indication of how cherishably eclectic the UK release schedule has become this year, despite the rigours of Covid. John Gianvito's meditative essay film
Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind would have received at best a small handful of screenings at London's ICA when it first passed into circulation back in 2007; since restored, it's now revived this election week by MUBI UK, for streaming wherever you happen to be in the country. Inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, these 58 minutes adhere to a deceptively simple MO. Operating as a one-man crew, Gianvito toured US heritage sites, filming statues, memorials and graves that represent key moments in the country's history - first in long shot, then close-up. This footage was then edited into a chronology, starting with the arrival of the pilgrims and massacre of the natives, then proceeding through reminders of the slave trade, the War of Independence, the Civil War and various labour disputes, before arriving at those who fell in the final years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st. En route, we spot names the cinema has previously been drawn to: the Matewan miners, Sacco and Vanzetti, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, whose modest resting place provides something of a surprise. Occasionally, Gianvito inserts a few ghostly flickers of self-generated animation - images of prospectors in the gold rush, and their latter-day equivalent, daytraders - which gesture towards Zinn's thesis that capitalism, the pursuit of profit, has put a whole lot of bodies in the ground. (Quite the time to be reminded of that.) Yet the focus is on history as experienced in the present tense. Sometimes the memorials Gianvito films are tucked away, as in the abandoned graveyard observed in the opening moments. Sometimes they're in plain sight, at the side of the road, within walking distance of an Exxon garage. What's crucial is what these signs represent. Some are standard tourism-industry you-are-here markers, reminding onlookers that plenty of folk came this way before they even thought of booking that rental car. Yet the more damning ones read, in this context, like admissions of culpability - assertions that, along with the many things it got right, the America of yore got certain things wrong, again and again and again.

Gianvito allows us to weigh these pros and cons for ourselves. The film is composed almost entirely of still, wordless shots - there's no voiceover - taken on quiet afternoons where there's nobody else around, allowing history to speak to and through us much as the wind blows through the surrounding trees. The danger had to have been that the film became dryly academic and/or monotonous. In actual fact, Profit Motive... proves every bit as poetic as its title indicates, and unexpectedly moving with it. Gianvito finds pointed visual contrasts between those graves that remain well-tended (we get cameos from Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman and Emma Goldman, or at least their respective headstones), those left to rot and ruin, and one that was still unmarked in 2007. The point - and here's where Profit Motive... gets actively critical - is that America has let the grass grow over corners of its past, which in turn stops its citizens from seeing where they've come from, and equally obscures the road ahead. Yet there's absolutely nothing hectoring or tubthumping about Gianvito's direction. The film works by a quiet accumulation of years and lives and stories. Long shot, close-up; long shot, close-up. (An analogue, perhaps, for: society, individual; society, individual.) In a work keen to examine every aspect of the phrase "land of the free", you would even be free - and I think some of the closing images make this link explicit - to approach Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind as the experimental cinema's own "We Didn't Start The Fire", only Gianvito wants us to take a responsibility for which Billy Joel never allowed. Extending a similar methodology over an hour allows us room to breathe, and think, and learn - so we don't repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, and likewise end up in the ground before our time.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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