Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Of Cemeteries, Gravestones & Markers: FOREVER and PROFIT MOTIVE/WIND


Two unusual films that deal with the dead (and by extension, of course, us living) recently made their DVDebuts: PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND by John Gianvito and Heddy Honigmann's FOREVER. The former travels throughout these United States, moving in a kind of timeline of dates from, it often seems, east to

west, coming upon gravestones and markers that reflect America's progressive movement -- its signature events and people -- throughout our history. Gianvito was inspired, the end credits tell us, by Howard Zinn's popular and necessary A People's History of the United States. This is a book I know and love. In fact, I think it should be mandatory reading for all U.S. high school students -- not by itself, mind you, but in tandem with whatever other history of the US the instructor is using. This kind of "doubling" would provoke healthy argument and discussion about how and why we live the way we do and how we got here, while offering students the opportunity to learn something other than the pre-digested pablum, via which our history has often been taught.

Gianvito's movie, I think, will not produced anything close to this. More likely fidgeting, and then snores. For all its remembrances of people and events, it's a static experience, made up alternately of shots of the gravestones/markers (from afar and in close-up) and foliage often rustling via that whispering wind of the title. There is no narration, simply visuals and a quiet soundtrack. The photography is certainly good and the ambient sound -- wind, occasional traffic -- appropriate. If you are familiar with most of the characters and/or events, the film adds nothing to your knowledge except a look at the actual gravestone or marker. If you arrive at the film with no prior knowledge -- unless you're taking careful notes of names, dates and places so as to do further research -- good luck. In any case, this is definitely an instance of preaching to the already converted. There's a snippet sung of the ballad Joe Hill, and a couple of bits of needless and jarring animation, perhaps to underscore the profit motive theme. The best thing in the film it its opening quotation, attributed to Claire Spark Loeb: "The long memory is the most radical idea in America." Now, there's a truth to chew on -- and change.

With Heddy Honigmann's Forever, we're in but a single cemetery, perhaps the most famous in the world: Père Lachaise, the largest burial ground in all of Paris. The famous are laid to rest here, from Chopin to Jim Morrison, but Ms. Honigmann is more interested in the relatively anonymous living who come to visit, view, and pay their respects. Her interviews with these visitors -- who have quite varied reasons for being here -- are conducted with courtesy and genuine interest and consequently provide much food for thought, as well as the occasional moving moment. I suspect the director had many more interviews which she could have shared; it must have been difficult to choose among them.

The cinematography by Robert Alazraki is crisp and clean, bright and dark, as needed -- adding consistent pleasure to Honigmann's exploration of time, death and the finiteness of our lives. Considering the place and the subject, Forever manages to be buoyant and graceful rather than sad and depressing. Upon its conclusion, you may well feel you've taken a necessary and surprisingly restful vacation. In fact, the movie cleverly contains within it some of the ideas and themes of that special book -- by Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy -- that you've always meant to bring along on your vacation but so far probably have not.

(The shots of Père Lachaise are courtesy of Wikipedia --
because I could find none from the movie itself.)

2 comments:

Headstones said...

There are some really nice images of the headstones, what graveyard is this.

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Headstones--
The final two images are from the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France. The earlier one (featuring the man's face and upper torso) is from PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND, which features so very many different images that I can no longer remember which is which. If you rent that film, however, you'll certainly get to see your fill of headstones, memorials and markers!