Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Boy, do we need it now! Travis Wilkerson's AN INJURY TO ONE finally comes to DVD

With unions in such decline/eclipse/
disarray/do they even still exist?, how wonderful to have AN INJURY TO ONE, that fine, 53-minute documentary from Travis Wilkerson, finally available on DVD -- and in a form that the general public, should it be at all interested, can finally sample. Available now from Icarus Films for sale at the relatively reasonable price of $25 (up until now, it had been available only to institutions at a price of nearly $400), Icarus has remastered the film for its new DVD release. Neither Netflix nor Blockbuster appears to have ordered the movie (no surprise: it's very progressive), so rental would seem to be off the menu. Maybe some enterprising company will work out a streaming option.

What Mr Wilkerson, pictured at right, has done in his 2002 film is give us, beginning with the late 1800s, a real history of Montana (with the emphasis on the town of Butte), copper mining, the Anaconda company (was ever a firm better-named?) and the union that sprang up and grew to something wonderful, until.... When I call this real history, I mean that it is told us via the viewpoint of the losers: what happened to them and why.

The film begins with this preamble: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people, and the few who make up the employing class enjoy all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system and live in harmony with the earth." Ah, yes: Good luck -- as much now, as back in the times that the film so well presents.

This filmmaker is given to the heavy use of intertitles (printed text edited into the midst of the action), excellent archival footage, present-day photos, traditional songs of the miners, along with a notable and fast-paced narration to tell his story -- and a sad and horrible one it is. We learn of the oppressed miners under the foot of Anaconda, the union they organize, the nasty fight the mining company engages in, and the mythic labor organizer Frank Little (below) who comes to town to organize and reanimate the miners. What happens is all too typical of wars waged by the upper class against the lower -- and it is for this reason that the film resonates so strongly today, nearly a decade after it was made and almost a century after the events it depicts.

Wilkerson has been called (by Film Comment) the anti-Ken Burns, and it's easy to understand why. He packs in immense amounts of information -- so much that you may want to watch the film again, immediately after you've seen it -- in such a short time that it can leave you reeling. Even so, I question his use of those intertitles, at least in the manner that he has chosen to do it. That preamble mentioned above seems to go on and on because Wilkerson likes to show just a word or two or three in a single frame.  Does he imagine that we will retain the message better than we would if he handed us, say, half a sentence at a time?  I don't think we do, and so this becomes some kind of unnecessary "artiness."

Otherwise, the film is exemplary in the way it weaves everything from Anaconda copper and World War One to  Dashiel Hammet's Pinkerton experience, Lillian Hellman and the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s (what we learn here about Joe McCarthy should surprise some people: shades of Ronald Reagan's early "liberal" days!) to the environmental disaster that the town of Butte and its surroundings have today become.

Only at its conclusion does Wilkerson push unduly. As the person responsible for the direction, script, photography (not the archival, obviously), editing, sound and even the narration, we certainly owe him a huge debt of gratitude, but I could have done without the sentence about "the geese trying to tell us something, directing us to the scene of the crime." We don't need that bit of silliness (or if we do, let me introduce you to Werner Herzog's albino alligators). No: this dark history has already spoken -- sadly, savagely, brilliantly -- for itself.

An Injury to One "streets" today, Tuesday, October 25. Progressives, documentary lovers, and fans of accessible experimental film should not miss it.

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