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The Filmmaker's Problem

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POVERTIES

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Laurie Dunphy

Years ago, when some friends and I were running a university film society, we had an office where we looked at the films we were about to show and at the films other area film societies were showing. The building janitor sometimes used the office to sleep, and he also watched films with us, sitting patiently through obscure Hollywood B pictures, poorly subtitled Japanese films of the 1940s, and lengthy, out-of-focus experimental films. But when we screened a print of Jean-Luc Godard's Wind From the East, a work that reflected Godard's deepening involvement with leftist politics, the janitor muttered something in disgust after only a few minutes and walked out.

We all found it amusing that our acquaintance, by now presumably a relatively sophisticated and patient film viewer, reacted with such antipathy to the first film he saw that was supposedly made in sympathy with his life. But Wind From the East is also a difficult formalist work, illustrating the problem that certain leftist filmmakers have faced at least since the time of the great Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov in the 1920s. The kinds of subtle, analytical, self-critical films that such artists produce find little sympathy from members of any social strata, including most film buffs. The price the filmmaker pays for refusing to replicate the propagandistic, assaultive, one-directional products of the mass media is a limited audience and scant recognition. But the best of such works, faithful to the difficult and uncertain paths by which one attempts to seek the truth, also sensitize the viewer to the perceptual and intellectual biases we have when we look at anyone other than ourselves. Such a film is Chicagoan Laurie Dunphy's Poverties, which will be screened with three of her earlier films this Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers.

Much of Poverties was filmed in the area of the Maxwell Street market. We see local residents, some homeless; junkyards and empty lots; the facade of a bar. Footage from a medical training film and images from an exercise video, filmed off TV, are intercut. The sound track is a similarly dense collage of music fragments and spoken texts from various sources. The film is divided into seven numbered and titled sections.

On a first viewing the fifth section most caught my attention--perhaps because it's one of the least collagelike, consisting mostly of similar images. We see local residents and a few cars moving about junk-strewn vacant lots from a variety of overhead angles. Time-lapse photography is used to greatly speed up their movements, and the exercise-video music on the sound track synchronizes disturbingly well with the people's motions. This effect, often seen in student films, is generally used for an easy laugh: you can make anyone look silly by filming him in time-lapse, and the choice of exercise music only added to my fear that the filmmaker, so obviously sympathetic to the subjects in much of the film, was letting more than a little smug superiority show through here.

It was only on subsequent viewings, in the context of the whole film, that I understood this section to be a critique of the very attitudes I feared it was evidencing. It took repeated viewings to see how much the film depends on the viewer to make connections, not only between intercut images and sounds but between an image or a cut in one section and a related image much later. (If more than a few viewers request it Saturday night, Poverties will be screened a second time.)

Dunphy cites as a major influence a film I consider one of the most important works of world cinema, the 12-minute 1966 Unsere Afrikareise ("Our Trip to Africa"), by Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka. Originally commissioned as a documentary of a tour taken by some wealthy Europeans, after five years in Kubelka's editing room it became a nonnarrative work with a rich, dense interplay of images and sounds. The sound of a gunshot is synced with a man's hat being blown off; the gentle motions of a woman's head are matched, in a cut, to the movements of an animal being skinned. Kubelka has constructed his film so that every sound and image has a potential relationship to every other, and out of these multiple relationships, which he calls "articulations," he creates a gigantic interconnected grid in the viewer's mind.

If Kubelka seems at times critical of his tourist subjects, as a whole his film has so many meanings it's impossible to derive from it a single attitude or sympathy. It is rather a kind of monument to what is. Dunphy has none of Kubelka's self-assured declarativeness. Always questing, her film is constructed not with the architectural certainty of a Kubelka film but as a subtle, demanding, often shifting brew of emotions and ideas.

Central to Poverties is Dunphy's continual questioning of her own perspective within the film. In a variety of ways, some too subtle to notice at first, she shows she understands that her point of view--the camera angles, editing, and sound choices she's made--is not the truth, is not necessarily any better than any other. She films the Maxwell Street area often from an upper-floor window, but what at first seems a camera angle that might be criticized as picturesque and distanced from the action soon comes to seem the filmmaker's conscious declaration of her inevitable separateness from people very different from her. The frequent intercutting of eye-level and overhead shots makes clear that she is not content with the separation, would like to get as close to the people as she can, but recognizes that some separateness will remain. Similarly, views of the neighborhood from a slowly moving car impose an odd smoothness on a chaotic, junk-filled terrain whose almost random irregularity--fences, empty lots, plants, rubbish--seems contradicted by the auto view. The car's movements, like the window view, are themselves regularizing bourgeois constructs that seem to render the world safe and sanitized; here the filmmaker acknowledges her own middle-class upbringing (and that of her film's likely viewers) and contrasts it with the world her images depict.

So it is as self-criticism that the fifth, pseudo-humorous section is best understood. Dunphy, once a film student herself, is in part commenting on the cliches of student filmmaking, but more significantly on the way such stylistic tics separate the filmmaker and viewer from any real engagement with the subject matter. The sixth section--titled without words but with quotation marks around empty space and a period (" .")--makes this point even clearer. In this section area residents have been given cameras to film each other and their environs. The opening shot shows a woman shooting with a super-8 camera; we then cut to the color images she filmed, a pattern that continues with other residents throughout the section. The sound track is for me the finest of Dunphy's sound collages in Poverties: we hear a wide variety of residents' voices, usually with only fragmentary phrases intelligible--yet Dunphy creates not cacophony but a genuine sense of balance and equality among the speakers. There's a strong contrast between these sounds and the highly regular, almost authoritarian exercise music of the fifth section. This music and various spoken texts that seek to contol the listener--"Make yourself completely relaxed"--have also been heard in earlier sections, which makes the democratic babble in the sixth section stand out all the more strongly.

Poverties in fact begins with references to a quintessentially bourgeois phenomenon, the self-help movement. In the first section, titled "My Problem," the first images we see are of the exercise video; on the sound track a man says, "My problem is that I spend most of my time . . . worrying about other people's problems." The man's tone is almost self-consciously smug: he sounds pleased with himself, more wrapped up in his own "problem" than in the "other people's problems" that he says concern him, anticipating the self-enclosed cuteness of the fifth section.

This self-help material is connected to Dunphy's other major theme: a kind of dialectic throughout the film between control and chaos, or imprisonment and freedom. The TV exercisers of the first section all move in sync with the mindless, repetitive music; the homeless woman who appears soon after moves by contrast with a kind of independent, unpredictable dignity. Dunphy tries to film her in a way that best reveals her nature; we see her in close-up, in medium shot; in front of the outdoor living room she's constructed for herself with car seats and boards. Just as her natural movements contrast with the exercisers' mechanical motions, so the woman's improvised living space contrasts with the stark Loop skyline visible behind: buildings tall, geometric, rigidly ordered. Yet Dunphy never wants us to assume that any of her images is the whole truth; each of her people is always more than what we can see or know. When the woman speaks, we do not hear her voice, both for this reason and because the predominant voices in our culture are more often diet-through-hypnosis tapes than the homeless, who can't find enough to eat. The silence while her lips move, annoying at first, becomes understandable on subsequent viewings, and is redeemed by the sound track of the sixth section.

Perhaps the film's clearest statement of the freedom/imprisonment theme comes in the juxtaposition of the fifth and sixth sections--the street people seen in fast motion, followed by them filming themselves, moving naturally and freely about. By identifying freedom with the movements of the residents in their own spaces and imprisonment with the accoutrements of our "highly developed" culture--exercise music, trick photography--Dunphy gives the homeless a dignity she seems to find lacking in her own world.

The film's two themes are united in its second section. We see images from a medical film--one person bandages another; one drags another by the feet across the floor--that are optically printed so as to reveal the frame line and reposition it, creating an effect similar to a slowly drifting "vertical hold" on TV. Suddenly the film seems to jump out of the gate entirely by moving sideways; then Dunphy cuts to a shot from a moving car in which the sideways motion of the landscape is perfectly matched to the drift of the medical film out of the frame. Several similarly matched cuts between the medical film and landscape shots follow: the image of a person being dragged out of the frame to the right is followed by a landscape shot moving at a similar speed to the right. Here Dunphy links the controlled motions of the medical film, telling one exactly how to move one's body, both to her filmmaking (optical printing is another "trick" effect beloved of some student filmmakers) and to the car-created movements. Few of the Maxwell residents are seen to have cars. Once again, Dunphy sees herself in a position of authority and control with which she's clearly unhappy; much of the film's emotional authenticity stems from her struggle to escape the regimented and machine-made aspects of her culture.

These themes are extended in the film's final section ("A loaded .32"). Another self-help voice on the sound track tries to hypnotize the listener while we see guard dogs staring out at us from behind a padlocked fence. If one looks carefully at these images, one notices that the dogs only rarely look directly into the camera; their eyes shift unpredictably, and their small body movements seem, like the movements of the area's residents, genuinely alive. Dunphy's hand-held camera here reiterates this unpredictability in its small movements, which dynamize the frame; as at some earlier moments, she allows herself a voice, identifying her vision not with the exercise video but with the authenticity of the local people and animals. The contrast between sound and image creates an irony: dogs, supposedly trainable in Pavlovian terms to make the most mechanical of responses, here seem relatively free, while the hypnosis tape aims to lull the listener into a state of mindless paralysis. The point is finally driven home by images of children playing outdoors--several play happily in the dirt, for instance--of the sort that have become icons of freedom.

If I have any reservation about Poverties it is that its many parts, at times brilliantly interconnected, at other times don't fit together perfectly. Dunphy's connections always combine intellectual and emotional components, to me a precondition for a rich and rewarding work, but in some cases the balance seems a little weighted toward the intellectual; the film cannot be said to make perfect music. On the other hand, the kind of searching self-criticism Poverties attempts, in which the filmmaker doesn't pretend to have the answers, perhaps precludes the internally consistent structures of earlier cinema. Dunphy seeks a more open form, one that will move the viewer to reevaluate the biases inherent in the very acts of seeing and listening and thinking.

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