Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 11, 2013 1:58 pm 
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A busy Chinese park, all on a summer's day, filmed by ethonographers as a single tracking shot

People's Park is another product of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and Harvard Film Study Center, which produced Sweetgrass (NYFF 2009), made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who directs the lab, with Ilisa Barbash, and the recently much admired Leviatan (NYFF 2012; in limited US theatrical release from Mar. 1, 2013), which Castaing-Taylor produced with Vérena Paravell using tiny digital video cameras affixed to fishermen's helmets and planted under water on a Massachusetts fishing vessel. Another film out of Harvard's documentary ethonography factory was Véréna Paravel’s and J. P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts (ND/NF 2010), a people-centered depiction of the endangered junkyard neighborhood in Willets Point, Queens known as "The Iron Triangle." Now Sniadecki has teamed wiith Libbie D. Cohn for another kind of documentary portrait, composed like Sokurov's Russian Ark in the form of one long tracking shot, but focused not on fine art but everyday performance -- and, alas, hopelessly boring and flat. If a great crowd of uninteresting and unattractive Chinese people wandering around aimlessly, singing, dancing, sitting, or dozing for hour after hour interests you, this is the film for you. On the plus side, the park is larger and more beautiful than you might have expected, well maintained and beautifully landscaped, the steady-cam tracking is smooth -- and as seems usual with such camerawork curiously soothing and hypnotic. The massive collective sound of the crowd seems exaggeratedly loud, and become part of the exhaustion that eventually sets in when you've watched the same sights for half an hour, then an hour, then longer still. One thing you can say: this saves you from having to go there.

The filmmakers worked on July 30, 2011, a humid Saturday afternoon in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. In a public space the many inhabitants gather for shared performances. Dances, amateur in nature, begin and end the sequence, and in between there are a few other not very impressive kinds of showing off. These include Karaoke songs, band performances, and water calligraphy on the dusty pavement (it immediately evaporates). The cameras thread also through sycamore trees past old folks dozing on benches; families chowing down in open restaurants with noisy metal chopsticks, people playing Mahjong or Go. Sometimes the people smile mildly right into the camera, making this version of the Harvard ethnographic documentary approach mildly confrontational as well as, in a limited sense, immersive. Images are accompanied with a typically busy on-scene sound track; Sweetgrass and Leviathan and Foreign Parts had their own sui generis noises, and the whole effect would be very different without the sound..

A note in one review by Daniel Pratt for Exclaim!explains that to shoot this film Cohn sat in a wheelchair holding the camera while Sniadecki pushed her around the park. The reviewer claims that the result is annoyingly jerky and some of the shots are invasive, "ranging from an elderly woman picking her pants out of her butt crack to numerous pairs of people that are quite obviously having private conversations." He exaggerates. It is hard to claim that in a place as public as this looking at anyone with a camera is invasive, and the camera movement is smooth, not jerky. Pratt also writes, "Many of the subjects openly wave and give a peace sign, while a dance party of sorts featuring Roger Meno's "I Find The Way" finds participants openly interacting with the camera." The V signs like the adjusted garment are only the briefest of moments in hundreds. What is most striking is how little all these people react to the camera, even though there are not a whole lot of other cameras in evidence. The Chinese crowd seem vaguely friendly, mostly just passive.

I confess to a certain ambivalence about all these Harvard ethnography films, wondering if what they offer, finally, given these examples, represents anything so different from lots of previous documentry films. Some of their caché may come more from the Harvard imprimatur and the theoretical context more than the material itself, as film, despite the unique sites involved in each case. In this instance, Jorge Mourinha of The Flickering Wall, reviewing the film as part of Doc Lisbon, commented that the camera's invasiveness this time (this in a sense true also of Leviathan) makes it chiefly self-referential: the camera's "sheer unusual presence unable to render it invisible and suggesting a reverse voyeurism that simultaneously underlines and undermines the technical prowess." There you have some more analysis to ponder. But it's not like cameras have not wondered among crowds (I longed for the rich faces in Eisenstein's films) ever since there have been cameras that could wander. Note: all the Harvard films are described in a collective article I've cited before, "The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers’ Messy World in the NY Times of August 31, 2012.

People's Park, 78 mins., debuted with Foreign Parts at Locarno August 2012, where they co-won the "Opera Prima" awad. It was also shown at Mar del Plata. Screened for this review as part of the joint MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films, which ran March 20-31, 2013.

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