Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 19, 2020 7:04 pm 
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In a pig's eye

What is the average lifespan of a pig? Well, that's just one of the many questions that Gunda, a non-fiction film focused on a large sow that's just given birth, will not answer for you. I confess myself resistant sometimes to the purely observational approach to documentaries, in dealing with subject matter where I'm ignorant of and could use some instruction. I am not a barnyard person. One of my thoughts while watching Gunda was though we get to hear the (enhanced) sounds, we don't have to smell the smells. I was grateful documentary Smell-o-Vision has not come, however John Waters might delight in the thought.

There is evidently a runt of the litter - isn't there always? But while the camera seemed to follow this less energetic, more tentative piglet, it was never clear what was going to happen to it, if the eponymous large sow would be helping it, or just testing it. Earlier on, she appeared to sit on a weakling. Here an explanation would have been welcome.

Of course, if there were explanations, this would not be the festival-ready art film it is, with its brilliant, contrasty black and white images, and its impressively austere aesthetic, it's willingness to take long pauses, when we're waiting for the piglets to come out of the hutch occupied by their mom, or for the free range chickens in another location edited in between the pig sequences, whose movements onto grassy surfaces are a marvel of tentativeness. For a bit, the film seems to have become a highly specialized closeup portrait of how chickens plant their - what do you call them? paws, claws, feet on the ground. And then comes the promised sight of the one-legged chicken. Yes, and a fascinating show of coping under adversity it is. And then the camera, as restless as the growing piglets, who grow jumpier and pushier in each successive sequence, moves on. What is the fate of the one-legged chicken? Did it live happily ever after? Another unanswered question.

But this illustrates that this film - which also cheats in shooting not just on Gunda's farm in Norway, but as well on ones in Spain and Britain, and making them blend together - isn't simply observational, like, for example one of my longtime favorites and models of such filmmaking, Philibert's To Be and to Have. Because Kossakovsky, known for the "visionary" quality of his films, and their "simplicity," has chosen dramatic moments - a very large sow with a new brood; a chicken with one leg. Because observing these farm animals in their ordinary daily rounds would be pretty unexciting, unless presented in an informational documentary, filmed over a long period, with narration based on lengthy informed observation and expertise. Some things don't necessarily cry out to be made into an art film.

Nonetheless for many viewers no doubt Gunda does perform an important function. It takes you into an at least apparently unmediated view of the world of pigs and chicks, and cattle too (they like to stare at you, and use each other's tails as fly-whisks, while pigs get away from bugs by wallowing in mud). Away from the music and the narration, viewers may look harder, feel closer, and learn to form their own opinions. They will be uninformed opinions, but they won't be crafted by artificial anthropomorphic storylines. Of course we are grateful for a film that's so keenly observed and beautiful, and for the lack of a narration that might have been tasteless or corny. And needless to say, I was glad to have no dialogue after the tedious yaffest that was Crisi Puiu's Malmkrog, seen and reviewed here last night.

No dialogue is necessary for the stunning finale, when Gunda suddenly has her whole brood taken away, and the last ten minutes are her looking for them, and I guess going through the first stage of Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief. Executive-produced by now famous vegan Joaquin Phoenix, this brilliantly made film is a strong statement of the stark inequality of the place of humans in the natural world.

Gunda,93 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2020, released theatrically in Norway Aug. 2020, and was part of the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival (Sept. 17-Oct. 11, showing Sept. 19, screened virtually as part of the NYFF for this review. A Neon release. Slated for Crested Butte and Hamptons showings in October. Metascore 88.

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