Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: William Cheney

There’s a side to neo-benshi that involves “hijacking Hollywood”—taking back the movies from the fell networks of production and distribution that deliver these knots of congealed capital in quarterly profusion to our screens. Kaia Sand’s performance took a different approach, using the amateur footage of William Cheney, a mid-century Oregon machinist, to explore the dialectical push/pull between the local and the global, the node and the network, the irreducible strangeness of the past and the present-day stencils of meaning that tidy it into history.

Sand structured the piece around the conventions of the newsreel—“Greetings from this hot future, we are broadcasting empire waste”—and imagery from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with its atmosphere of impending disaster, ecological guilt (“we shot the albatross”), and water, a vanishing resource that threaded through nearly all of Cheney’s clips. From the opening shot of a fountain, to a boat pushing through the coastal waves, to ‘40s vacationers on beaches, to tribal dipnet fishing at Celilo Falls—and the federal dams they were flooded to make way for—Sand’s montage stressed Oregon’s unique relationship to water, a source of the region’s economy for centuries.

Water has a number of contradictory meanings for the Northwest. A producer of smelt and salmon, it also connects the area to the wider channels of global trade that threaten to destroy any local abundance, part of the larger irony of a world economic system in which “Haitians are importing sugar,” a resource that “once grew nearby.” In the face of global warming, water is also a double threat to the future: first floods as the ice caps melt (“cities flooded, cars rusted low”), then its elemental opposite, fire. (“2050 how hot will it get?” Sand asked against Cheney’s images of a building in flames.) “What we touch,” she read at one point, “touches us,” and her piece turned Cheney’s footage into documentary of a reach that extends past any innocence.

What I admired most in Sand’s performance was the way it challenged our own complicity as passive viewers of a process that also implicates us. The scratchy, old-timey, home movie quality of Cheney’s films invites a certain presumption of quaintness—the same kind of “never such innocence again” feeling you get when looking at your grandparents’ photo albums, or watching wartime newsreels knowing the Allies won. Sand’s script resisted that easy distancing, exhorting us to connect to the figures on the screen not as audience but heirs, “born breach in this hot future,” subject to the same complex ecology of capital and memory as the down-home folk in the film. “Who will live our own tale?” she asked. “Are we viewing the past or the future?” “To recall or forecast …?” In Sand’s narration, the past became a sort of Petri dish for examining the historical process that’s growing our future, the local a sharp diagnostic of the hot world to come.

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