Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Michael Sicinski
Ben Russell’s newest film, Let Each One Go Where He May, is the culmination not only of certain aims and tendencies within the filmmaker’s own impressive body of work. It actually represents the culmination of a particular tendency—or energy—that has been at work for a long time within experimental cinema, but has never been its main thrust and has often been misunderstood. A personal film, a documentary, an ethnography, and a piece of international art cinema, Let Each One Go Where He May is a film that, if we follow it on its path, will take us somewhere far from where we began. In its most basic terms, Let Each One consists of 13 unbroken ten-minute takes, ten of which Russell and cinematographer Chris Fawcett conducted in 16mm with a Steadicam rig. The other three are stationary. The film takes place in Suriname, centring on two Saramaccaner Maroon brothers, Monie and Benjen Pansa, as they journey from the outskirts of Paramarimbo along a path their ancestors blazed 300 years ago while fleeing their Dutch slavemasters. The film’s title comes from an episode in Surinamese oral history in which the Gods arrive to release the slaves. Russell’s adoption of this injunction as the film’s title, while utterly natural and charged with a politicized poetry, becomes less and less obvious the more time one spends in the film’s company.
The first shot shows a small clearing by the river, with piles of underbrush. This organization of the fore- and middleground, together with the expanse of trees lining the far bank, provide an almost bowl-shaped mise en scène. Russell has always shown an uncanny knack for carving sculptural compositions out of the natural environment, and the beginning of Let Each One, while somewhat more frontal and flattened than other of his frames (as compared, for instance, to the multi-planar recesses of Workers Leaving the Factory (Dubai) , which borrows the Lumières’ play along the orthogonals), is no exception. So we soon see Monie Pansa enter the frame with a jug of lighter fluid or gasoline, and a burning implement of some kind. He sets about lighting the piles of brush, moving around them and managing the flames. Monie exits the frame and is soon replaced by a shirtless Benjen. For the full seven minutes of this activity, the camera hasn’t moved from its static position. Then, suddenly, the young man moves toward the frame, and the camera picks up and moves along with him. Russell’s Steadicam odyssey has begun.
Several things happen at this moment, and they have almost endless ramifications. For one, Russell has pulled a bait-and-switch. One of the dominant modes of address within both contemporary experimental film and festival cinema (both narrative and documentary) is the use of the fixed frame, a sort of mainstreamed inheritance from structural film and certain strains of new wave cinema in the ‘60s. In a way, for an audience inured to this trope, Russell’s maneuver is genuinely surprising. But perhaps more importantly, this “move” implies Pansa’s freedom of mobility, his ability to wield some degree of control over what film theorists used to call the “point of enunciation” (that is, the camera, where it looked, and who made that choice—who really “called the shots” in diegetically organized feature films). The fixed frame can draw attention to the partial knowledge that the camera can only ever provide over the profilmic event (i.e., the thing filmed), but it can also trap the subject like a mounted insect, unforgivingly pinning him to the screen, no less subjected to the gaze for that gaze’s ostensible self-revelation. By contrast, Let Each One uses the mobile Steadicam to bend itself to Pansa’s initiative. And this formalist act seems all the more radical, and emotionally potent, when placed in the context of the Surinamese Maroons’ struggles under Dutch colonialism. For these men, the descendants of escaped slaves, the movement of Russell’s travelling camera means something historically specific.
These are not the follow-shots of Béla Tarr or Gus Van Sant, but neither are they entirely removed from those recent late-modernist maneuvers. Russell asks us to think again, to entertain a series of enfolded ironies that complicate the relationships between the film, its maker, and its subjects. Are Russell’s subjects, the Pansa brothers (or for that matter, the others they encounter along the way) truly free to “go where they may?” The matter is intensely convoluted. For one thing, since the brothers are following a route predetermined in conjunction with Russell, no one associated with the film is, strictly speaking, free to go where they like. They are following an itinerary of sorts, a path marked out by the vicissitudes of colonial history. But perhaps just as significantly, Let Each One’s complicated Steadicam choreography, which entails following the brothers, either alone or together, on a bus trip, through several work sites, down a bustling city street, and eventually alongside them as they row down the Upper Suriname River, gestures toward a highly illusory form of peripatetic liberty.
The immediate sensation while watching Russell’s film is one of spectatorial freedom, a sense of unbounded limits, the Bazinian promise of the unbroken take bursting with a reality that has been subject to only the most minimal intervention. But as we watch more closely, artifice abounds. In the second shot, the camera follows the two brothers from behind, then, after about two minutes, switches to a lateral tracking shot, moving alongside the men on their right. Shortly thereafter, the camera crosses in front of them, moving backwards as they walk towards it in a two-shot, Benjen on the left just slightly behind Monie on the right. During the next two-and-a half-minutes, this position continues, with Benjen (in the red T-shirt) periodically bobbing out of the frame. By the 4:45 mark, we’re behind them again, following them on a path with greater or lesser proximity, their figures either dominating or receding from the heart of the frame. By the final minute, when the men have arrived at a wide clearing, the camera again sidles up on the right, its choreography becoming more and more unpredictable as Monie and Benjen’s heads take turns eclipsing one another in the frame. The camera oscillates on 45° of gliding room; it becomes next to impossible to ignore the unique properties of Russell’s extended follow-shot.
Throughout Let Each One, Russell and his performers (including the camera itself—Fawcett’s work is some of the most graceful, athletic operation since Tilman Büttner’s in Russian Ark ) continually mine these paradoxes, between unobtrusive observation and clear choreography, between freedom and determination. And, when examined once more within a socio-cultural framework, Russell’s procedures take on an even more nuanced rhetorical character. For it’s one thing to note that “certain types of avant-garde films” plunk the camera down and let ‘er rip. It’s another matter altogether to suggest that, in purely formal terms, Russell’s mode of determined mobility with the Pansa brothers complicates our notions of realism, particularly in the realm of the so-called ethnographic. But when we watch each of the 13 shots in Let Each One, there is a common denominator that joins nearly all of them. That is labour.
We see the clearing of brush, the chopping down of trees (one segment that recalls La libertad —a bit more of Russell and Lisandro Alonso later), panning for gold, working pumps and barrows at an illegal mining operation, and most notably, in the third and fourth shots, the brothers riding the bus into the city and one of them catching a ride with a work van (probably to go work the sluice). All of this mobility, it seems, to me, has to be retroactively read back into Russell’s opening shot. This “immobile” slice of ethnography—the Maroons working in the grasses, presumably near their home—plays not only on certain film-festival expectations of form, but of our ingrained expectations of ethnography, and the individual working “locally” in the developing world: what used to be called “the primitive.” This Western fiction of the natural man is a story of a person who remains intimately rooted to his or her land, and in this regard the fixed frame is most likely the form most adequate to its depiction. When Russell and the Pansas are on the move, they point to an entirely different truth, that of globalization and transnational capital. The Pansas do not “go where they may,” but they circulate.
Nowhere does Russell make these issues of labour and mobility so radically clear as in Let Each One’s jarring penultimate shot. In it, we see Benjen (who we just saw clearing forest two shots earlier) engage in a very different type of work. He emerges from a village home with a clown mask on, and is followed by several others, also wearing masks. The camera follows them around several other buildings in the cluster, until we arrive at the central meeting place/performance space of the village. At this point, the young man joins the central group in performing a carnivalesque ritual, while others around him, also masked, dance, convulse, simulate copulation with a strap-on dildo, while drum rhythms pound faster and faster. After some dancing, Benjen leaves the performance area, walks to a bench beside a house and takes a rest (head down, not unlike what one would witness in the break-room at Disneyland), then rejoins the fray. Onlookers snap photos from the edges of the spectacle. The performance is one designed, in part, to record and preserve a part of traditional Saramaccan culture. The audience members are friends and family, all playing a role in the documentation, as is Russell himself. So we are not witnessing as example of “ethnographic film,” captured on the fly. It is auto-ethnography, the deliberate inscription of Maroon cultural history. But like any cultural production, it is also effort. Russell and Pansa make the point through timing and comportment alone: “tradition” and “ritual” are now jobs like any other (aside from the fact that they may be a bit more fun).
The paradox is one of a film form that implies its own adequacy to shifting human realities but is actually demonstrating its inadequacy at every turn. And the exposure of this inadequacy is the deep irony that Russell’s film explores. One good indicator of whether an artwork participates in something we might still call an “avant-garde” is if the artwork exposes the problems of its own basic premises. Does it challenge its own fundamental beliefs? Russell’s film taps into energies that have been at work in experimental cinema but have had a hard time sustaining themselves in the face of mounting unease about “the right to speak.” Maya Deren’s work on voudoun ritual in Haiti is but one touchstone; Russell’s work also directly engages the political poetics of Jean Rouch, who saw ethnography chiefly as a work of collaborative fiction, one that ideally provided the means of visual storytelling and documentation to those typically excluded from Western technologies. (Although the ritual celebration in Let Each One superficially resembles Les maîtres fous , the film as a whole actually has much more in common with Rouch’s Ivory Coast work-journey adventure Jaguar , albeit without the running commentary.)
For some time, the question remained whether ethnographic cinema could ever be formally or politically experimental enough to shed its colonial connotations. While some experimental filmmakers explored this problem (most notably Peter Kubelka and Trinh Minh-ha), in recent years the vast majority of avant-gardists have avoided these issues by foregoing ethnographic material altogether, preferring to direct the gaze elsewhere. One recent exception was the late Mark LaPore, whose work plunged head-on into the dangerous waters of the ethnographic encounter, precisely in order to generate productive discomforts of a formal, political, and emotional variety. His films made while travelling in the developing world, with their long takes and penetrating stares, were sometimes mistaken for brute exercises of the Western gaze. In fact, LaPore’s films convey a look always reflected back onto the man behind the camera, a man whose existential doubts about his practice led to more and more such encounters, an impulse toward a self-shattering erasure of the privilege and safety of the gaze. For a newer generation of ecumenical experimentalists, LaPore’s willingness to place his own cinematic procedure under the microscope has been a bracing ethical charge, and we can see traces of LaPore’s curiosity and danger in Russell’s work.
Russell’s Suriname project represents the clearest break from old codes of ethnographic distance, on the one hand, and puritanical avoidance of the conundrum, on the other, that we have yet seen from the North American avant-garde. Let Each One should, of course, be seen in the context of Russell’s other mature work, most notably his six-part Trypps series, which like Let Each One is engaged with the phenomenology of ritual and ecstasy, the tipping point between rationalism and rapture. (For the most sustained and insightful treatment of the Trypps films, see Chris Stults’ upcoming catalog essay for the 2009 Viennale.) Russell’s engagement with Saramaccan culture began back in 2000, with his short film Daumé, a deeply ambiguous ethno-pantomine also starring Benjen Pansa behind a clown mask. But the triptych Russell has completed in Suriname over the past two years is a unit unto itself, despite direct dovetailing with Russell’s other series. Trypps #6 (Malobi) (2009) is a stand-alone film, as well as being the (current) conclusion of the Trypps cycle. Its 12 minutes are the penultimate performance shot of Let Each One, but not exactly: #6 begins with an end flare and Russell’s clapboard, instructing Benjen on his cue, while the actor smiles. The short film ends just a second after the feature’s shot, with the sound of a gunshot and the circular form of a hole-punch in the celluloid. On its own, Trypps #6 makes the purely performative/reenacted character of the Maroon ritual completely obvious, almost to the point of creating a diegetic fiction. In this regard, Trypps #6 points to the art-cinema strain that thrums within Let Each One, the force Russell’s project shares most closely with that of Alonso’s, whose anthropological features employ only the barest elements of narrative, ones based almost entirely on the daily rituals of his featured subjects. Alonso and Russell both press hard against the boundaries between narrative and ethnographic filmmaking—Russell a bit closer to ethnography, Alonso to narrative—but both men are roughly equidistant to complete hybridity.
The other film in Russell’s 2008-09 triad is his medium-length documentary from last year, Tjúba Tén / The Wet Season, co-directed with Brigid McCaffrey, who also served as sound recordist on Let Each One (and by extension, Trypps #6), and who thus is an integral participant in the aesthetic shaping of this segment of Russell’s work. Tjúba Tén is, on the surface, more in keeping with traditional documentary style in that its stylistic means are more varied than the single-minded formal approach of Let Each One. There are similar subjects, shots and set-ups; the Pansas also appear in the earlier film. But Tjúba Tén makes more deliberate, contrapuntal use of audio than Let Each One, frequently employing audio recordings played against black screens, then followed by related images. Tjúba Tén also partakes of the documentary mode more readily in that it includes interviews, but again, the interview footage (presented in audio only) serves to offset or problematize the documentary reliability of the filmic materials as assembled. In one example, Russell is heard speaking with a female farmer. She not only “sets up the clip” we are about to see of her and her fellow labourers as they meticulously sow the fields. She explains to “Ben” that she is going to work hard exactly like her Maroon ancestors. She has no physical record of their labour, she notes, but aims to generate one for subsequent generations. We then see the action take place in a single static unbroken shot, the “artless” guarantee of ethnographic authenticity under some interpretive regimes, the mark of high modernist formalism under others.
Tjúba Tén is filled with such complex reflexive moments, wherein the Surinamese subjects explicitly take control of the action and work in collaboration with “Ben” (who is frequently addressed and heard speaking on the soundtrack in Saramaccan). Although several passages are clearly recorded spontaneously, even those elements are placed back inside an overall mood of textual uncertainty and, most importantly, a dominant ethic of Saramaccan auto-ethnography. Russell and McCaffrey’s film maintains an open structure because it is a collaborative effort whereby its “subjects” become subjects in the active sense, not in the all-too-familiar subjectification mode of traditional anthropology. Tjúba Tén ends up sharing a certain formal rigour with Trinh’s early films that, in her words, do not so much “speak about” as “speak nearby.”
So, in a sense, the internal contradictions that define Let Each One—its employment of “realist” technique, its elaborate directedness in some respects, its representation of a community, its abjuring ethnographic truth in favour of a phenomenology of performance—are operating again, on the macro-level, in the relationships between these three parts of Russell’s Suriname project. Let Each One may be the culmination, for many reasons, not least of which is its gobsmacking formal majesty. But more significantly, Russell’s feature expands the specific problems of Maroon self-representation, and their necessary collaboration within it, to encompass concerns exigent to the experiential facts of being a 21st century body, of movement and adaptability, of self-presentation and dissimulation, of labour and the space that defines it. Let Each One is more broadly humanist because it achieves the general from inside the specific.
However, seeing that “humanistic” goal as the ne plus ultra of cinematic achievement is a Western aesthetic bias of the highest order. And so again, Russell’s project sets the contradictions in motion, because in an equally real sense, Let Each One is incomplete without Tjúba Tén’s more methodical, even didactic explication of intent and Trypps #6’s real-time evocation of the ambivalent status of the performing body. Russell, a researcher, curator, and performer as well as a filmmaker, has done something nearly maddening: he’s made a masterpiece that refuses to just be one. Instead, like someone who understands the live vicissitudes of the stage or the necessity to tweak one film by placing it against another, Russell won’t leave well enough alone, dodging all possible avenues toward that hermetic, self-sufficient perfection which is the tendency of masterpieces. Instead, Russell has initiated a project that taps into the tremulous, potentially self-consuming energy that characterizes a truly open art. With the help of his collaborators, he is going his own way.