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 Phil Coldiron
“Now I am in front of a rock. It splits. No, it is no longer split. It is as before. Again it is split in two. No, it is not split at all. It splits once more. Once more no longer split, and this goes on indefinitely. Rock intact, then split, then rock intact, then split, then rock intact, then split, then rock intact…”—Henri Michaux
“Forms, ideas, and sensations intertwine as though they were a single, dizzyingly proliferating entity.” These words on Henri Michaux, from Octavio Paz’s introduction to Miserable Miracle, the “exploration” of mescaline from which Ben Russell has borrowed the above as the epigraph to his mining film Good Luck, might well have been written about the body of work Russell has produced over the last two decades. Across more than 20 short films and a trio of features (one co-directed with Ben Rivers), and through a wide range of formal means, Russell has charted the possibilities for film found beyond conventional understandings of both subject and subjectivity. This is, I imagine, what the curator Chris Stults was getting at in his essay on Russell’s Trypps series for the 2009 Viennale catalogue, when he wrote that these films “might represent one of the most significant achievements of philosophy about and through film via the American avant-garde since the passing of Hollis Frampton.” Like Frampton, Russell has elaborated a conception of film that approaches a particular limit or model: thought itself, with its infinite capacity for expansion. And like Frampton, this project has necessitated a sustained engagement with both the material of film and with that grand technology whose shadow film continues to toil in, namely language. Russell has literalized, or to use a perhaps more germane term, mirrored, this desire for the universal in the richest vein of his own itinerant and highly localized practice, a reconfiguration of certain forms derived from the tradition commonly known as ethnography for purposes that complicate and, at their most successful, explode their colonial origins.
In the years since his last solo feature, the mythic-formalist Surinamese travelogue Let Each One Go Where He May (2009), Russell has pushed his work into increasingly dense and baroque directions, drawing ever closer to the sort of dizzyingly proliferating entities Paz finds in Michaux’s prose, poetry, and painting. Inaugurated by the structural hijinks of Trypps #7 (Badlands) (2010), which plots the experience of a young woman’s LSD trip as the placid surfaces of face and place blend through an appropriately disorienting swirl of scale activated by a spinning mirror in a low-rent reconstitution of La région centrale (1971), and moving through a run of ethnographic featurettes in the half-hour range which have made inventive and extensive use of the gap between texts opened by the practice of subtitling, this period has seen Russell explore the territory beyond any concern for singular, sticky meaning. (While a full consideration of the tension between the fixed concept implied by structural film and the uncertainty of a trip would require its own essay, it is worth bearing in mind as one ground of the present inquiry.)
Psychedelics, of which at least certain of Russell’s films must qualify as a varietal, offer the possibility of knowing, through the at-times inscrutable or overwhelming, the infinite rates and scales of being that the coherence of subjectivity keeps at bay. This is not to argue for anything so crude or naïve as the ostensible transcendence of “ego death” or the like. It is not a matter of leaving behind our pitiful thinking selves and becoming beautiful celestial babies flailing in the ether; rather, psychedelic experience allows consciousness the rare opportunity of seeing, feeling, and knowing, reflecting within and upon itself, the fullness of existence, the endless unity of being. This accounts, perhaps, for the proliferation of mirrors and mirroring throughout Russell’s recent work, a trope derived from Cocteau and Deren. In an interview around the time of the mirror-strewn Atlantis (2014), Russell told the scholar Erika Balsom, “Cinema suffers when asked to merely reflect, so I always hope that my images come out ahead.” We might understand “mere reflection” here as that mode of film which assumes a stable subject gazing on a static image of the world, a report to be verified or rejected, an encounter which is unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
On a first look, Good Luck may appear to be rather far from any, or all, of this. Absent is the unsettling sensation of unmoored vision found in Trypps #7 and its sister film, Yolo (2015). So too the strange and troubling textual modulations by which the testimony of a Tuvaluan elder slips into Beckett’s Godot in Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget (2013), or the lyrics of a Maltese folk song given an English form via Thomas More’s 16th-century speculations on utopia in Atlantis. And neither does one find the hallucinatory excursions into colonial-era esoterica, ritual, and mythology of He Who Eats Children (2015) or Greetings to the Ancestors (2014). In their place is what seems nothing more or less than a long and patient look at miners labouring in two disparate sites: Serbia’s RTB Bor copper mine, and the Kiíki Nëígi gold mine in the sparsely populated Brokopondo District of Suriname. It risks what has been rejected: “mere reflection.” And yet, as befits a film of mines, if one stays with the work, cracks and fissures begin to appear in its smooth surface, temping one to dig in: not in the sense of interpretation, of divining and assigning meaning to implication, but in the sense of testing this surface, working slowly—“then rock intact, then split…”—through images which keep coming out ahead of any conclusion, anything that would stay in place. Across what follows, I should like to sketch a sampling of basic contours and dynamics, the means by which it keeps meaning from settling and opens, in continuity with Russell’s work to date, onto a picture of thought.
The film’s overall shape is described by the ideogram superimposed on its opening and closing images: a simple bisected circle, its bisector set horizontally in parallel to the lines of Russell’s widescreen Super 16mm frame. Drawn in a moderately thick black line, it first appears over a view of a lush tropical canopy under a dense fog, slowly fading out as this image of the Surinamese jungle dissolves even more slowly into the limestone ranges of Bor, a gesture mingling North and South. Once this dissolve concludes, the frame holds on this long shot of the mine’s beige and gray expanses for more than a minute, soundtracked by a steady drumbeat and the din of a brass band tuning up. In a repetition of the shift from fixed frame to Steadicam track that sets Let Each One Go Where He May in motion (a moment thoroughly examined by Michael Sicinski in his essay on the film in Cinema Scope 41), the camera jolts into mobility and retreats, revealing that it has been shooting out from the window of a dilapidated stone building while surrounded by the seven-piece band heard tuning. As the camera backs out of this space, the band, dressed in blue jackets, white pants, and peaked caps, is led behind it into the open as it begins to play a dirge of unknown origin, “The Last Goodbye,” which captures succinctly the mood of the men and the mine work that follows. Upon conclusion of their song, the drummer breaks ranks to deliver a monologue: “I remember everything. The place of my birth, my childhood home. It is all gone, it is in the pit now.” A hard cut lands on a man in a miner’s helmet, neither young nor old, as he sits smoking in close up, the film stock gone from colour to black and white. A set of titles appear over this image: СРЕЋНО—(GOOD LUCK)—Filmed at RTB BOR COPPER MINE in Bor, Serbia—Beginning of Part One. The hour that follows descends into the earth, following the Serbian miners in their extraction of copper.
Emerging from the depths, another hard cut: the camera now following a man as he moves through the jungle, swiping the ground with a metal detector. With no title or orientation, the film settles into its second half, an hour amidst the work at Kiíki Nëígi. As this reaches its conclusion, a group of miners gather to perform an upbeat rhythmic number for voice and hand drum, “Góútu Möni,” credited to the Kiíki Nëígi Boys: “Children of God, if you want gold money/It is here.” Again, as the song concludes, one member steps forward to deliver a monologue, far in tone from the Serbian’s lament, in which he implores anyone interested in taking this land’s riches to come and do so. And again, over a black-and-white portrait shot of one of the workers, titles appear: KÖLŌKU—(GOOD LUCK)—Filmed at KIÍKI NEÍGI GOLD MINE in Brokopondo District, Suriname—End of Part Two. The film then concludes with an epilogue of alternating shots of both locations, united under the ideogram with which it began, again set over the images: far from abandoning the mirror as either trope or formal device, Russell has used it as Good Luck’s structural basis.
Which is not, as is perhaps already apparent, to say its halves are anything like identical; they are as different as the image in any mirror is from what stands before it, or as either are from the mirror itself. Their difference depends in large part on the plain fact that the material—structural, physical, geographical, mechanical, etc.—distances between these two sites of categorically related labour demand distinct formal approaches in order to be given their fullest filmic expression. This begins at the level of composition. Though Russell photographed both sites himself, with Steadicam work by his regular collaborator Chris Fawcett, they share only passing graphic similarities.
The work at Bor, miles below ground in spaces often lit only by the workers’ helmet lamps, affords a narrow visual field: the soft blue light of these lamps is tightly directed, condensed into shafts and circles of light which stop at a hard edge when seen at a distance (an effect which recalls Russell’s spotlit Black and White Trypps #3, a portrait of sonic ecstasy at a Lightning Bolt show). Though they make considerable use of the darkness, Russell and Fawcett’s response to this situation is to work often within these fields of light. Access to this crepuscular glow closes the space between camera and subject, whether capturing the intricate handling of a pneumatic drill (one of several shots, including this section’s striking opening descent, with clear echoes of Gilles Groulx’s 1960 short film Normetal) or drifting amongst faces during idle moments of conversation.
The open-air work at Kiíki Nëígi, undertaken in tropical light as thick and diffuse as it is even, affords a more varied compositional approach. While close views on the precise labour of sifting through drained earth for small deposits of gold or tinkering shoddy equipment into action recur, this proximity, absent the underground mine’s tendency towards engulfing the image in darkness (a darkness Russell searches out here in a pair of scenes of late-night conversation amongst the miners), expresses a more traditional documentary interest—a wish to simply see the work as clearly as possible. And yet the openness of the site allows Russell to take up a wide variety of less obviously motivated perspectives, from following at a distance behind a group of labourers as they move across the land with no clear destination, at times letting them range far out ahead (a tactic used in Let Each One Go Where He May as well), to a twilight session of pickup soccer—its light rhyming the scenes at Bor—in which the camera moves from a wide endline view of the makeshift pitch into the centre of the action.
Russell is one of contemporary cinema’s most astute crafters of auditory images, and along with sound recordist Jakov Munižaba he makes similarly rich and specific use of the unique sonic profiles of each site. Bor, with its heavy machinery and enclosed hard surfaces, is an abrasive wash of industrial feedback, the sharp crack of drill and hammer on rock echoing into the hum of elevators and mine carts. Every silence has a haunted calm, a texture matched by the lone accordion wail that fills the tunnels in the film’s other musical performance (a lyrically appropriate classic interpreted wordlessly). At Kiíki Nëígi the machines are no less infernal, but the dense local ambience of insects and wind offers a contrast in scale to the roar of their engines: this work may bother the jungle—one worker offers its need for rest as the reason why they do not work on Sunday—but it has far from overcome it. Put another way, silence and its absence at Kiíki Nëígi are not yet purely a question of industry.
Which is not, of course, to understand it as ever purely absent from these places either. As Evan Calder Williams writes in Shard Cinema, the term “factory” describes both “the sensation of getting folded into a scattered, synchronized web of gestures and the material production of an image of this process.” The quality, the experience of labouring at a specific site feeds back into, and regiments, the worker’s labour itself. So as the men descend into the depths of Bor at increasing speed in a flash of helmet lamps; or as copper is driven slowly back to the surface for processing, the elevator slowed enough by gravity to offer a play of pure geological colour to the gaze of the cart driver; or as a man steadies himself to lug gallons of gasoline across slippery terrain; or as hands respond to the nuances of pickax or sieve—at all of these moments, and indeed, at every moment of his film, silent or deafening, hurried or languid, Russell captures the rhythms by which the plan of capital is expressed and enforced. In working on the level of the workers’ experience, he mirrors the image that the factory is always already producing of itself and offers it for reflection.
The distinct images produced by each site demand that we consider what Williams, borrowing from the archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan, refers to as “operational sequences”: “total maps of how materials and processes are shaped to human ends.” RTB Bor, owned and operated by the state after several recent failed attempts at privatization, excavates a material critical in an increasingly electrified world: the volume of copper extraction has multiplied nearly 20 times over the last century. As it comprises a considerable portion of annual exports for a country with ambitions of European Union membership, the work of these miners is critical to the existence and self-conception of this relatively young state. Meanwhile, gold plays an even more substantial role in Suriname’s economy, accounting for a baffling 45% of its annual exports. The work at Kiíki Nëígi exists in the shadows of the neo-colonialism that has brought global corporations and their subsidiaries to the country: it is an informal site functioning extra-legally, its workers are employed casually, and its profits are funnelled through various levels of corruption leading to the heavily invested individuals at the top of the state.
These global positions are rhymed by their respective local ones. The miners at Bor, whether at work or occasionally in cramped break rooms, speak of their situation in terms and tones of resignation: “I had dreams before now…I’ve been here too many years,” one says with a laugh. “It is a ‘bread with seven crusts.’ But men get used to it. Your organism learns it mechanically,” says another. A sense of masculine pride pushes through occasionally, particularly when they are asked what their fears are, but this provides no sense of relief. The factory has come to encompass all of life, pushing the domestic and the social entirely out of the picture. The men at Kiíki Nëígi are no more enthusiastic about their labour—“No one here likes to work”—but the tenuous nature of their situation leaves certain cracks open: we see them at rest, playing video- and board games, lounging comfortably when the day’s work is completed. There is a sense that though they have few prospects for advancement beyond this situation (like the workers at Bor, they speak of providing better futures for their children), the plan of capital has not yet imposed itself quite so fully as an image of life.
To his credit, Russell undercuts any conception of the testimonies in which the preceding is offered as authoritative or uncomplicatedly true. At moments of rest he prompts the men with questions so general they verge on the abstract: What are your dreams? What are you afraid of? Does anyone here have good luck? The conversations that result, nearly always in the context of group rather than individual conversation, create contexts in which more concrete dynamics can occur. The men at Bor, many of whom have worked together for years, even decades, betray occasionally the ways in which they have planned their own presentation: “We agreed not to talk about politics,” says one, before admitting that the one thing he’s afraid of is the impending election of the right-wing Aleksandar Vučić with his plans for austerity. “Fuck! I’m not an actor,” says another when goaded to speak. The tone at Kiíki Nëígi is both less self-conscious and less confessional. Conversation tends towards the didactic, as the apparently more experienced workers hold forth at length on intricacies of ritual and procedure: how to dig a hole, how to shit, how to ensure that bad luck is not brought to the site. This gregariousness is not without a sense of gravity; memories of the devastating civil war which shaped most of these men’s lives linger—the conflict’s decisive figures, Dési Bouterse (the current president) and Ronnie Brunswijk, remain active figures in Surinamese life and politics—and mention of the recent violence at a nearby mine offers a glimpse at how precarious the apparent calm at Kiíki Nëígi might be.
Any sense of straightforward documentation is further complicated by Russell’s most explicit formal intervention, the 11 black-and-white portrait shots which interrupt the film’s flow at semi-regular intervals. In these rare moments of isolation, the miners are left alone with a curious sort of mirroring: the knowledge that they are seeing the process of their own image being created and recorded. Their faces show a mix of pleasure and nerves; smiles emerge as gazes are averted, gestures that it seems may verge on the universal. In a crucial alteration of this model inherited from the Factory, Russell grants his subjects what Warhol, camping on the role of the boss, intentionally withheld: control over when to turn off the camera.
In this small gesture, the miners and Russell are mirrored. Their relationship remains asymmetrical—the miners are drawn into a new flow of capital, that of the contemporary art world, while Russell cannot in any sense be said to have been materially entangled in the factory—but, to my mind, honestly and productively so. Though much of contemporary thinking would prefer to keep labour and art separated, Good Luck forces them together under an even more unlikely third term, the psychedelic, which has for too long been the domain of reactionaries. With its Latin roots indicating a vision of thought, the psychedelic must be understood as, in at least one sense, analogous with art. Both count their highest achievement as the inducement of reflection. Borrowing from the surrealist tradition, we might take the perfect psychedelic image to be two mirrors gazing directly upon one another. This image is a form of utopia, always awaiting activation by a subject that it desires even as this subject draws it out of the impossible into the actual. Russell’s subject here is labour; to reflect it so fully is a vital achievement.