Saturday, April 6, 2013

Kudzu Vine (2011)

WHO: Josh Gibson, who directed this, has also made documentaries about Chang and Eng Bunker, the original "Siamese Twins", about Lake Victoria's invasive fish species the Nile Perch, and other subjects.

WHAT: I've only sampled a five-minute online clip of this 20-minute documentary on the fast-growing kudzu plant, which was introduced to this continent from Japan 137 years ago, but now covers more than 7 million acres of land in Southern states like North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. Five minutes was enough to know I can't wait to see the whole thing projected on the big screen.

If you've ever driven through kudzu-affected regions,you know how overwhelming its effect on the landscape can be, covering hillsides, houses, trees, and seemingly everything in its path. There's definitely an otherworldliness to a kudzu invasion, so it's appropriate that Gibson has made not a straight-ahead documentary but one that takes on the eerie quality of a 1950s science fiction movie, aided by his use of the cinemascope frame and 35mm hand-processing. For more on the film and its making, check out Eric Ferreri's interview article.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 4:30 this afternoon at the Victoria Theatre.

WHY: According to the Internet Movie Database, Christian Marclay's The Clock is a documentary. At one level this is absurd, and just another indication of the imdb's limitations as a resource for accurate information about anything other than a certain narrow (if generally 'popular') slice of the world's motion picture output. If you've seen any part of The Clock, now on display at SFMOMA, you know it's a 24-hour looped video installation made up entirely of carefully-edited timepiece-centric shots and scenes from thousands of movies (and some television shows for good measure). The only thing it objectively "documents" is what the current time is, as it's shown onscreen and/or mentioned on the soundtrack at least once every minute.

On the other hand (the long hand, perhaps?), perhaps we need to loosen the definition of documentary somewhat. We could go as far as Jean-Luc Godard, who once said "Every film is a documentary of its actors", but that seems to take what was meant as a provocation perhaps too literally, and render the term meaningless. More useful, I think, may be to take a cue from a term from the literary word, that is often used synonymously with "documentary" anyway: "non-fiction". In most libraries, the fiction section is composed entirely of stories set in constructed worlds that may resemble or disresemble the one we live in, but only to the extent that they are controlled and described by their authors. Non-fiction, while often thought of as a term for truthful or factual expression, is as it's name suggests: a catch-all category for "everything else". Where will you find mythology, poetry, musical scores, or books comprised entirely of Salvador Dali paintings? Almost certainly not in the fiction section, despite the often contra-factual elements of these publications. And not usually in separate sections of their own either, but interfiled with the historical and journalistic accounts, the essays, the how-to guides, and other materials we may feel more entirely comfortable calling "non-fiction". 

Similarly, perhaps "documentary" could be a more useful, less constraining (and for some, dismissive) term if it were more frequently applied to all moving image works that aren't stories set in constructed and controlled fictional "film worlds" described through the ineffable "film time" created by shot duration. By this definition, The Clock is a documentary; it doesn't contain its own story, and its "film time" is not constructed or controlled by Marclay but by the filmmakers he and his assistants have selected to appropriate from. It seems worth noting that in the 2 1/2 segment of The Clock I previewed, there appeared to be no images taken from non-fiction films of any sort- or from animation for that matter.

Last night I viewed two programs of Crossroads works while thinking about this possibly expanded view of "documentary". None of the works would qualify as documentaries under the strictest, most conventional definitions, which necessitate genre conventions like voice-over narration, talking-head interviews, etc. Several, such as Paul Clipson's lovely city symphony Absteigend or Jeanne C. Finley & John Muse's seemingly diaristic Manhole 452 or Jodie Mack's delightful feat of animation and musical storytelling Dusty Stacks of Mom, might (like Kudzu Vine) be considered documentaries by most definitions. Others, like Luther Price's unburied Nomadic Flesh or Suzan Pitt's painted Pinball would be easy to call non-fiction but rarely considered as documentaries of anything other than their own creation. But perhaps that's enough.

HOW: Kudzu Vine screens as 35mm print, as part of program 4 in the Crossroads festival, which also includes work screened in 16mm and digital video.

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