Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Two lakes, a rock, some gravestones and many ghosts …

Martin O'Shaughnessy reports back from a colloquium on film at Dartmouth College.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a colloquium on the topic of committed (French) film, hosted by Dartmouth College and held in Dartmouth's lake house on Squam lake, famous, among other things for having been the location of On Golden Pond, a film that brought together Henry and Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. It was to be Henry Fonda's last big-screen appearance. Although the schedule of the colloquium was demanding (if highly stimulating and enjoyable), time was found for a boat trip during which our guide showed us locations associated with the film. We learned that shooting was moved from the original 'Golden Pond' to Squam lake because the former was too inaccessible. We saw the famous wooden house at the centre of the action: an extra floor had to be added to it for the shooting and was retained by the owner as a free and attractive extension, Hollywood thus accidentally initiating the make-over culture. We also saw the little wooden dressing room built for Hepburn so that the aged star would not have to muck in with the rest of the cast. The owner has also kept this, perhaps to commune with the ghost of the Diva, perhaps to store his gardening tools. We saw too the rock that Jane Fonda back-flipped off and discovered that a pool had had to be dug behind it so that the actress would not crack her head on the bottom. Since the film, the rock has had to be moved into the shore! The pool has been filled in by the movement of the water and people seeking to imitate Fonda's dive risked breaking their neck, it always being dangerous to imitate Hollywood stunts. We found out that the sequence when the boat ran aground on a rock had to be filmed several times because the bottom of the over-sturdy boat had refused to split: eventually a charge had to be used. This was blown a fraction early so that a hole appears in the boat’s bottom just before it hits the rock. Not perceptible in the film when it was released, this premature detonation may be visible on the DVD. You can’t always believe what you see and hear.

Time was also found in the packed schedule to meet committed film-maker John Gianvito who showed us his lovely film Profit motive and the whispering wind, a tribute to Howard Zinn's celebrated People's History of the United States, a legendary oppositional text. The film provides a series of shots of graves of union organisers, native Americans, civil rights activists and so on which together constitute a low key but very moving counter history of the United States. Many of the figures remembered were, of course, murdered. An eclectic document, Gianvito's film also uses inscriptions on head-stones, monuments and signs, alongside some animation and a song (‘The ballad of Joe Hill’), to narrate its counter history. Interspersed with shots of trees and landscapes through which the wind is blowing, the film is deliberately slow-paced. Its fixed shots of monuments and graveyards invite a contemplative engagement with past struggles while the wind embodies the spirit of resistance and opposition that still haunts America. But the film is not simply peopled by ghosts. Refusing to consign opposition to the past, it ends with a montage of contemporary mobilisations that suggests a people still able to arouse themselves, not necessarily the America that we see from this side of the ‘pond’.

Gianvito also showed us another work, An Injury to One by Travis Wilkerson, a powerful film-essay centred on the story of Frank Little, an inspirational organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the ‘Wobblies’. Having come to the mining town of Butte, Montana to help lead striking miners, Little was dragged from his lodging by masked men, beaten and lynched. Many other activists were rounded up and arrested as a prelude to a nationwide assault on the Wobblies designed to arrest their attempt at mass unionisation. Wishing like Gianvito to restore a hidden and violent history to visibility, Wilkerson asks us to read between the lines of official accounts of Little’s murder. His film includes shots of Butte today and shows images of ‘Lake’ Berkeley, the massive man-made hole left by the mining that has filled with polluted water to create the largest body of toxic water in the United States today. Wilkerson tells us how a flock of geese that landed on the water were all found dead day a day or two later, the town still producing corpses even after the mining company has moved on. Hollywood’s ‘Golden Pond’ and ‘Lake’ Berkeley are both haunted, but by very different ghosts. Another illustrious phantom, the great ‘noir’ novelist Dashiell Hammett also traverses Wilkerson’s film. He had apparently told Lillian Hellman that, while working for the Pinkerton detective agency at the time of the Great War, he had been offered money to kill Little, something that had helped him see how corrupt his country was and which had in turn fed into his writing. His novel Red Harvest is set in ‘Poisonville’, a fictional version of Butte.

The question that structured our colloquium was ‘what can cinema do?’ My own provisional response to this question is inspired by the writings of French political philosopher, Jacques Rancière. Rancière argues that cinema and politics are fundamentally different activities that nonetheless overlap in that both struggle over the ‘sensorium’, over what is visible and audible in the world and the place and meaning we give to bodies and things. Not a substitute for, or an equivalent of, political action (if we ask cinema to ‘do’ politics directly, we’ll always be disappointed), film is nonetheless political insofar as it changes what and how we see and hear. Trying to make us see and hear American history and landscape very differently, Gianvito and Wilkerson make their own kind of political intervention in the ‘sensorium.’
(Photo credit: MertzFerdler: Permissions)


  1. There is no organization called the International Workers of the World, it is the Industrial Workers of the World.

  2. Martin O'Shaughnessy8 June 2009 at 13:24

    Absolutely right! Sorry about the slip and thanks for pointing it out. I'll see if I can get it amended.