Can Films Still Make A Difference?

(cross posted from my personal blog):

What filmmaker wouldn’t be pleased with a critic like Joan Gibb Engel? Here’s what she writes about 1913 Massacre.

We were treated to a complex story, excellently told, replete with black and white stills from the period depicting the miners, the strikers, the town, the children, and the hall before it was torn down, and there were colorful scenes from the present of townspeople reflecting on the tragedy and their versions of what really happened. It had mystery, drama, sentiment, dance, and of course, the now-famous song sung in the film by Woody’s son Arlo.

Gibb Engel was in the audience when we showed 1913 Massacre at the Calumet Theatre in October of 2012, and she recalls the event in a paper she contributed to Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse: Ecological Integrity for Law, Policy and Human Rights. (The book came out last year, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I came across her article, while looking for some notice of the film’s May Day screening in Oslo, Norway.)

It turns out that Gibb Engel comes to bury our film, not to praise it. She offers her experience at the Calumet Theatre as a “dispiriting example of the failure of a film to make a difference.”  And it’s not just 1913 Massacre. “I don’t believe a film, even a beautiful one…can do much for us now. We are already too awash in virtual reality depictions of the future, and no generation has had more reason to question their respective validities.”

The question whether a film can still “make a difference” in the world is one I’ve struggled with myself, written about (e.g., here, here and here), and discussed often with friends and colleagues. Gibb Engel arrives at her pessimistic view mainly after viewing and thinking about another film — Journey of the Universe, a big-budget television documentary produced by Mary Eveyln Tucker and Brian Swimme — and then she finds that view reinforced by an exchange she has, or tries to have, with a young man seated next to her at the Calumet Theatre watching our low-budget, independent film.

He was “a local high school student” who had come to the theater that day with his girlfriend, and he “had been playing with his mobile phone prior to the lights going down.” When Ken or I — we usually take turns at this — asked everyone in the audience to please make sure their cell phones were switched off, “he turned it off as requested for the performance.” So far so good! The trouble comes after the film is over, when Gibb Engel

turned to the young man and asked what he thought of it. He answered in a voice completely devoid of colour: ‘it was interesting.’

And on the basis of that exchange, Gibb Engel concludes that 1913 Massacre failed to “make a difference.” What are we to make of this?

It’s worth pointing out that from the very start that Gibb Engel seems to have nothing but praise for the film, but her argument in this paper is an exercise in a foregone conclusion: what she really wants to say here — what she in fact says immediately after having dispensed with Journey to the Universe and 1913 Massacre — is that there isn’t

any way forward except to do what GEIG [the Global Ecological Integrity Group: Gibb Engel’s husband, Ron Engel, sits on the executive committee] and its members have tried to do these past twenty years: make a personal connection with some part of the Earth and help others do the same; work for social and ecological justice; fight for people and policies that matter to the Earth’s flourishing; get our hands dirty.

Exactly how this noble or necessary or dirty work is to be accomplished, and why there should be only one way forward, she does not bother to say. There’s also a whole messy argument to untangle here about the possibility of unmediated experience (of nature) and the role of language, story and representation in forging “personal connections” and helping others do the same, working for justice and fighting for policies, etc. that Gibb Engel doesn’t come close to addressing here. I’m not going to press the issue. Instead, I want to go back to the moment where she turns to the young man sitting next to her in the Calumet Theatre and asks him what he thought of 1913 Massacre.

It’s an odd moment to focus on, and I am reluctant to allow Gibb Engel’s account of her exchange with this young man to stand for the audience’s experience of the film. There were plenty of reasons to think that 1913 Massacre did make a real difference to that Calumet audience — maybe even to that local high school kid.  And this isn’t just because I am one of the film’s producers. The house was packed for three screenings; the crowd gave the film successive standing ovations; the whole house laughed and cried and rode the film like a wave. (My diary of the Calumet Screenings is here). Gibb Engel enjoyed herself as well. But she wants to divert our attention from the audience’s experience (“we were treated to a complex story, excellently told”) to the experience of this one young man.

ow having been a young man of high school age, I can tell you that at that time in my life I probably would not have even managed “it was interesting” if asked by a middle-aged woman sitting next to me what I thought of a film. If I had been there with my girlfriend, as he was, I probably would have been even more reticent; or I might have said or done something awkward in an effort to impress my girl, or disentangle myself from the mutual attention of these two women, or get off the witness stand where this lady had put me. In other words, what Gibb Engel fails to consider here is that “it was interesting” was in all likelihood a social cue, meant to nip the conversation in the bud. (Remember when your parents’ friends used to ask you how things were going at school? “Fine.” It’s still a good rule not to trust anyone over 30, at least until you’re 25 or so.)

Even more puzzling is that Gibb Engel takes her cue from this high school student and then puts the failure to connect in a meaningful way on the young man. But surely Gibb Engel has an important part in the little social drama she describes, as the young man’s grown-up antagonist or interlocutor. That’s the position she’s in after watching the film and turning to the young man; maybe it’s fair to say it’s the position the film put her in. These two probably would never have had occasion to address one another were it not for the fact that they happened to be seated next to each other at the Calumet Theatre for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

So, as my friend Marc Tognotti pointed out when I shared the passage from Confronting Ecological and Economic Collapse with him, 1913 Massacre did make at least one “obvious difference” in Gibb Engel’s world: first of all, it prompted Gibb Engel to turn to the cell-phone- wielding young man next to her and ask what he thought of the film. (And before that, it prompted the young man to turn off his cell phone — to take his life offline and participate in a public screening of a film, or at least sit quietly through it.) And when he gave her a cue “devoid of colour,” Gibb Engel by her own account seems to have let the whole thing drop, without adding any color of her own. She could have offered what she herself thought of the film, expressed the appreciation she later put into writing, asked what he meant by interesting, addressed his girlfriend and asked her what she thought, asked them both if they grew up in Calumet and had ever heard the story. And so on: the possibilities for improvisation, new relationship and conversation after the colorless “interesting” cue were many, especially because in Calumet nearly every high school kid has some family connection to the Italian Hall or the mining operations or the Finnish music Oren Tikkanen sings in our film. Gibb Engel didn’t pursue any of those.

What Gibb Engel doesn’t acknowledge here or anywhere in her discussion of 1913 Massacre or Journey of the Universe is that the difference film or any work of art makes is always one that we have to make, among ourselves. Marc puts it this way in an email:

Our tradition with film and with all art is to believe that meaning resides within the art object, or within the mind of the author/artist, etc.  But the meaning of art, if we take a pragmatist perspective anyhow, is actually something that is realized in the public domain, in how the artwork changes the conversation, changes the way in which people coordinate their actions with one another and towards the world, natural and artificial. Once we realize this, we can stop treating art as something for individual consumption, we can stop objectifying meaning in a way that renders us passive observers, and we can begin to take responsibility for creating meaning and creating change.

The work of art is not just the inhuman object that remains when the craftsman puts down his tools; it is the human activity that can begin only after the artwork is brought into the world.

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