Reigniting the Flame:
John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind
By Michael Sicinski
At the 2001 Vancouver International Film Festival I had the good fortune to catch a screening of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, a three-hour independent feature by film scholar and curator John Gianvito. I had not heard very much about the film itself, but I had heard Gianvito’s name; a friend of mine interned with him at the Harvard Film Archive around this time. (He held this post for five years, and is now an Assistant Professor at Emerson College in Boston.) Mad Songs is a political film that encompasses multiple stories, but does so following a film historical road less travelled—beginning with D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) and leading most recently to Fast Food Nation (2006).The stories never intersect; instead, they examine the problems of a time and place (the suburban US during the first Gulf War) almost geologically, by taking samples from discrete layers of American life –an alienated progressive teen, a psychologically shattered veteran, and the so-called madwoman of the title, persecuted by bigots and eventually left a broken person, wandering the New Mexico landscape in much the same way that Vertigo’s Carlotta Valdez haunted the streets of San Francisco. Part of what makes Mad Songs so poignant, and at the same time incredibly strange, is the hope and earnestness with which it concludes. No film I’m aware of has given so much space to peace activists, sitting in meetings and testifying about the transformative power of nonviolent resistance. To a generation of critics and cinephiles reared on post-noir cynicism, Gianvito’s treatises surely sounded like transmissions from another planet.
Gianvito’s remarkable new film, Profit motive and the whispering wind (limited capitalization intentional) is as lean, poetic, and rigorous as the earlier film was sprawling, expansive, and even a bit ramshackle. Profit motive is an experimental documentary and not a fictional feature like Hussein, and so the comparison may not be entirely fair. But it is instructive, since Gianvito’s latest effort enters a cultural landscape remarkably similar to the one in which Mad Songs aimed to intervene. Today, Marx’s famous line from The Eighteenth Brumaire about history hardly applies as written. Bush 41’s Iraq War was already both tragedy and farce, leaving us little option but to cast Bush 43’s protracted rerun as Grand Guignol, a maniacal bloodletting orchestrated by a crazed, castrated cowboy-emperor. It’s a scenario Antonin Artaud could scarcely have improved upon. In light of this, Gianvito now allows the Iraq War to serve for the most part as the new film’s structuring absence, something tacitly understood but largely unsaid. In part this is because there’s so little left to say on the topic that cannot be recuperated by our affirmative corporate culture. But it’s also the case that to focus exclusively on our present moment, however dire it may be, is to inadvertently fall into what may be our culture’s greatest trap—the evacuation of history.
In just under one hour, Profit motive takes us on a tour of the United States via its cemeteries, minor monuments, and out-of-the-way historical markers. There is no voiceover narration, virtually no explanatory on-screen text, and very little camera movement. Instead, Gianvito has created an unconventional landscape film, one that recalls the strategies of certain avant-gardists (James Benning in particular, and perhaps Peter Hutton to a somewhat lesser degree) while at the same delivering a bracingly unique experience, one that leaves viewers awestruck by its rigorous simplicity. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that we and the film are tracing a chronological path through the American Left, paying near-silent homage to our comrades, those who fell in battle (slain by police or Pinkertons during strikes; felled by assassins) or those whose lives had simply run their natural course. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s magisterial People’s History of the United States, Gianvito’s leftist vision is righteously ecumenical, encompassing Eugene V. Debs and Frank Little, Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, and many, many others whom mainstream historical accounts have buried far more comprehensively than their undertakers. In addition to forging a radical remapping of the American terrain, Gianvito’s film provides its audience with the rare opportunity to pay our respects by proxy.
Between these sequences, Gianvito provides a continual filmic refrain. He aims his camera upwards, capturing the rustling of trees in the wind, light usually peering through the branches. In addition to providing a sombre objective-correlative to the film’s consideration of the transience of both human life and populist politics, these sequences offer a vague inkling of a force that may still remain afoot in our world, a voice or a spirit or an idea alight on the wind. The concluding minutes of Profit motive make this restlessness explicit, in a manner that practically recodes the entire film, shifting its terms from the elegiac to the cyclotronic, a conscious harnessing of available energies. At a time when most attempts at political cinema result in the equivalent of hastily xeroxed leaflets, Gianvito has produced a document, one we will no doubt be examining for years to come.