The Moviegoer Genesis I at 2 Divinity Avenue tonight and tomorrow
FILMWAYS, the company that brought us Ice Station Zebra, has gone into the student-film business, complete with high-powered promo and the kind of program notes Ernest Borgnine might write: Genesis ? is their first contribution to what they lucidly term "an evolving art." Programs of shorts, no less student films usually make for pretty uneven viewing, and this collection is no exception: taken as a program it's astoundingly mediocre despite the money and care that has obviously been lavished on some of these productions. Further in an economy move, or perhaps in a calculated effort to prevent your remembering what you saw. Film-ways has spliced them all end-to-end, so the next picture starts before the retinal image of the last has disappeared; a good idea, considering some of the films. Fortunately though there are enough good works to redeem the collection as a whole? an extraordinarily complex abstract film called 7362; a good documentary, Children of Synanon: and Burton Gershfield's Note That the Buffalo's Gone.
Note That the Buffalo's Gone is a six-minute, technically stunning lament for the genocide of the American Indian. I don't like elegiac works about Indian peoples by definition: it's too easy to forget their political situation in the present by mourning their past-something on the order of reading your own obituary notice. By running that same notice over and over again American consciences have written the Indian off. And Gershfield's work is of a piece with conventional liberal sentiment; there is the same failure to differentiate between various Indian peoples, the tired old noble savage myth, et al. More appallingly characteristic, there is no thought for the million or so Indians still alive; no disturbance to break his carefully wrought mood. Only grad students in film school can afford the luxury of this kind of sentimentality. Yet Gershfield gives the appearance at least of being aware of his position; his work is shot through with a sense of failure, and the lament seems to be as much for his inability to know the American Indian as for what we've done to him.
Like Bruce Baillie's Mass for the Sious Dead Gershfield borrows freely from our collective mythology, a mythology composed, like his film from a series of inadequate images. The Indian on the nickel pervades the first two minutes, documentary footage of Indians cooking, eating, smoking a pipe in full headdress. All the color footage seems to have been solarized; the effect is to remove most of the colors and warp the remaining two or three primaries, giving every frame an hallucinatory quality. Purple warriors move out to hunt against an ocher sky.
The sound of military drums undercuts the hunt, and we are introduced via a slow positive/negative strobe to dignified stills of the white man's armies. Indians on horseback in spectral pinks and oranges gallop to meet the U.S. Cavalry. The ensuing wars are filmed off the television screen and include one brief segment of an American GI gesturing to rows of unmarked graves. Gershfield's use of television implies an awareness that these shoddy images of Injuns stand between us and a real knowledge of how the West was Won from people who already owned the land.
WHAT happened to that land and the peoples who belonged to it forms the last section of the film. Stills of the treaty ceremonies are intercut with very fast shots of factories while some important voice of the period urges the Indians to "accept the spirit of the American people." His speech is drowned out by machine sounds and there follow superimpositions of factories and barbed wire, of the trains that shuttled plains tribes to marshland, over close-ups of aged Indian faces. One man appears to be dying, or trying to sleep, turning his head back and forth over the industrialized landscape; the image exudes an eery sense of ancestors' graves plowed under, of the young dead and the old too infirm to protest. Gershfield then moves back to the negative-positive strobe; only much faster now-the beaten faces seem to be illuminated by antiaircraft fire or shells bursting all around them. One strange close-up even suggests a Vietnamese. A funeral ceremony in stills appears to draw the film to a familiar conclusion of bitter defeat when a thunderclap sounds and we return to the first shot-green sands swept by a red wind. The hint of apocalypse indulges all those romantic dreams we share of the movie in which the Indians win, and is the most cheaply theatrical moment in the film.
Unlike Baillie, Gershfield appears unable or unwilling to go beyond the collective mythology, and that's a shame because he's really talented. His willingness to rework the old myths, admittedly in an exciting fashion, and his acceptance of the elegiac as the proper tone for treating America's Indian peoples are admissions not only of his limitation as an artist, but corporate liberalism's failure to reach its own fictions and remake the world. This should be, though it won't be, the last elegy for the American Indian; what we need now are films that remake both our images and theirs.