A monthly collection of short reviews of the films I’ve been watching.
Two Short Documentaries By Don Owen
High Steel (1965)
Harold McComber speaks with such pride of his work. It’s dangerous, but he finds the heights thrilling. He’s a steelworker and he’s good at what he does. McComber’s father was also a steelworker, as was his grandfather. Like so many of the Mohawk men from Kahnawake at the time, he puts up buildings in New York and has a reputation for skill.
Director Don Owen conveys the details of the work precisely and efficiently; in just a few minutes we get a sense of what the job is about and the kind of teamwork necessary to get it done. This introduction is cut like a heist film, making every step of the process clear and cool. John Spotton’s stunning 35mm cinematography emphasizes the scale of the structures these labourers so precariously work upon, including the film crew themselves. The danger of both the construction and the act of capturing it on camera imparts an extraordinary sense of awe and fear; the usual modes of film production, with its money and safety precautions, could never conjure such primal thrills. This makes it easy to buy into the pride of these workers; few people are built for this kind of job, and even fewer can do it with such grace.
But the dangerous and exploitative reality of this labour becomes clear as we’re shown the circumstances of a disastrous accident that occurred while building the Quebec Bridge in 1907. These men put their lives on the line for this job, and when something goes wrong, the effect on their communities is immeasurable. With one accident, nearly the entire working population of indigenous men in Kahnawake was killed.
Putting minority workers in the most dangerous jobs is a longstanding Canadian tradition, and is one of our preferred forms of violent oppression. Is McComber’s pride a way to cope? What choice does he have? Like he says in the film, “I guess a man takes the best thing that comes his way.” The film ends with images of McComber nimbly climbing on beams at deadly heights intercut with shots of his home—the thing he works so hard for and also stands to lose so easily.
I grew up a short drive from Holstein. Every town around there is much the same, give or take a few hundred people. My older relatives, some of whom are actually from Holstein, walk with the same stiffness and speak with the same awkwardness of people so repressed that any communication that brings pleasure is embarrassing (and so they’re perpetually embarrassed). There’s a warmth and charm that belies such rigidity and director Don Owen captures it authentically. Somehow he managed to get a camera in the room with these people and not have them shut down completely. This is a genuine miracle.
I know just how every place Owen visits must have smelled. A film has never conjured scents so vividly for me before, but I guess a film has never so attentively captured the texture of the villages (most are technically too small to be towns) that I grew up around. Do New Yorkers get this sensation all the time?
Watching Holstein I was aware of how the passing of time necessitates a perpetual ending of an era—it’s a constant state of existence. This film is a time capsule; a reminder of how in some ways these towns have changed very little, and yet nowhere will ever quite be like Holstein in 1978. Just a handful of new faces and funerals will fundamentally alter a village of this size.
Some Movies That Appear Not To Have Been Made By Don Owen
s01e03 (2020) dir. Kurt Walker
s01e03 is about the relationships we form online and the spaces within which those relationships manifest. The characters are represented by both their physical bodies and virtual counterparts equally; we weave between these states so freely that both begin to feel like avatars. Most of the communication takes the form of anonymous text on screen and we’re left guessing who’s saying what and to whom. Any of the people we see could be saying these things, and so the loneliness and anxieties expressed imbue every face that appears on-screen. We’re all lonely. We’re all in this together.
The primary narrative thrust is that the server these friends play Final Fantasy XI on (a popular but waning MMO from the early aughts) will be shutting down in 24 hours. The space where they virtually gather will disappear forever. There doesn’t seem to be much going on anymore – the characters roam empty landscapes, hacking at occasional monsters – but it’s where their friendship lives. It’s clear they met in the game, and though they frequently mention wanting to see each other in real life, or even move to each other’s cities, it’s unlikely to happen.
We fill the venues of our lives, both virtual and physical, with boundless longing. We take what intimacy we can get, and though it may be abstracted through screens, video games, and social media platforms, it’s genuine. But these venues are precarious—subject to the whims of capital. Online spaces are eventually abandoned; physical spaces are looted by gentrification. If we lose our venues for intimacy, do we also lose our capacity for it? Or do we just suffer?
Brasilia, Contradictions of a New City (1968) dir. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade
The feigned optimism as we’re introduced to a new utopian city under construction provides devastating clarity to the plight of the exploited and abused workers who build the walls they’re designed to be on the outside of.