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MOVIE REVIEW

A hushed, hypnotic history

The Boston Massacre site as seen in John Gianvito's film 'Profit motive and the whispering wind,' which visits graves and plaques associated with American freethinkers. The Boston Massacre site as seen in John Gianvito's film "Profit motive and the whispering wind," which visits graves and plaques associated with American freethinkers. (Museum of Fine Arts)
Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 29, 2007

"Profit motive and the whispering wind," a film that for much of its length is every bit as distinctive as its title, is dedicated to Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," which John Gianvito, the director, also cites as inspiration.

Yet what's best about the film - "documentary" is too blunt a word - has far less to do with radical history than with the one-of-a-kind visual essays of Chris Marker. There's a similar sense of cool, unhurried appraisal and a viewer's growing awareness that he or she is in the presence of an unconventional intelligence eager to make us see things afresh.

Gianvito, who teaches visual and media studies at Emerson, spent several years filming graves and commemorative plaques associated with American freethinkers and radicals. They include Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, Thomas Paine, Daniel Shays, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony. The most expressive image in the film is the unmarked grave of Uriah Smith Stephens, a cofounder of the Knights of Labor. In this context, the absence of words takes on an eloquence all its own.

We see commemorations of the Homestead Strike, near Pittsburgh; the Bread and Roses Strike, in Lawrence; and the Ludlow Massacre, in Colorado. The people's names, as they get closer to us in time, shift from history (distant, done, dead) to politics (near, ongoing, ideologically animate): Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer (who has the glorious epitaph "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired"), Dorothy Day, James Baldwin, Cesar Chavez, Philip Berrigan.

There are no interviews, no voice-over. Instead, we get the buzz of cicadas, the twitter of birds, the hum of distant traffic, the near-constant sound of wind in minute variations. That sighing breeze is as close as Gianvito comes to narration. Unrelenting as well as reassuring, the audibility of air provides a sense of both continuity and change.

Gianvito, who has a very good eye, employs a nobly static camera to create a kind of funerary art. The result is at once highly original and utterly traditional: an act of remembrance and bearing of present-day witness.

This hypnotic summing up of the past is implicitly hortatory. Faulkner's declaration that "The past is never dead. It's not even past" might provide Gianvito with his epigraph. It's when he makes things explicit that he gets in trouble. Interpolated into "Profit motive" are several bits of animation showing just that (miners panning for gold, traders jostling on a stock-exchange floor). Jarring and crude, they subvert the filmed sequences rather than enhance or enlarge them. They're almost like political ads interrupting a broadcast.

During the final few minutes political ads are all we get: glimpses of a Wal-Mart and McDonald's, a montage of protest marches. Art gives way to polemic - Howard Zinn gains the upper hand over Chris Marker - and an uncategorizable work of elegiac wonder becomes clumpingly didactic.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

Profit motive and the whispering wind

Directed by John Gianvito

57 minutes

Unrated

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates through Dec. 13

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