Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
The best film I saw at this year’s Berlinale was Deborah Stratman’s “The Illinois Parables.” Born in Washington D.C. and based in Chicago (she teaches at the University of Illinois), Stratman has been making films for 26 years. She is the recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, in addition to grants from Creative Capital, the Graham Foundation and the Wexner Center for the Arts. Her latest project, an hour-long essay film, traces the history of “America’s most average state” (and its fifth most populous) from the seventh century to the mid-1980s, all weaved together from an inescapably present-day vantage point.
Bookended by aerial vistas of the Illinois River, of suburban grids and a corn-colored rural patchwork, the film takes us from the mounds of Cahokia—North America’s most significant pre-Columbian urban settlement, which dated from 600 to 1400—to Buffalo Rock, site of Michael Heizer’s “Effigy Tumuli” (1985), a series of five figurative mounds that harks back to the earlier hillocks. Between, we travel among other places to Alton, where in 1673 the French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette wrote about a bluff-side limestone mural of a mysterious and terrifying creature; Golconda (“Home of the Pope County Pirates”), where some 9,000 Cherokees passed through on their Trail of Tears in the late 1830s; Gorham and Crossville, ravaged by a tornado in 1925; Chicago, where the world’s first nuclear chain reaction took place in 1942; Joliet, home to an active army ammunition plant between 1940-1976; Macomb, where a number of strange cases of domestic combustion were reported throughout 1948; and again Chicago, where Cook County police murdered Black Panthers revolutionary Fred Hampton in 1969.
Stratman’s rhythms are seductive, her chosen histories fascinating, her modes of address playfully demanding. She employs archival imagery (moving and still), witness testimony, verbal and dramatic re-enactment, voice-over, on-screen text, and her own 16mm footage—which, in capturing present-day pockets of the eponymous state in richly colored analog, makes the whole thing feel like a document from another age. “I see no hierarchy between these modes,” the filmmaker remarked, “and I’m interested in the poetic sparks created when one style abuts another.”
Poetic sparks indeed: the thematic riffs that begin to take hold here run through the increasingly cohesive narrative like fire. Stratman, credited merely with “camera," “edit” and “soundesign” (sic), accelerates through fourteen centuries with maximalist abandon. Her parables unfold as eleven chronologically arranged vignettes—though as the thickly layered soundscape continues over the roman-numeral intertitles (sans serif, top-to-bottom figures of “I," “II” and “III” all divide the screen into vertically sliced, black-and-white abstractions), the chaptered structure isn’t immediately clear. Stratman has described her film in terms of a sculptural work, and asks by implication for us to become active participants in connecting the dots of her shape-shifting thesis.
“Parables," which debuted at Sundance last month before receiving its European premiere in Berlin Film Festival’s Forum Expanded section, is a dense collage of references and viewpoints—too dense, perhaps, for one to make any sense of on first viewing. This place-portrait boasts charged landscape after charged landscape—and Stratman digs and digs again to work through their occult, buried and folkloric associations. There are some wonderful flourishes here: the painted lines of a tourist-tailored car park at the foot of a Cahokia mound; text from the Indian Removal Act abruptly superimposed over a serenely snowy forest; the haunting moan of a nearby train accompanying the image of a mural depicting the Cherokees crossing the Ohio River in 1838.
In its carefully structured focus on the various themes that emerge from and interconnect through the history of a single territory (elective and forced migration, physical and economic violence, cultural obliteration and technological advancement), Stratman’s film recalls James Benning’s 1995 masterpiece “Deseret.” (Nauvoo, one of Stratman’s locales, was established in 1840 by Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saints Movement—one of the primary subjects of the New York Times articles with which Benning’s film is narrated.) Meanwhile, in its fascination with history’s losers, and in the recurrent attention it gives to monuments and memorials, “Parables” also brings to mind “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind” (2007), John Gianvito’s hour-long adaptation of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” In many ways this is a state-specific version of those works.
If Stratman’s film can be described as a kind of brace through horizontal terrain (geographical as well as historical), it finds its opposite in “Invention,” by Canadian artist and filmmaker Mark Lewis. Lewis’ film, which premiered in Wavelengths at Toronto last year (and which also screened in Berlin’s Forum Expanded), is a vertical study, a deep map, a city symphony born out of spending a lot more time in one place than is necessary. Bringing together previous installation pieces, Lewis’ first feature-length endeavor is a topological inquiry into three distinct urban spaces: Toronto, São Paolo and the Musée du Louvre in Paris.
Lewis re-imagines contemporary urban landscapes as throbbing organs pieced together with intersecting lines, interconnecting grids and contrasting tissues (concrete, steel, glass). His images encompass the natural world and the built environment, from the diagonal crisscross of vibrantly colored escalators at Pinheiros subway station in São Paolo to upside-down shadows cast across the Escher-like staircase that spirals down from the Louvre’s Pyramid entrance. In the background of one Toronto scene, we spy a figure sweeping away a precise square of snow so that he can, eventually, practice BMX tricks within it (end credits refer to him as Lord Percy Marshall IV). Nothing is what it seems here—and just when we think we’ve figured out the mysteries of a city’s mundane infrastructure, we discover secrets anew.
Lewis’ singularly filmic methods of city engagement encourage—and elicit—an active process of looking, of interpretative engagement. Pans and tilts, tracks and zooms: through slow, elegant glides and subtle shifts in framing, he makes us spend time in places to which we might not otherwise pay much attention. The opening scene primes us into the kind of watchful, attentive state Lewis wants of us, as his camera floats around a nude sculpture: circling it, getting up close to it, retreating from it and circling it again. Though the camera’s smooth circumnavigation of this form is a canny approximation of the way in which tourists and experts might navigate a gallery space, its ineluctably forward-looking gaze (no peripheral vision in cinema, however wide the screen) allows and promotes extra scrutiny. Under such conditions, we begin to notice blemishes, minutiae: tiny scratches and symptoms of deterioration.
It’s winter in downtown Toronto. A mound of snow has gathered on the flat roof of a building. Below, an ice rink; across the way, a Sheraton hotel. The elevated viewpoint allows us to see smoke billowing out of chimneys (an especially wintry image: it resonates with our seasonally visible breaths). But the film isn’t just these things. “Invention” is never “just” anything. Remarkably, Lewis’s camera glides through a high-rise window—the triangular turret on the eastern edge of University of Toronto’s Robarts Library—infiltrating its space and, once inside, proceeding to cant and tilt so that we view the city below from strikingly novel angles.
In drawing attention to urban fabrics through these previously unknowable perspectives, Lewis advocates a cinema that is human in its curiosity but coldly mechanical in movement. It is also exciting: this is an architectural film, a landscape film—constantly tricking us, eluding easy categorization. This is not merely the work of an urban wanderer: traversing its locales in such a uniquely cinematic way, the film’s engagement with cityspace transcends the literary roots of flânerie.
Figures come and go. Landscape exists as a space of transition, of commutes, of journeys from A to B. Lewis himself prefers to stay put, long enough for architectural secrets to emerge: by looking long enough, he seems to suggest, we might find within one space the working blueprints by which to re-paint things, re-start them. Note that superb, back-and-forth crawl through the ground floor space of the Toronto-Dominion banking pavilion, camera tilting upward so that its ceiling-fixed, 4x4 grilles of mirror aluminum lights can enjoy, through their reflections in immaculate floor-to-ceiling windows, visual connections with the city grids outside. Grids, and grids within grids, are distinctly cinematic.
Now that this year’s Berlinale award-winners have been announced (but for a FIPRESCI prize, Forum and Forum Expanded are non-competitive), top marks must go to those responsible for programming “Invention” in the IMAX theater of Berlin’s CineStar venue, located in the Sony Center by Potsdamer Platz. The vast, tall screen couldn’t have been a more appropriate way to encounter Lewis’ film, with sharp, high-definition images that carry a sheen that’s hyperreal. For those of us intuitively resistant to ultra-slick pictures, it’s crisp to a fault.
Surgical chic can be hard to shirk. On 13 February 2016, this critic headed into a harsh, pre-midnight air (1°C) after watching “Invention” more alert than usual to the immensity of things. The Sony Center, a shimmering film-image in itself and avatar for the future: reflective panes, glassy facades, corporate geometry. Chain cafés, open-air escalators, the fluctuating hues of that skeletal parasol that doubles as some half-hearted roof in the middle (flower petals or helicopter blades depending on preference). When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, this area was derelict ground. Neither Mark Lewis nor Deborah Stratman had made their first film.
The Sony Center, as we know it, was completed in 2000. Its total cost was €750 million. Working with landscape architect Peter Walker, Helmut Jahn was responsible for its design. Also known for the 63-story Messeturm in Frankfurt, One Liberty Place in Philadelphia and Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Jahn was born in Nuremberg in 1940. Between 1960 and 1965 he attended the Technical University of Munich. A year later, he emigrated in order to advance his architectural studies. His destination? Chicago, and its Illinois Institute of Technology.
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