Friday, April 30, 2010

"Fake Fruit Factory," Chick Strand (1986)

What happens when you take a dozen young Mexican girls, a gringo boss and his cute cousin from Ohio, and put them all together working in a fake fruit factory?  Chick Strand’s 1986 short film “Fake Fruit Factory” does just that.  Strand’s unique brand of visually capturing her subjects leaves the audience with nothing more than a string of conversations set to images of fake fruit. 

Along with Lockhart’s film, Strand’s is one that ascribes to a more avant-garde approach to ethnographic story telling.  Her choice of framing and audio bites made it one of the most fun films we watched in class.  We rarely see more than one body part at a time, which gives her full freedom to sync it with whatever she chooses.  Strand capitalizes on the eroticisms of the fake fruit to rationalize her use of the raunchy conversations between the female workers. 

Shot over a year at a factory in Mexico, the film focuses on the women who work to make paper-mache fruit for national and international sale.  The girls often talk about their gringo owner and his Mexican wife, though there is more of an impression that she is running the show.  The end of the film reveals that the owner ran off with a woman and left the highly profitable business to his wife.  We watch the fruit from inception to end as the ladies shape them from paper, paint them, glaze them and place “Hecho en Mexico” stickers on them. 

The quality of the film made me a bit unsure if the footage was sped up or if the women were simply very fast workers (save for the scene where they drive to the picnic, which actually was in high speed).  After a while the weariness of watching extreme close-ups wears off and the viewer is left with an intimate relationship with the female workers.  During the picnic scene, Strand’s positionality comes into question as her tight shots border on perversion.  While the young girls are swimming in bikinis and lounging in shorts, the camera still focuses on one body part at a time – but now it’s to observe the skin and curves of their child-like bodies.  I’m not sure if Strand was trying to make a comment on the use of underage workers or on how the owner of the factory may be viewing the virility of these sexually charged girls.

Aside from that, we don’t really gain much insight into the machinations of the factory or the lives of the women.  But it’s the conversations that they have while making the fruit that are most ethnographic.  Since we can only see extreme close-ups of hands, eyes or fruit, we’re left to assume if the boss was listening in on the x-rated discussions the ladies were engaging in, of which he and his man-parts often came up as a conversation piece.  The girls address him in English when dealing with him and his conversations with the filmmaker are in English, but one can only wonder if he knows the filth that is coming from the mouth of these young girls.

Click here to stream Strand’s film in its entirety online on Vimeo:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

“Lunch Break,” Sharon Lockhart (2008)

This week our class had the unique opportunity to take a field trip for our film screening.  Our teacher chose Sharon Lockhart’s “Lunch Break” at the RedCat, the lovely little Cal Arts theatre abutting the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the heart of Downtown L.A.  Lockhart, a professor of Fine Arts at USC, spent over a year conceiving and shooting the film with a crew of several dozen researchers and audio and visual technicians.  When the original storyboard for the film fell through, she restructured the film into one take of a tracking shot through a corridor at the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine.

Initially I was under the impression that the film, shown with its companion piece “Exit,” was to total 80 minutes.  Not so much: "Exit" would be an additional 40 minute film.  An hour and 20 minutes later, my neighbor let out an elated sigh as “Lunch Break” came to an abrupt end and the audience was given a 10-minute Q&A before the next film began.  Asking an audience to sit through 80 minutes of a frame-by-frame detail of New England miners eating lunch was extremely brave of Lockhart; asking them to sit through another film half that length about the men and women of Bath Iron Works going home from work was just cruel.   If not for the fact that I was disillusioned about the duration of the piece I may have fallen asleep like my neighbor to the right, abandoned my seat like the person in front of me, or doodled on my arm like my neighbor to my left. 

Fortunately for Lockhart, I kept myself attentive in hope of a climax while enjoying the beautiful visual detail. The film was really one extremely long photograph; each frame was slowed down to such an extreme frame-per-second rate that I began thinking of what each moment would look like if time were frozen (incidentally, Lockhart is an internationally renown photographer and professor of photography).   Her camera remained carefully positioned and static as it trudged down the hall.   The colors were deep and rich for a line of work that feeds off the mundane and her attention to detail had me reading the stickers on every cabinet and counting every screw and nail on the walls.  The audio was perfectly orchestrated to give the illusion that what the viewer is seeing is in real-time with layers of machines, conversation and radio tones. 

I wouldn’t call this film ethnographic so much as experimental.  I didn’t learn anything about the workers, but I could easily say that if I walked into this hallway right now I would be able to know where every door, bench and light switch was located.  Lockhart’s filmic style is to engage the viewer in a scenario in which one doesn’t gain knowledge of anything so much as simply absorb people, things and moments.  

Making the film 80 minutes long begs the question if she’s making art “for arts sake” and further detracts from allowing it to be viewed as academic discourse.  The viewer fails to gain any insight into the life of a blue-collar factory worker and is left wondering if the last 80 minutes of their life was well spent.  I know I would have been happier if this was made into a gallery showing of a dozen photographs.  I would also have been happier because I would have been 50 minutes richer.  

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

“Demolition (Chaiqian),” J.P. Sniadecki, 2008

“There’s an old saying in China,” a teenager explains, “that says ‘if the old does not go, the new cannot come.’” J.P. Sniadecki’s film “Demolition” is a challenging survey on China’s fastest growing industry that blends images and sounds to document a salvage crew working for three weeks on a construction site in Downtown Chengdu.  Currently residing in China and working towards his PhD at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Sniadecki merged his previous studies in East Asian culture with his love for capturing public space to make “Demolition” by providing the audience with his edited version of the images and sounds of the construction site.

The capital city in the vastly rural province of Sichuan, Chengdu represents the striking changes within one of the world’s most economically prosperous countries.  The temporary crew is made up of lower class men and their families who have traveled from the countryside for work in the city.  As they pry steel rebar from decades-old concrete, teens from the surrounding urban areas test out their skills at a neighboring BMX park.  Though we only hear Sniadecki, who is about as blonde and blue-eyed as they get, speak with his subjects in Chinese throughout the film, the boys talk to the filmmaker in both English and Chinese, whereas the workers only speak to him in two dialects of Chinese.  These young boys are also well dressed and have the freedom to hang out at all times of the day.  This culture clash further pits the new against the old and the rich against the poor.

Sniadecki, during a visit to USC’s humble little Anth 575 class, spoke about the importance of layered soundtracks when watching an ethnographic film.  He reminisced about the days of film recording when directors didn’t have the ability to rely on the built-in omni-directional microphones that come standard with cameras today and instead would record independent audio from different moments and places at their fieldsite.  His sense of observation allows him to perfectly frame his shots of the basic movements of the laborers while still capturing the obnoxious city soundtrack.

To paint a picture of the Chinese attitude towards progress, he pairs the sounds machines and a bustling city center with footage of the workers and a bulldozer salvaging tangled metal, which is highly ethnographic in itself, but if only for 15 minutes.  As the film begins, one can’t help but wonder while watching the film if we are missing a certain level of understanding between Sniadecki and his subjects.  The film picks up once it enters its second act by introducing conversations with the construction workers.  He engages with them during meals and other break times to offer a glimpse of their impoverished lives: shed-like living quarters, tattered clothing and inadequate diets.  Even during these insightful moments as the men talk about technology, smoking and X-rated films, we still hear the sounds of the people, cars and machines that litter the bustling city.

 You can check out Sniadecki and other Chinese ethnographers this weekend at USC’s US-China Institute and Center for Visual Anthropology’s symposium on U.S. - China Dialogues. Click here for more information about the event.