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An Injury To One
Dir. Travis Wilkerson, U.S., First Run/Icarus
In this, the summer of our discontent, the gods of film have but rarely smiled down upon us. Trudging through the reloaded matrices, boys behaving poorly, and the like, little of note, apart from the hype machine, has truly taken root in the consciousness of moviegoers. The hype machine, working at peak capacity, has managed to convince otherwise well-balanced individuals, week after week, that they would like to do nothing more than see the latest poorly written, abysmally directed remake of a 1970s TV show, or sequel to a movie no one had liked in the first place. The lonely cineaste of faith might recoil in horror, glimpsing the absurdly padded grosses of such dismal fare as Terminator 3 and S.W.A.T., but perhaps a better question to ask might be, “What movies have gotten people excited this summer?” Crucially, this question is meant to apply to the post-viewing response; the hype machine is far too good at what it does to allow for dissent from its ruthless control of hoopla. The new, front-loaded blockbuster releases minimize the role of critics and other tastemakers—by the time their word hits the street, the films in question have already made a substantial chunk of their gross, rendering clunkers like The Matrix Reloaded and The Hulk immune to harm.
The question remains: in the absence of anything from Hollywood worth a damn this summer, what has managed to make waves? Beginning with the lovely word-nerd flick Spellbound, continuing on to the glorious Winged Migration and Capturing the Friedmans, and finishing up with the documentary-indie hybrid American Splendor, nonfiction film appears to be the surprising, truthful answer. The resurgence of the documentary has not necessarily translated into a box-office bonanza; nonetheless, the modest success of these films is undeniable. In addition, summer saw the very limited release, here in New York, of the most exceptional film of the year (also a doc, natch): Travis Wilkerson’s monumental An Injury to One.
Wilkerson’s superb film breaks the Gordian knot that had rendered so much of American filmmaking utterly immobile: the difficulty of locating a politically committed American cinema. While there have been isolated pockets of activity in the past few years (the superlative work of Jim McKay comes to mind), Hollywood has left the political to the ham-fisted likes of Oliver Stone. According to the industry, politics is what closes on Saturday night. The independent filmmaking world has been even more disconnected, relentlessly choosing Freud over Marx, time and again, as their guiding avatar, continually depicting the dysfunctional family without ever documenting the dysfunctional society.
Wilkerson, a CalArts-educated filmmaker who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has crafted a cinematic poetics uniquely his own. An Injury to One documents the history of Butte, Montana, focusing on the death of union organizer Frank Little, murdered by Pinkerton detectives hired as strike-breakers. Little, an organizer for the International Workers of the World, came to Butte in 1917 to assist mine workers striking against their brutal employers, Anaconda Mining Company. Extending and deepening the brutality of their treatment of the miners, Anaconda’s Pinkerton thugs kidnapped and lynched Little, pinning a mysterious, threatening notice on his body: 3-7-77. These numbers would have been familiar to all Montanans of the time as the dimensions of a standard-issue Montana grave. In choosing this little-known tragedy from America’s long-forgotten radical era, Wilkerson is positioning himself as a cinematic brother to Howard Zinn, chronicler of the secret histories of American life.
Wilkerson shoots in black-and-white, and intersperses brief color interludes with music as a pause in the film, a chance for his viewers to digest what they have been shown. An Injury to One has found its way out of the box of boring, talking-head documentaries; no narration by Martin Sheen here, and no interviews with tweedy professors of labor history. An Injury to One is as auteurist as a film can get: written, directed, photographed, and narrated by Wilkerson, it is less a film than a direct broadcast from his skull. While Wilkerson owes a debt to Marker and Santiago Alvarez, An Injury to One is one of the freshest American films of the past 20 years, bursting with vitality even at its most embittered. An Injury to One honors none of the accepted bromides of filmmaking, crafting a mode of filmmaking that, while owing something to Marker and Santiago Álvarez, is a prototype for a previously unimaginable brand of American documentary. Wilkerson creates a poetic evocation of the past’s hold on the present, with the landscapes of the interludes a key image—the future, while partially damned by the past’s mistakes, remains as yet unformed and empty.
These interludes are decorated with instrumental music, and the words of old-time union songs appear on screen, in time with the music. No singing, however, is heard. Listen closely enough, though, and the energy of collective song can be heard—the song of the ghosts, from Frank Little to the anonymous miners, forgotten to history, who struggled for what was rightfully theirs. Wilkerson’s mournful, empathetic, angry, politically astute film is an elegy to the lost political radicalism of early 20th century American life; it is also a blueprint for a future American art that looks to reclaim the political.