The Elements

film 5 of 7


Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

Take that, Mr. Herzog! Let’s just pause to say that this old trapper’s solitary journey is not quite, not exactly solitary, since the cameraman that we never actually see is still, obviously with him the whole time. And yet this combination chronicle/homage is more complicated than the conundrum of the camera game (as discussed in an interview with D.A. Pennebaker in Alan Rosenthal, 1971). And clearly when the complicated and contradictory documentary process gets you this kind of stunningly elemental stuff, it’s a price worth paying. Still, cameras are weird.  

More importantly, my gosh! I’ve been looking at an awful lot of these films, for a long time now. You may have noticed that I’m not exactly an unbiased observer. But I would like to submit that my inclinations are not merely, not even chauvinistic. And I suspect maybe that the verdict that starts to come in might actually stand in the most exacting aesthetic and moral court.

That verdict is that the NF Board’s anti or counter-industrial approach to photography starts to look like more than just a healthy alternative to Hollywood. It looks like the difference between truth and illusion, maybe even truth and error. These are technician/artists, working in perfect balance.

And what a subject! Awesome landscapes, and this puny, plucky old guy in their midst. It’s like a Jack London story, with something important added. (These pages really admire Jack London, mind.) This water actually splashes you. And the old prospector is made real and individual by the human particularities, the behavioural characteristics for which the best theatrical films strive, and which actual people have in unconscious abundance.

It’s not just old Albert Faille. As hinted at, just above, this is what elemental narrative, what man vs. nature means. It’s what it is, its very embodiment. Virginia Falls!! What an incredibly annihilating prospect. You can’t help but pale, to actually blanch at the sight of it. That being the case, this old man’s agonizing portage around that annihilation is Sisyphian, and more. Look at his hand, after all of his appalling exertion, trembling as it holds that coffee cup. Futility, nobility, mystery.