"Profit Motive and the Whispering Winds": A Lesson in History By Jurij Meden

in 45th Viennale

by Jurij Meden

Proverbially inclined to supporting many things too radical-subversive-experimental or simply too below the radar to be encompassed by other alternative film festivals, this year’s edition of Austria’s largest international film festival held a European premiere of John Gianvito’s second feature-length film, poetically, enigmatically, prosaically entitled Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. A film which — at least in my opinion — loomed large above most, if not all other new stuff showcased by the festival (it should be mentioned at this point, though, that more than half of Viennale’s program is traditionally devoted to various historical retrospectives, which only speaks well on behalf of the festival: juxtaposing the old with the new always breaths more vitality into the film experience than any large amount of exclusive premieres can dream of achieving. Having said that, it should also be stated that Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is not merely a good film, perhaps even a masterpiece of some sort, it is above all a unique cinematic achievement in the sense of its tremendous importance for the warmongering, cynical times we live in today; its formal excellence, originality, simplicity and poetry in cinematographic terms is almost an unnecessary addition, a welcomed bonus track wrapped around the heart which equals the pure essence of any, not only cinematographic expression of engagement: awareness and anger (over the sorry state of affairs surrounding us), knowledge and experience and courage (to intervene) and sincere hope that each and every voice counts and can contribute to positive changes.

So what exactly is on display in Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind? According to the words of its author, who introduced the film at both screenings in Vienna, Profit Motive charts the progressive (leftist) history of the United States of America. It does so by simply facing us with a succession of mostly still images, each showing mostly gravestones, monuments and other historical markers; arranged in a chronological order, interspersed with occasional shots of treetops and accompanied by sounds of the whispering wind. As such, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is of course much more than a historical film or a film about history, much more than a film about the oppressed and overlooked aspect of the United States’ history. It is — or at least it functions perfectly as — a film about the meaning of (any) history, more specifically: the meaning of history today. In this regard, its philosophical basis and inspiration in terms of historical materialism is clearly Walter Benjamin, who perhaps most decisively articulated that the present is, of course, nothing else but part of history and, vice versa: by studying the past and/or bringing something from the past to the present, we are also making it present.

And it is precisely this kind of past that John Gianvito presents to us and the way he does it that can serve perhaps not as the best but the only weapon (of reason) against the monstrous principles of the consumerist capitalistic system at work and war today, a system which thrives and prospers on forgetfulness and ignorance. “Notre seule arme contre la mort, c’est la mémoire” (The only weapon against death is our memory), said Gabriel Matzneff, but it would be too simple and naive to equal this death with evil capitalism, which is something John Gianvito is very aware of and which is what, in the end, makes Profit Motive such a unique political film: it recognizes that the greatest obstacle on the path towards a more enlightened tomorrow is cynicism — the widespread and weary belief that the present is, alas, the best of all possible presents, consequently turned into even more weary cynicism which today sadly remains the trademark of most leftist thinking on display both in cinema and elsewhere.

In turn, Profit Motive is deeply marked by an absolute, even awe-inspiring honesty; an honesty of a kind that can only derive from the deepest and most urgent need to express oneself, honesty that can only derive from (the above mentioned) hope, anger and courage. In a miraculous fashion, the noble notions of freedom, peace, brotherhood, equality and solidarity, as channeled through Profit Motive’s trip through history, lose all their historical burden and misinterpretations and shine in their exact and simple meaning; a meaning that has in the past been properly understood many times and can still, regardless of times, be put into practice again. Because there can only be one first proper answer to the question “What can we, the people, do?” Study history. When, falsely accused and on the run from the police, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré were fried to death in Clichy-sous-Bois (the latest Straub-Huillet film Europa 2005 — 27 Octobre dealing with that very same subject was ingeniously shown together with Profit Motive in Vienna) and when the subsequent riots turned Paris into a war zone, the French Right sneered at the Left and asked mockingly if that is what they wanted. Had the Left studied history (at least the country’s bloodstained colonial past) carefully enough, they wouldn’t have kept their mouths shut in impotent shame, but would have turned the question around and said no, that is what you wanted.

In spite of all of the above, it nevertheless has to be made clear that John Gianvito’s film is by no means only a simple hope-inspiring item, a radical statement or a didactic tool; it is (also) — as already mentioned — a cinematic work of stunning beauty and poetry, paradoxically as vital and alive as the depicted stones are immobile and dead, a twin brother-in-arms of such gems of recent American cinema as the films by Travis Wilkerson or James Benning, for example. To dismiss the film, as some have done, as an all-too-simple experimental landscape documentary is only a sign of an utterly superficial reading of the film. Gianvito does not experiment, he knows exactly what he is doing, and the landscapes he deals with are primarily the landscapes of our consciousness. And to dismiss the film because of its utterly simple conceptual nature is even worse: it means denying cinema the power beyond simple, in oft cases merely mind-numbing storytelling, which is simply wrong. Cinema can work, should work and make us think. Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is cinema as it can and should be.