Compact doc makes for a potent reflection on progressive politics in America

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

on July 31, 2008 by John P. McCarthy
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Inspired by, and dedicated to, Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States, Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is a potent reflection on progressive politics in America. A meditative chronicle of struggles against—for lack of a more comprehensive term—the powers that have been and continue to be, it consists of shots of gravestones, historical markers, monuments and statuary unadorned with narration or much on the soundtrack other than ambient noise. Educator and filmmaker John Gianvito made the movie over the course of three years virtually single-handedly as director, producer, cinematographer, editor and sound designer. Since hoping for a profitable run would conflict with his Marxist outlook, breaking even is the most Gianvito can hope for. Given its short, week-long run in Manhattan, even that’s a tall order, however.

Compact (running under an hour) yet wide-ranging, the hypnotic film is less a commentary than an experience of remembrance and pedagogy. It begins with a quote by Claire Spark Loeb: “The long memory is the most radical idea in America.” In chronological fashion, Gianvito reveals sites corresponding to various insurrections, uprisings, revolts against injustice, inequity and encroachment. He juxtaposes images of these signposts with pastoral shots of the wind passing through surrounding trees, grass and other vegetation. There’s a striking contrast between the bucolic tranquility of the landscape and the often-violent events that mark our country’s history. Gianvito presents the sites and the monuments as they are—during the summertime and fall—allowing any text to speak for itself and the wafting breeze and other rustling sounds conjure past tragedies and lives of heroic activism. The arrival of European settlers and their clashes with Native American is the starting point, and the journey ends with images from recent demonstrations and marches against the war in Iraq and the global economy. Among the personages commemorated: Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Crazy Horse, Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene V. Debs, Sacco and Vanzetti, Mother Jones, Malcolm X, Upton Sinclair, John dos Passos, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Day, James Baldwin, I.F. Stone, Cesar Chavez and Phillip Berrigan. There’s an emphasis on figures from the American labor movement, particularly slain miners from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Colorado.

Whether anonymous or famous, these activist voices—champions of civil rights defined in its broadest sense—are heralded with a simplicity and elegance unique to the medium of film. Gianvito uses sound and music, including “The Internationale,” sparingly. He encourages the experimental label by splicing in four fleeting snippets of black line animation that suggest the chattering chaos of commerce in a capitalist system. The Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is a case of following the bodies, tracing a trail of subjugation and being led to the money. Not to be glib or dismissive (since the film never is), the subject boils down to the “craft and avarice of the white man,” as an inscription on the statue of a martyred Native American describes what he was up against. That includes an awful lot. And without mounting a critique of Zinn’s celebrated tome, the pitfall of the movie is that so many issues are run together. It seems rather simplistic to condemn capitalism and the free-enterprise system wholesale, to pin all this strife and sorrow on the profit motive. At the very least, it’s difficult to make the argument in a non-narrative movie, let alone one that’s so short. Gianvito is not advancing an argument as much as he is saluting one made in another format, with the tools of academic history and economic analysis. But even if one allows that the concept of profit and the will to profit doesn’t sufficiently explain all these events—that profit is not synonymous with greed or any other sin—Gianvito has created a thought-provoking and genuinely progressive work that builds on Zinn’s and the sacrifices he steadfastly salutes.

Distributor: Anthology Film Archives
Director/Producer: John Gianvito
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 58 min.
Release date: August 1 NY

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