John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) — a staggering, four and a half-hour-long “cinematic prose poem” concerning Clark Air Base Command, a former United States military facility located in the Philippines, and the collective traumatic and ecological fallout left in the wake of unchecked imperialism — opens with three broad axioms about studying history: first, that all history is selection and emphasis, neutral in neither origin nor effect; second, that all history is the history of what is remembered, and what is remembered by those with the power to prescribe the memory; finally, and maybe most importantly, that the soul of history is economic. These three pronouncements, each coolly narrated by Howard Zinn, serve as foundational tenets for the type of pedagogical cinema Gianvito has been crafting over the past two decades: one that approaches the art form as a tool to instruct and articulate a non-U.S. centric record of global events; one that gives as much credence to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Uriah Smith Stephens as one would Mother Jones or César Chávez; and one that also examines the ways in which capitalist interests shape our own perception of the world at large. He repurposed the tombstones and gravesites of such progressive figures in 2007’s Profit motive and the whispering wind, providing these forgotten icons with the prominence they deserve whilst reconstructing Zinn’s People’s History of the United States in the process; the camera leisurely tours from one location to the next, with no narration or even basic context provided to make sense of this far-left monument tour. Much like Vapor Trail, it is more a work of poetics, or even a living document, than a traditional documentary.
The history Gianvito has chosen to emphasize this time around with his latest feature, Her Socialist Smile, is decidedly more intimate — and, by design, more didactic — than the grander work he’s covered within his previous two documentaries on the Philippines: that of Hellen Keller, a figure many know merely as a deaf-blind person who wrote a book and who’s also the butt of numerous crass jokes, many of which are made at her expense, in order to discredit her beliefs. Keller herself, we come to learn, was pretty good at cracking jokes herself, even claiming that she was once “blind, deaf, and formerly dumb” — the “formerly” here referring not to muteness, but to a naiveté about the injustices of the world at large. When asked about her opinions of capitalism, she wryly responds: “I think it has outlived its usefulness.” It’s from here that we also discover that Keller was a human rights activist who promoted and championed women’s suffrage and American labor rights, who became a socialist after reading H.G. Wells’ New Worlds for Old and was (with the assistance of her lifelong teacher, Anne Sullivan) one of the most popular orators of her era. When a recording of one of Keller’s earliest speeches is played, it’s noted that audience members responded positively to the passionate timbre of her voice and by sheer force of will by which her ideas were communicated.
Gianvito, in turn, clarifies her specifics for the remaining runtime, letting Keller’s own words do the talking; or, more accurately, let them not do the talking, as there’s no accompanying narration in each of these lengthy lectures. If one wishes to engage with this work, they’re expected to read; in fact, one is expected to read a lot here. But considering the extreme lengths one blind-deaf woman went to educate herself about issues she literally could not see firsthand, this ultimately seems like a fair enough trade-off. If anything, Gianvito hones in and explicates the distancing effects that voiceover can create: in between each address’ onslaught of on-screen text, there are long passages of evocative, simple landscapes set to the clear enunciations and calm demeanor of poet Carolyn Forché, who provides verbal connective tissue between major events in Keller’s life. It’s about as stark a contrast as one can draw out without being obvious, which is the last thing Gianvito would ever attempt to do with the material at hand.
What Gianvito does attempt here is far nobler: to not only educate those on a history they have yet to learn but also commemorate the achievements of an individual who decided to go up against the prevailing powers of capital. Much like his treatment of the members of the People’s Task Force for Bases Cleanup in Vapor Trail, Gianvito presents Keller as a tireless fighter for the disenfranchised, one who could easily have bought into a nihilistic worldview regarding her condition, but chose to dedicate her life to others instead. So in a sense, learning about Keller’s life here becomes an act of political vigor: a way to demolish Western narrative-building and, like Keller, to “see” past the prevailing ideologies that structure our perceptions of history. Unlike the many traditional documentaries that could have been constructed around this subject, Her Socialist Smile doesn’t lull one into passivity; it encourages (and even flat-out demands) active viewer engagement, spurring them to interrogate their established worldviews while also being drawn to the artificiality of Gianvito’s current cinematic practice. Of Pat O’Neill’s landmark Water and Power, Fred Camper once wrote: “One feature of a certain kind of bad film is that it fails to even ask interesting questions, while great films frequently ask the great questions and ask them well. I can think of no higher praise for a work of art than this.” By this measure, Gianvito’s latest is very great indeed.
Published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 3.