Generations isn’t doing anything all that novel for static-shot documentary filmmaking, but as an exercise in how to watch cinema, it’s a plenty worthy effort.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a landscape film with a set number of allocated shots (here, 13), with a fixed duration for each (about five minutes per), that utilizes this mathematical strategy to produce philosophically-minded end goals that concern nature, man’s place within it, and the interconnected fissures between the two. Indeed, what Generations is seeking to accomplish isn’t exactly taking home any first-place prizes from the originality awards, it being the type of work whose humble objectives never allow it to become the next hot festival ticket title — but often inventiveness is mistaken for quality, and demanding that every cinematic work present some level of ingenuity on a formal or structural level plays into that simple-minded notion.
If anything, director Lynne Siefert takes this rigid, well-tested organizational method and applies it to what’s practicable within the moving image: these long takes of coal power plants across the United States (the ones that constitute the film’s hour-plus runtime) feel less static and more laggard, with motion never emerging outright, but suggested. Shot on 16mm and exhibited at 23 frames per second — instead of the usual 24 needed for recorded audio; the sound design here is heavily assisted by the stray noises of melting glaciers and dying animals — the human activity that exists within the foreground of each composition is decelerated just enough that their actions feel premeditated in terms of intentionality. The film’s internal rhythm is thus relaxed and patient, as anyone with passing familiarity with this mode of cinema would expect: it’s right on the cusp of motility, but never quite emerges, instilling the film with a painterly quality in terms of how it simplifies, crystallizes, and emphasizes it’s most base ideas in bold, texture-building gestures. And given Siefert’s original source of inspiration — Georges Innes’ The Lackawanna Valley, a morally ambiguous landscape portrait about the dawn of industrialization, which was commissioned by a railroad company — this is an appropriate means of appearance.
But unlike a single canvas, Generations acquires most of its effectiveness from visual accumulation: like any other great film, it slowly teaches you how to watch it and where to pay your attention. The first power plant, located in West Virginia, features zero human interference within the frame, with billowing fumes emerging from the towering smokestack that dominates the center of the screen. Each of the following will gradually complicate this formula — the second, at a beach in Florida, has a few tourists scurrying around its periphery; the seventh, in Marquette, Michigan, is shot in a snowstorm, with the surrounding blizzard casing everything with a frothy white viscosity — until the last, which finds an entire urban subdivision seamlessly built around and co-existing with the immense powers of industry. But by that point, this sense of routine integration has already begun to be felt — or, more specifically, the viewer has connected each of the previous shots together with a basic sense of logical progression. Which isn’t to say that the intellectual pleasures entirely merit engaging with some of the film’s more repetitive tendencies (did we really need that second ice-covered locale?), but as a semi-brief exercise in comprehension and acumen-building, there are far worse and far more tedious versions of this that would surely deliver lesser rewards.
You can currently stream Lynne Siefert’s Generations on Mubi.