Most religions around the world have a flood story. Whether it’s Noah’s Ark, the manvantara-sandhya in Hinduism, or the Cheyenne saga of the Great Flood, the story of a man building a boat somewhere is embedded in a good deal of cultural histories. One such story, the flood myth outlined in the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” serves as inspiration for director Ian Cheney’s The Arc of Oblivion. Cheney, like many of us today, lives in a predominantly digital world. Where our grandmothers luxuriated in letters from lovers, we have unending text message threads. Where our parents had cupboards full of photo albums, we have folders on our phones. Where once there were massive VHS and then DVD collections (and less massive LaserDisc ones), in their place are password managers for the ballooning number of streaming services. For Cheney, this means stacks of hard drives filled with footage from past films, videos of his children, and the other digital miscellany we all accumulate over the years. When contemplating humanity’s continued transition to a world of only 0s and 1s, and the inherent frailty of such an existence, Cheney wonders: “Are we insane to imagine that anything can last?”
In an attempt to answer that question, the director decides to follow in the footsteps of all those flood narratives — because obviously — and build an ark in his parents’ backyard in rural Maine. With the help of a neighbor, he designs and constructs the ark throughout the course of the film, and while this central metaphor is an obvious one, Cheney leverages it to pose more thoughtful questions. Experts in a wide variety of fields visit the ark to weigh in on the nature of history and memory according to their specific area of study: dendrochronologists talk about the trees that are cut down for the ark and how their rings tell a history of the earth; Kirk Johnson, paleontologist and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, speaks about fossils and the idea of the earth itself as an archive; Jamal Williams, a neuroscientist at Princeton who studies the role that music plays in our memories, visits, listening to a song for the first time so that he can connect those two memories forever. Meanwhile, Cheney also visits places far away from the ark, interviewing those who are trying to preserve our existence for the future. In Austria, he speaks with a ceramist who started “Memory of Mankind,” an archive created by putting information on ceramic plates and storing them underground. And later he visits the arctic and has a conversation with Ida Beathe Øverjordet, an ecotoxicologist who is searching for compounds in the sediment that could be used in pharmaceuticals.
Throughout all these conversations, Cheney’s skill as an interviewer is what keeps his essential inquiries engaging and moving at an effective clip. Each question builds upon the last, each person adding another layer to the director’s metaphorical ark, all while the actual ark fills out around them. But what stands out most in Arc of Oblivion is Cheney’s facility with visual storytelling. While this material could have easily been explored through bland talking head interviews with the experts, the decision to center the ark, heavy-handed though the conceit may be, provides a visual throughline that keeps the film appealing on both formal and narrative levels. As viewers, we watch the ark grow alongside our evolving investment in the film’s questions, and it’s almost tricky the way Cheney uses this to encourage our investment in the physical project’s finished product.
But what exactly is the finished product? While the ark itself is completed, the question of our fundamental “insanity” posed by Cheney at the film’s beginning doesn’t ever arrive at a tidy answer. Therein lies the film’s greatest strength — unlike so many traditionally narrativized documentaries, its embrace of the unknown is liberating, and leaves viewers space to draw their own conclusions. Value is here understood to come in the time taken to ask the questions rather than in any specific, reductive destination. Given all that, it’s not surprising to see Werner Herzog show up at the end of The Arc of Oblivion. Sure, he is one of the film’s executive producers, but even more so, in his nonfiction work he is known for his existential questing and crafting films that find summative answers limiting. Herzog, who famously doesn’t use storyboards and tells Cheney that he doesn’t keep any footage from his films after they are completed, notes that “oblivion is a blessing… it would be an unlivable existence if we remembered everything.” This, delivered in Werner’s soothing, eminently identifiable voice, is perhaps the bleakest but also most probable answer to Cheney’s question. The desire for everything to last is quite possibly insane, and so the question we’re left to ask ourselves — do we really want it to?
DIRECTOR: Ian Cheney; DISTRIBUTOR: Abramorama; IN THEATERS: January 16; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 12.