SXSW 2023: No Ordinary Campaign, The Arc of Oblivion, Join or Die | Festivals & Awards
The ark is a manufactured unifying device for a movie that is, by definition, probably impossible to make coherent, much less tidy and tight. As Cheney guides the audience through setpieces built around loved ones and expert witnesses, the film becomes an ark of another sort, collating a couple dozen sketches of distinctive real-life characters, including documentarian Kristen Johnson (“Dick Johnson is Dead”), whose own work focuses on time, memory, and mortality; her brother Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and fossil collector who fantasizes about being interred in at the bottom of the Mississippi River; Erin and Brian Palmer, married photographers who shoot cemeteries memorializing Black Americans from slavery through Jim Crow; poet; potter Yasmin Glinton Poitier, whose childhood home was destroyed in a hurricane; David Hoch, a limestone magnate and devout Christian who stops in to check the quality the concrete Cheney mixed for use in the ark’s foundation, then fetches a magic lantern and explains where the phrase “in the limelight” came from; Bogdan Onac, a speleologist (cave scientist) who has kept nearly every sample that meant something to him, and also collects art depicting hedgehogs and owls; and the director’s brother, musician Colin Cheney, who created the film’s ambient, abstract score by mixing the family’s personal audio and video with recordings of sounds that he produced by striking, scratching, rubbing, and otherwise manipulating objects their father kept in the family barn.
They all have their own thoughts on any subject Cheney raises, from record-keeping, preservation, and physical versus digital archiving to the way in which trees, rocks, minerals, animals, humans, even the land itself make records of their experiences, whether they take the form of limestone layers, the concentric rings of trees, or the hard drives, video and audio cassettes, and other testamentary objects that Cheney has accumulated (some broken and useless). Cheney’s film is executive produced by Werner Herzog and owes a lot to Herzog’s non-fiction work, particularly the more rambling and discursive projects he released during his Guru Emeritus period. “The Arc of Oblivion” travels to the Sahara, Spain, the Arctic, and the Alps but always returns to the farm where the ark is being built. It’s loosely held together by the personalities of the interviewees; by leisurely shots of landscapes, skies, and analog televisions planted in nature; and by Cheney’s earnest, self-deprecating narration, which often threatens to go Full Podcaster, then stops itself by introducing a surprising new location or idea, or by falling silent and letting us watch people talk, work, and think. There are times when the fragmented structure frustrates, seeming to move too slowly or quickly.
But that’s always a risk with this sort of project, and “The Arc of Oblivion” owns it. Two hours isn’t enough time for all that it wants to do, but the movie knows this and knows that moviemaking is no different from anything else in that respect. There’s never enough time, and in the end, everything and everyone ends up as a tree ring. The “c” in the title is not a typo.
“Join or Die” could have just as easily been called “Bowling Alone,” after the famous book that gives it a title and main interview subject, author Robert D. Putman. Putman, a political scientist specializing in comparative subjects, thinks it’s possible to quantify the decline in group memberships in America and outlined it in his surprise best-seller that blames the fragmentation of modern society on increased feelings of loneliness and despair. Bill Clinton asked to meet with him at the White House and paraphrased some of his ideas in his 1995 second inaugural address. Barack Obama awarded him the Humanitarian Prize, an honor of great emotional significance to Putnam: Obama was one of his seminar students in the ‘90s, and Putnam and his wife attended John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in the capital fifty years earlier.