Monday, November 14, 2011

Dead Birds

Dead Birds, the first of series of films by Robert Gardner the artist/ethnographer currently being shown at Film Forum, concerns the bellicose Dani tribes of New Guinea. The film, which itself was shot over 40 years ago, is a paradox to the extent that it presents a pre-Adamic world devoid of shame that is at the same time characterized by very modern seeming forms of ritualized aggression. Robert J. Flaherty’s classics Nanook of the North  and Man of Aran are early examples of  this kind of artistic ethnographic filmmaking. But one wonders if self awareness lurks in the even more primitive characters on which Gardner fixes his lens. To some extent the filmmaker preempts this matter by adopting the omniscient authorial voice and the question is one of attribution? Do the filmmaker's subjects experience emotion in the westernized way that the narration describes? Cultural anthropology and ethology, the study of animal behavior, and in particular aggression, both come to mind in watching this beautiful film, filled with lush and at the same time horrific landscapes and events (such as the death and cremation of a child).  Every society has it  peculiarity and supposedly advanced societies have their tribal qualities while a primitive society like the one Gardner records can seem to be performing a Beckett play in which violence has an absurdist edge. The battles that film documents call to mind religious rites (in which Gods are appeased by scores being settled) and also curiously our own culture’s obsession with competitive athletics. One difference between Dani culture and that of the West, is the marked lack of ambition, with no tribe attempting to do anything more than achieve equilibrium. There are no Napoleons, Ganghis Khans or Sun Tzus with theories on the Art of War. On the other hand what is uncanny is that the Dani rituals, in the end, are reminiscent of our modern concept of nuclear deterrence, in which the job of  each cold warrior is to make sure that the other doesn’t get ahead. People who suffer from OCD will also identify with the magical thinking by which the tribesmen attempt to ward off ghosts. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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