(France/Germany, 143 min.)
Dir. Ben Russell
Programme: Wavelengths (North American Premiere)
The epigraph to Ben Russell’s Good Luck — an account of a mescaline-induced hallucination of a rock repeatedly splitting in two and recombining courtesy of poet and painter Henri Michaux — promises parallelism, and the film delivers. Belying the vaunted immediacy of the cinematic experience, Good Luck is a completely, transparently structural work wherein the whole is evident from the very first shot. The film passes more like architecture or installation than narrative cinema, giving itself up to a slow and methodical (not to say sometimes tedious) study of its constituent parts with no surprises in store, no particular direction or progression in sight: just a schematic, monumental impassivity.
With that in mind, here’s how the film goes, from the outside in. At the beginning and the end of Good Luck are shots of dehumanized landscapes (as opposed to inhuman—I was reminded of Antonioni’s L’eclisse) under superimposed thetas. Inside those brackets are two musical sequences. The film begins with a brass-band dirge at a Serbian copper mine, at the culmination of which the drummer informs nobody in particular that his house was destroyed to make way for the mine behind him. Russell’s film ends with a rhythmic song-and-dance ode to the availability of riches in a makeshift gold mine in the jungle of Suriname. Inside those sequences lies the bulk of the film: two immersions in those two mines.
Each section is comprised largely of slow, nearly silent steadicam shots of people working in the mines, punctuated by black-and-white and fully silent shots of individual workers staring at the camera and brief informal group interviews where somebody, presumably Russell, asks the respective groups about their fears. The symmetry even extends to the spare title cards: the opening “Beginning of Part 1” is not reprised with a balance-altering “Beginning of Part 2” at the beginning of part 2 but, instead, an “End of Part 2” at the end of part 2. Clever.
I’ve said that the point of this film is what it does within its rigid structure—which, in point of fact, takes it a leisurely two hours and twenty minutes to work its way through. What that amounts to isn’t immediately clear. Literally: the first section is, in addition to being nearly silent, nearly pitch-black much of the time as well. Now, before you say that this technique is just a realistic immersion in the miners’ experience, I have to insist that this is clearly Russell’s imposition: we eventually see instances of laughter and camaraderie among the Serbian workers but rarely are we allowed to hear what they say or have it subtitled. It’s still an immersion, sure, but a distant one, distant from the people it’s documenting, almost more engaged in that very distance than it is in the actual experience of being in the mine. Or so it felt to me. The second half is more generous—being outside, it’s full of rich colour and landscape and a bit more life—but, as I’ve said, it largely amounts to the same thing. (Darkness into light: more symmetry. Interesting as well to note that darkness is here equated with legality, so-to-speak above-ground economic behaviour, tied in with global finance, while light is just the opposite, culminating in a sort of perversion of the ideology of globalization.)
The episodes in each section that have some semantic element—you know, dialogue, gesture, incident, that kind of thing—don’t add much: both sets of workers espouse a sort of bemused stoicism, not opening up, when asked, about their fears or anything much else, preferring workaday, explicitly masculine jibing to heavy talk. Fair enough. Maybe that’s why the music-rituals on either end are there—emotional and intellectual content, drained from regular social and economic life, is poured into carefully delineated cultural behaviours. Maybe culture’s good for something after all. Or maybe not: maybe it just rationalizes participation in grossly destructive and exploitive capitalist processes. Whether that happens by way of helpless melancholy or perverse celebration is ultimately immaterial.
As I see it, then, Good Luck maps a movement from displacement-dirge to ode-to-gold, dark legality into light illegality, all via lots of stasis and quiet strife and shades of alienated labour. One ambivalence to another—or one big ambivalence, namely survival under globalized capitalism, that splits into two, only to reconstitute itself before your eyes.
The film’s minimalist reticence can feel artificial and imposed at times. I don’t know that the same ground and more couldn’t have been covered with a more expansive set of aesthetic strategies while retaining the rigid formalism to which Russell is clearly and, I hasten to add, fruitfully wedded. Nevertheless, Good Luck rewards patience and hard work.
TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.