Discussion: Bill Brown’s The Other Side

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Ian here—

My teaching style for my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” first-year seminar course at the School of the Art Institute this semester has been relatively hands-off. I show students things in class, give a short 10-20 minute lecture, have students give presentations (you can see their handiwork here!), and then launch into discussion.

One way to conduct class discussion is to have a very specific set of interpretive moves you want to make, and to tailor your questions in order to guide your students through your own thought process. Sometimes I’ll do this type of in-class discussion. (My lesson plan on Bruce Conner’s A Movie details a lot of the points I like to hit up when discussing that film). I’m drifting away from that, though, in this particular class. I give students more work to do, in the form of blog posts and presentations. Likewise, I’m more fully embracing the seminar format in class discussions, allowing conversation to be guided by students’ interests, instead of carefully crafting questions to serve a particular road map.

This has lead to some really wonderful in-class moments that I wanted to report back on. I bristled at the thought of calling these “lesson plans,” given that such language gives me too much credit, and my students too little. Instead, they’re best thought of as the collaborative results of loosely-planned conversations, that hold within them the potential to become future, more strictly-planned lessons.

Up today: some points made while my students and I discussed Bill Brown’s essay film The Other Side (2006). If you haven’t seen it, the entire film is available on Brown’s Vimeo page, here.

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History hasn’t exactly been kind to wall-builders. It’s just that the walls never seem to work. I mean, look at the walls the Romans built, or China’s Wall, or the Berlin Wall. When you build a wall, you acknowledge that your power has limits, and you mark the spot where you’ve run out of better ideas. And if that’s true, then this wall between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico is sort of depressing. I mean, is this where America, as a good idea, ends, replaced by some flimsy sheets of corrugated steel? —Bill Brown, narrating The Other Side

As I first mentioned in the post where I announced the content of this course for this semester, I added Bill Brown’s The Other Side to my syllabus this spring as a part of adapting my course to the political climate of 2017. In introducing the film, I set the stage by describing a political period that, on the one hand, they are probably too young to remember—but, on the other hand, we haven’t really ever left.

Between December 2005 and August 2007, various immigration-focused bills failed to get through the US Congress. President George W. Bush had set immigration reform as one of the major objectives of his second term in office, and it is one area where he found common ground with liberals and Democrats who had otherwise been so alienated by his presidency. Unfortunately, though, a rift emerged in the Republican party, with anti-immigration hard-liners rejecting Bush’s proposal. Bleeding political capital due to the war in Iraq and the botched Hurricane Katrina response, Bush had to back down. The end result was that important reforms never got enacted, and instead border policy became a national sore, left to fester in the desert sun as the various Congresses under the Obama administration likewise failed to enact any meaningful reform. Anti-immigration sentiment rose un-checked, and we were left with chants of “build a wall” in the 2016 elections.

Watching The Other Side in 2017 is akin to digging up a time capsule and unexpectedly finding it filled with contemporary electronics. It’s a postcard from what by all rights should be another time, separated from our current moment by a decade. And yet the moment has simply refused to pass: instead, it has lingered, steeping like sun tea, rendered dark black, toxic and hyperbolic.

The border is no more “under control” than it has ever been. This border has always been out of control. Out of anybody’s control. It has always been an open border. It is still an open border. And it will be an open border, because of the geography and the terrain of this border. If we would build the next Great Wall of China between here and Mexico, it still wouldn’t work. —an unidentified border patrol expert interviewed in The Other Side

For the week that we watched this film in class, I had my students read some selections from David Montero’s Thinking Images: The Essay Film as a Dialogic Form in European Cinema. As the book’s title indicates, Montero’s ultimate focus is on European essay filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Harun Farocki. In the introduction and first chapter, though, he provides a very nice history of proposed definitions for the concept of “essay,” and delves into the matter of how we might begin applying conceptions of essay-writing articulated by figures such as Michel de Montaigne and Max Bense to cinema. I find these sections of the book to be useful no matter what essay films are being looked at, and have stuck it on the syllabus when teaching everything from Su Friedrich to Kidlat Tahimik.

That’s it for background—here’s some of the things that my students and I ended up gravitating toward in our discussion of the film.

An appreciation of fallibility

In my short introductory lecture, I positioned the essay film as a genre squeezed between documentary filmmaking and experimental filmmaking. Essay films share with documentaries a commitment to sharing ideas about the world. Unlike most mainstream documentaries, however, essay films tend to be unabashed in presenting themselves as the direct product of one filmmaker’s thought process. As Montero puts it, an essay “involves a solid argument, but acknowledges its own fallibility,” always keeping front and center “of the essayist as the subject who experiences life.”[i] The essay film, then, borrows the personalized language of experimental cinema to undercut the authoritative stance that documentaries typically have.

My students both grasped this and immediately appreciated it. They liked how the audio interviews Brown includes in the film tend to be accompanied by 360º pans of the American and Mexican desert, rather than by footage of the interviewees. Although the people interviewed all seem to be knowledgeable and have interesting things to say, Brown’s de facto anonymization of them undercuts the pervasive sense of authority that typically accompanies “talking head” interviews in documentaries.

They also liked Brown’s own demeanor, the way in which he embraces fallibility and readily admits to having incomplete knowledge of his subjects. (This is one of the attributes that makes essay-writing a distinct form, according to Montaigne.[ii]) I pulled their attention especially to Brown’s last line of dialogue of the middle chunk of the film, before its coda (more on the bookending introduction/coda structure below): “These seem like important facts, but, frankly, I don’t know what they mean.”

Two journeys, criss-crossed

The initial frame that Brown uses to set up that material of The Other Side is that it is a record of a journey westward, from Texas to California. Just two minutes into the film, he uses the trip as an excuse to reminisce about earlier, youthful journeys to the Pacific. Brown describes the unabashedly romantic feeling that “the ocean is whispering to you, across 2000 miles, telling you something you can’t quite make out,” and muses over the possibility that “a trip to California was something programmed into every American car.”

This sets up a certain expectation: the film will be about Brown’s journey westward. It’s the quintessential American road trip, reproduced in everything from The Grapes of Wrath to On the Road.[iii] (Hmm, thinking about it now, I’m realizing that some prominent American road movies invert this trajectory. Both Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop trace a path from west to east. Curious.) It reproduces the nation’s own expansion westward—the consequence of which Brown doesn’t shy away from. (“It was Spain, and consequently Mexico, that had dibs on the lands that eventually became the Southwest United States,” Brown reminds us at one point on the film’s soundtrack. “Well, actually, it was the American Indians who had dibs, but that’s a whole other, sad story.”) This expectation, though, is a red herring, and quickly gets proved quite false.

The Other Side is only incidentally about Brown’s travels, and actually he ends the film southeast of where he began, rather than west. (See! There it is again. Cinematic road trip = west to east.) By the end of the film’s first five minutes, it becomes clear that the film is less about his own journey that it is about the border he is traveling along. Brown complements his film’s nods to the east-west American road trip with copious tales of the south-north journey undertaken by undocumented immigrants. His own travels find him crossing paths with border patrol experts, law enforcement, humanitarian aid workers, and immigrant communities, all of whom reinforce the film’s ultimate focus on this south-north journey. The film, in effect, could be plotted as a cross, with two intersecting paths, each aiming at a mythical version of America.

Introduction and coda

In class, I pulled students’ attention to the opening and closing moments of the film, asking them to identify what set them apart from the film’s main body. The film opens abruptly with Brown describing the “mystery lights” of Marfa, TX, and it closes just as abruptly with Brown investigating a “miracle tree” in Brownsville, TX, in which the Virgin Mary has purportedly been seen. Why, I ask them, do we begin and end with these anecdotes?

The only thing I particularly had in mind here was highlighting the film’s bookend structure, and how it contributes to the red herring that this is more of a “road trip” movie than it actually is. Brown begins and ends the film with what seem like incidental details of the kitschy tourist roadside attractions one frequently encounters on highway road trips. This gives the film a “travelogue” feel, which contributes to the film’s loose, essay-like structure. Brown clearly has an argument, but by the time we get the middle section of the film, we feel as if we’ve been following his train of thought through a particular landscape. The film’s rhetorical style hinges upon this kind of stream-of-consciousness feel; it’s how Brown avoids the stark authoritative tones of traditional documentary.

My students, though, did me one better. These bookends, they pointed out, are not as randomly chosen as they first might seen. Not only are both kitschy roadside attractions, but they are also specifically kitschy roadside attractions that are religious in some way. Along with the “miracle tree” in Brownsville, Brown makes a point of noting that a misprint on a plaque at the Marfa site identifies the mystery lights as “an unusual phenomenon, similar to a miracle.” The reappearance of “miracle,” my students insisted, couldn’t be a mistake.

And I think they’re right! I’m now convinced that the film’s bookends are provide more than just a red herring. They are also a framing device that highlights the religious undertones of the criss-crossed journeys the film documents. Brown frequently terms the journey of undocumented immigrants a “pilgrimage,” and refers to the U.S. as the “promised land.” The religious connections there are clear. We can also dredge up some darker religious connotations to the archetypal east-west American road trip. When described by the term “manifest destiny,” the nation’s westward expansion and gradual encroachment on Native American and Mexican lands were framed in terms of Divine Providence, rather than imperialist aggression. That is: America stretches from sea to shining sea because God wills it, much like He would will a miracle into existence.

Special thanks to all of my students for a great discussion of this film.

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[i]. Montero, David. Thinking Images: The Essay Film as a Dialogic Form in European Cinema. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. Pg 4.

[ii]. Montero quotes Montaigne on the subject: “Essays I take hold of all occasions where, though it happen to be a subject I do not very well understand, I try however, sounding it at a distance, and finding it too deep for my stature, I keep me on the shore; and this knowledge that a man can proceed no further.” Ibid, Pg 6.

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