Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.
Descendant of Chris Marker, Santiago Álvarez and Woody Guthrie, Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One is a potent piece of pop agitprop, an old school leftist snarl bathed in nostalgia for an era of more gleefully dogmatic activist art, while reinventing essay filmmaking for a new cut-and-paste century. Wilkerson was once perhaps the most exciting new voice in nonfiction, but his output has been surprisingly scant since his debut over a decade ago. While the world awaits distribution for his Los Angeles Red Squad (trailer here), which played in Marseille and Toronto in 2013, let’s induct his most powerful work into our new canon.
The film tells the stories of former copper kingdom Butte, Montana, tragic agitator Frank Little and the most notoriously radical of all unions, the IWW. Building with each segment is a palpable sense of muted rage, a burn-this-goddamn-system-to-the-ground anger that is affecting and exciting. Wilkeron’s voice-over storytelling is furiously restrained, knowing and deeply felt, guiding the viewer like a speechmaker giving a class. His calm growl is a challenge to the viewer: feel the outrage or get out. It transforms what could be cold didacticism into an emotional howl. As the looming, murderous confrontation between the capitalist snakes at the Anaconda Copper Company and the Wobblies’ working class heroes gets closer, Wilkerson provides a truly heartbreaking history lesson into what was essentially the death of the revolutionary left in this country. Leaping forward he connects this to the wasted western landscapes of today. History is an active, entropic cancer and the ghost towns prove it.
In dialectic with the raging storytelling is a style Wilkerson seemingly invented, a meticulous, careful but somehow completely thrilling use of text, still images and decontextualized 16mm shots of mines, nature, guns, etc. Wilkerson builds drama, mystery and excitement out of static pictures, ephemera and film burn-outs — making so much out of so little. Intercut throughout the film are musical interludes that pay tribute to, and graphically render, miner protest songs of the early 20th century. The sheer DIY ingenuity matches the rabble-rousing aesthetic of his heroes. But every graphic element is perfect, every moment precise and powerful. In a way, Wilkerson was a herald of the coming YouTube era of cut-and-paste essay filmmaking, but not one second of the film feels amateurish. In the hands of a master structuralist like Wilkerson, stasis is shimmering and affective. Who knew there were so many ways to use still images and text?
Wilkerson made other films that excited the audiences that were lucky enough to see them, but the promise of An Injury to One still feels somehow unfulfilled. The combination of formal invention, political force and legitimate suspense was uncommon then and is almost wholly absent today. Maybe the release of more of Wilkerson’s work will change this feeling. But those everyday Internet revolutionaries that create hermitically sealed propaganda for themselves and their own small choir should still heed the lessons of Wilkerson’s dynamic sense of storytelling and structure in An Injury to One. Masterpieces have the potential to change the world.
Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema: