From now through October, we’ll be covering the films set to show at this year’s New York Film Festival. Today, we’re looking at Valeska Grisebach’s Western (Main Slate) and Ben Russell’s Good Luck (Projections).
Films about working class labor are often films about men wrangling with their own egos, their fears and anxieties stretched upon epic landscapes that become increasingly shredded and displaced. More than one film at this year’s New York Film Festival lends a patient, contemplative eye to the tolls, physically, politically and psychologically, of commissioned labor. For experimental filmmaker Ben Russell’s Good Luck (A-), we see an ethnographic, textural portrait of two mining sites, vastly different in geological and national dimensions, yet share a common sense of weathered, hard-earned hopefulness.
It doesn’t start out on the most optimistic note. Establishing the tone and theme of the slow, dreamlike journey to come, Russell lends a sand canyon, presumably the aftermath of a mining venture, the grandeur of a western epic, orchestral music sweeping over the staid composition. Then he pulls back, and we see the artifice behind the emotionally rich composition, following the physical band as they walk away from the pit, their repeated melody becoming exhaustive, repetitious and deflated the further it goes on. The music coming to a halt, the drummer breaks rank and what was at first a landscape shot, then a performance set-piece, now becomes an intimate look at a single man processing the toll of his past work. “I remember everything. The place of my birth, my childhood home. It is all gone, it is in the pit now.”
Russell isn’t new to heightening modern societal anxieties with music, from the blistering death metal finale of his Ben Rivers collaboration A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness to the nightmarish nightclub time-distortion of Black and White Trypps Number Three. This is the first time, though, that he’s applied performance as intentional artifice, breaking from our expectations of art’s absence from industrial labor. It at once lends a feeling of revelry and mournfulness to the men’s work, which can often feel numbingly visceral, particularly in the first half, filmed in a state-run Serbian mine. The cranks and whirs of elevators slowly making their descent into darkness. The clatter of drills burrowing deeper into this claustrophobic chamber.
A natural feeling of tension and threat emerges, lending the first half an almost psychological thriller quality, using darkness in one moment to trap the men, illuminated by the most selective of light sources. The next, darkness fills the screen, erasing the edges of the cavern walls, giving the miners a seemingly infinite space of self-expression. Russell makes use of the minimalist visual resources he has to create imaginative compositions that help convey the physiological and psychological isolation of subterranean mining work. The image of a drill machine approaching from out of the fog feels reminiscent of futurist machines emerging out of cool darkness in sci-fi thrillers like Aliens and Armageddon. The feeling of an ethereal other dimension never subsides for the first half.
Until, that is, we transition from the bleak, sleek cold of the Serbian underground to the earthy textures and open spaces of Suriname. Gone is the darkness, as Russell’s camera learns to frame for the wide, majestic landscapes of the South American country, yet the tension persists. Instead of an industrial mine, we focus in on the workers of an illegal mining collective, and the lack of overhead shows. So much of the toil we see among the Suriname workers is self-managed. Instead of lifts systems and subterranean vehicles, the miners walk on foot towards the site, their feet somewhat awkwardly twisting over the terrain. There’s plenty of focus on care and devotion of the work itself, but Russell gleans just as much socio-economic tension and desperation from the simple act of watching someone move across the rugged landscape.
Good Luck becomes less of a political inquiry than a sensitive, elemental exploration of the human body and soul, and the duress that both take in the literal search for prosperity. “What are you afraid of,” Russell asks both groups of miners, and while the Serbian crew mostly avoid showing vulnerability in their answers, keeping their guard up, the Suriname workers answer from a much more spiritual place, understanding the richness of good, pure work, and the rot of violent, cruel work. There isn’t much of a feeling of cocksure posturing as there is a care and resultant karma in one’s work. As Russell breaks the film’s disparate parts up with close-ups of each of the workers, ranging from nonplussed and reluctant to eager for the opportunity to be seen, we get a chance to see both their own wear and pride, if it’s there, on their faces.
Pride is a much less pure notion in Valeska Grisebach’s Western (B+), a more tense, meandering look at employment-prompted migration. It takes just moments in Bulgaria for the German workers, there to help build a water power plant, to overstep their boundaries and proclaim dominion over their surroundings. Aging former legionnaire Meinhard’s (naturalistic newcomer Meinhard Neumann) posturing act of placing a German flag atop their living compound is practically tame in comparison to the more crass, insistent Vincent’s (Reinhardt Vetrek) first run-in with the locals. Cruelly taunting attractive Bulgarian woman Vyara (Vyara Borisova) along the river, it doesn’t take long for negative word to spread about the German workers.
Grisebach’s film is admittedly less interested in the toil of men at work than the reckless wandering of men between labor. In that respect, Meinhard becomes an odd protagonist, displaying the same capacity for misplaced dominion over foreign property as his compatriots, yet seemingly more sympathetic for his desire to integrate with the locals. Meinhard seems to stumble upon the role of a stranger in a strange land, an outsider amongst both his fellow Germans and the Bulgarians he becomes ingratiated with. That initially quite an intoxicating notion, as Meinhard climbs aboard a wandering horse, claiming it as his own, only to later strike a deal and a friendship with the horse’s owner Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov). If initially Meinhard seems a bored old man bumbling through life, he soon develops a confident swagger as something of an icon fitting of the titular genre.
Grisebach manages to maintain a careful distance from her characters, doing as little to fuel their own grandiose self-perceptions as possible, allowing them to confound their own outsized rural conflicts. That distance, a refusal to push her characters too forcefully in any direction, makes settling into the meandering rhythms of Western a bit rough at the start, like we’re struggling to communicate with a language neither we, nor Meinhard, entirely understand as of yet. It’s only through time and repetition that we develop an emotional understanding of dynamics. “You’re saying something sad,” Adrian tells Meinhard, as though he doesn’t grasp the precise words, but understands and empathizes with Meinhard’s feelings of dislocation and existential loneliness.
With understanding, though, also comes misunderstanding. A series of events seems to escalate feelings of conflict on all sides. Vincent becomes increasingly frustrated with Meinhard’s natural rapport with the locals, as he comes off more crassly, pushing himself onto Vyara as she becomes more comfortably friendly with Meinhard. Village locals start rejecting Meinhard’s attempted integration. For a time it seems like things will build to a chaotic climax, but that’s neither the film Grisebach’s making, nor the world Meinhard’s inhabiting. Neumann lends Meinhard warmth and sadness, but also a cocksure self-mythologizing quality that keeps explosive conflict in his own head. It’s tempting to think of oneself of a heroic outsider against the world. It’s harder becoming a natural, non-aggrandizing part of it. Western becomes a more somber, broken-hearted dislocation drama the more it realizes that.