Make Me To Die
January 31, 2011
At Next Nature today, Ramin Bahrani’s short film Plastic Bag (posted about here by Peggy Nelson awhile back), in which a billowing plastic shopping tells its story of estrangement and spiritual yearning, the peri-apocalyptic picaresque of a castoff good in a world without us:
It’s reminiscent of Paddle to the Sea, Bill Mason’s 1966 adaptation of Holling C. Holling’s 1941 picture book about a boy who carves a cedar limb into a canoe and sets it on a snowy slope — the beginning of a long journey from the uplands north of Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s the first ten minutes (or watch the entire movie at the National Film Board of Canada):
The two films share a fascination with the agon of the object, the bildung of the built. The tell is in the contrasts.
In the older film, nature is an unmixed dichotomy: sublime, transcendent force; benign, playful delight, it’s all one thing or all the other. There’s a specter of malevolence and threat in Paddle to the Sea when the little canoeist floats through shipping lanes. Whatever the dangers, however, the impassive, graven navigator bespeaks a calm acceptance of fate and order beyond reckoning. It’s striking to note that in Holling’s book version of Paddle to the Sea, human engagement with nature is relatively free and untroubled; the author uses instances of the canoe’s passage through areas of human activity as opportunities to illustrate the working of lumber mills and other technological treatments of natural resources. Nature in Paddle to the Sea largely appears as a sublime force beyond human control.
The nature visited by the plastic bag, by contrast is already broken, primordially broken; for the bag, nature is downright unnatural. And our abandonment of the regard formerly implied by making, of the erotics of technology, is frankly displayed (with Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 The Red Balloon, one wants to make a set of films to compose a kind of sentimental history of objects). And while I’m slightly troubled by the easy ecological reproach implied in the tale, I’m quite happily captivated by the brittle, weary voice of Werner Herzog — and persuaded in the end by the movie’s critique of our Promethean urges — expressed in our daring to eschew the wisdom of divine, broken nature by making things that cannot die.