Wilkerson's 2003 'An Injury to One' (right) plays alongside a collection of cosmic shorts.

In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

Johnny Ray Huston October 21, 2011

Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

Travis Wilkerson's 2003 political and historical documentary An Injury to One first arrived at the height of documentary's presence in the independent movie house—occupying a spot just outside of the commercial realm at a time when Tarnation, Capturing the Friedmans and Errol Morris's petri-dish portraiture were extending the form's dramatic potential. Somewhere between James Benning's stark structural landscapes and Michael Moore's pop agitprop, Wilkerson's look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana is already aging better than other works of the time, and from Wisconsin to Wall Street, its red-harvest relevance only seems to grow. It's hard not to view the US as one gargantuan busted union. The frameworks for "human resources" may be corporate or larger now, but the sinister nomenclature remains roughly the same, with the Anaconda Mining Company in Wilkerson's film replaced by any number of bureaucratic "health care" entities collecting off human misery.

Part of a double bill—along with the solar system shorts collection Orbit(film) screening at SF Film Society | New People Cinema on October 24—Wilkerson's big story is about a man named Frank Little, a Wobbly organizer who arrived in Butte, Montana during WWI, when the town's snaky mining company was producing one-tenth of the world's copper. In just one of this real-life account's many underlying ironies, Butte's chief export was not only crucial to the US military but also to the very foundation of American currency, the penny. Wilkerson doesn't linger on this detail, though. The precise symbolism of his fact-based visual storytelling connects the current-day destitute ruins of an American town to the dimensions of one man's grave. When Little was abducted and hung only one month after his arrival in Butte, a man known as Dashiell Hammett was rumored to be involved in the murder. Thus the history of American detective fiction dovetails with the history of American labor, in a manner that couldn't be more fatalistic.

Clocking in and out at under one hour, An Injury to One nonetheless manages to immerse viewers deeply within Butte's past and its present, thanks to keen deployment of archival material, contemporary cinematography that produces postcard-ready ghost town imagery, and Wilkerson's chief stylistic flourish, a soundtrack with musical contributions by Will Oldham (who played a miner in John Sayles' 1987 Matewan), the Dirty Three, Shannon Wright, and Jim O'Rourke's Gastr del Sol. Oldham's interpretations of Butte miner folk songs enter the picture in a specific way—instead of being vocalized, their words are projected onscreen, a tactic that encourages one to sing along, if only silently and meditatively within one's mind.

The power of words, whether written, spoken, sung or projected, is central not just to Wilkerson's movie, but to its presence in a film world ruled by Hollywood blockbuster entertainments. Isolated screenings or DVD rentals alone aren't enough to activate them—it's equally crucial for there to be space online or in print if discourse and actual response is to accumulate. Filmmakers such as Wilkerson are doing part of the work themselves. An Injury to One exists within a strain of topographical American cinema—including films such as William E. Jones's Massillon (1991), Benning's California Trilogy (2000-1), Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself (which also dates from 2003) and Lee Anne Schmidt's California Company Town (2008)—that accounts for many of the best recent American contributions to the documentary form.

In the double-bill at SF Film Society | New People cinema, Wilkerson's movie plays a different provocative role, as the landlocked work within a twofer that also looks to the skies at a moment when they possess a wide variety of political connotations. Mike Plante and Mark Elijah Rosenberg's Orbit(film) is an omnibus tour of the solar system. To paraphrase the title of a terrific recent book by San Francisco's Megan Prelinger, the 13 films commissioned or created by Plante and Rosenberg form another science fiction—one that's an entertaining corrective to the Obama administration's curtailing of outer space programs in favor of military expenditure. The number 13 might leave one wondering if Plante and Rosenberg have discovered some new planets, but instead they've included films devoted to comets, the sun, the moon and exiled Pluto, as well as a broader Requiem for Progress triptych by Wilkerson (who also contributes Pluto Declaration, which critiques the "imperialist" science that demoted Pluto in 2006, and aims for it to be reinstated along with its sister planets).

Orbitf(ilm)'s stylistic breadth is roughly as vast as its subject matter, ranging from direct scientific visions of cosmic wonder to comic and dramatic skits. In Brent Hoff's Look at the Sun, the sun's gorgeous, teeming oranges, reds, and yellows give way to aquatic blues and emerald greens, as intertitles focus on the diminished number of sunspots that marked the beginning of the 21st century, causing alarm amongst Nahua priests. Deborah Stratman's …These Blazing Stars! also taps into deep space and ancient divination, with black-and-white images of fiery and icy metamorphosis that put big-budget CGI renderings of space to shame.

Other contributors view the solar system from an overtly human scale or point of view. Jessica Oreck's Venus essentially consists of tactical closeups of bikini-clad women sunbathing at a beach, married to a voice-over (read with French accent by Jackie Raynal) about the planet's feminine characteristics. The animator Kelly Sears renders tempestuous Jupiter through a tale of a hurricane expert from Jupiter, Florida, while Brian M. Cassidy's and Melanie Shatzky's I Seen the Moon relates a near-death car crash experience in a manner that hints the potential victims were saved by moonlight, only to be menaced by moon signs in the aftermath. Jupiter by Poseidon casts the planet as a Welles-ian king (played with brio by John Merriman), complete with trident, who prank calls the other planets from his bathtub, razzing the sun about its unsightly spots and Uranus about its name before asking comely Saturn out on a date. The other planets are portrayed by the voices of filmmakers in the series, just one of Jupiter's meta- touches.)

Some of Orbit(film)'s highlights, though, are hybrid films that mix dazzling NASA or related footage with earthbound documentary and dramatic action. Bill Brown's Uranus finds science fiction emanating from everything from the Space Needle to corporate buildings that have been designed by "space aliens, or Swedish architects." In the Martian entry, Mark Elijah Rosenberg's No Message Received, a scientist's (or more specifically, Rover Software and Robotic Integration Engineer's) work on an abandoned little robot accrues a few different layers of poignance. Jacqueline Goss and Michael Gitlin give Saturn the visual love letter it deserves, setting motion pictures of its heavenly rings to the Carpenters' "Close to You," spotlighting that song's abundant interstellar imagery in the process. It all builds to giddy animations of hula hoops and reflex balls.

Orbit(film')s liveliest entry, though, is Ben Coomley's Mercury, which begins with a hilarious dance sequence-slash-space voyage involving a pack of Orbit gum, moving on to ask—through the munchkin voice of one of Mercury's resident craters—exactly why so few craters are named after women. A Simpsons-like moment from an actual meeting of the International Astronomical Union gives way to an irreverent commentary on avant-garde cinema, in which splotches of chewing gum on the sidewalk are accorded the monikers of acclaimed filmmakers. “Isn't that a bit of an insult?,” the munchkin from Mercury wonders, only to answer its own question with a wise-ass remark. Not only starting and ending with a ludicrous candy metaphor, but somehow extracting every last bit of flavor from it, Mercury is worth unwrapping more than once.