Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Observing 'The Observers'

Below is an essay of mine entitled Observing ‘The Observers’, written for the DVD release of Jacqueline Goss’s magnificent first feature; the film will begin its week-long run tomorrow night (through May 16) at Anthology Film Archives, with the filmmaker in attendance. Also screening on the same bill is The Lakes by Jesse Cain (also responsible for The Observers’s superb cinematography). Also tomorrow night (May 9) at 7:30PM, you’ll have a single chance to see three of Goss’s best short video works. I can’t recommend these works enough!

Turbulent winds can break off the fragile branches of a stellar
crystal as it falls, and often the branches regenerate during the
descent, but even after reaching the ground these fragments
can suffer further modification: winds can disintegrate each
crystal by abrading it against other crystals so that, when the
fallen remnant comes to rest at last beneath the microscope
of the observer, the specimen often bears little resemblance
to the original particle formed high in the ionosphere.

from Crystallography by Christian Bök

Mount Washington Weather Observatory (or MWOBS for short) proudly boasts of being “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”.  With a 360-degree view atop the 6,288-foot peak that is its home, it might be thought of as a machine for visual investigation, not unlike a camera.  In winter, a great deal of energy is spent in fighting the fierce blowing snow and keeping instruments operational; in summer, there’s more time available, and that’s used for transcribing old weather logs into the MWOBS database.

The Observers is a fact-based fiction that centers on two meteorologists, each facing the extremities of a single season as they see to MWOB’s day-to-day operations on their own.  The film begins in winter, in an atmosphere of near zero visibility; under such conditions, the rising sun itself seems to struggle.  Amorphous snowdrifts are kicked at and hammered with fists, revealing solid built structures underneath- The Woman in the Dunes, with snow instead of sand.  Both films, after all, are anchored firmly in the physical world- dry or frozen granular substances in all their variety; the force and sound of the wind; how these things align and conspire against the body, towards a shape-shifting landscape.

Unlike that film, however (or the book from which it originated), The Observers is a story that resists being read as fable.  Perhaps that difference resides in the way the entomologist and the woman of the title live out a nightmare vision of permanent monogamous coupling, a pure Sisyphean futility from which there’s no escape.  Goss’s observers, in stark contrast, are inextricably bound by nothing but their commitment to meteorological fact.

Weather is the line that connects Johann Wolfgang Goethe and John Constable and Francis Beaufort to George Kuchar and Kenny Goldsmith and Willard Scott; there’s not always such a clear distinction between science or art or devotion.  With the meteorologists in the film, there’s something monk-like about their activity; for the one stationed atop a mountain in summer, her solitude seems heightened as she goes about her routine amidst the groups of tourists visiting the peak.  Without offscreen love to pine for, or the reflective surfaces of a journal (i.e. Diary of a Country Priest) for one's inner voice to bounce off of: they are vigilant in their observation, and prayer-like in their report.

Another work that connects to Goss’s film (less through resemblance than actual origin) is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Great Carbuncle; it is, so far as The Observers is concerned, that “original particle formed high in the ionosphere”.  Acknowledged by the filmmaker as a direct inspiration, Hawthorne’s story is set on the same mountain as the film, but its brilliant gem now a lockbox of the sort used to hold petty cash.  Like Bök’s snowflake, the gem of this Twice-Told Tale (which, before Hawthorne, had been an old Indian legend) has been abraded and regenerated beyond recognition. 

In Goss’s film, the mysticism that permeates The Great Carbuncle is stripped away, which is not to say it’s without mystery of its own.  Less the long-sought-after treasure of Hawthorne’s story than a carefully guarded secret, the lockbox in one way acts as a kind of Rubik’s Cube for the two meteorologists; though we never see the box actually opened, how do we know that it never really is?

Hawthorne’s story is radical in its refusal of a satisfying narrative closure; similarly, The Observers chooses skillfully drawn ellipses in favor of clear resolution.  In a time of total exposure typified by Google Earth (and, in another way, by the observers’ existence atop Mount Washington), the actual substance of what’s inside the box is far less important than its continuing existence.

Jim Supanick
March 2012

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