Forest of Bliss: Other People’s Grief, and the Limits of Ethnography

11/16/2011 9:48 AM |


Tonight and tomorrow, Film Forum‘s retrospective of the ethnographic documentarian Robert Gardner concludes, with a double feature of his Sons of Shiva and, from 1986, Forest of Bliss.

The sumptuousness of crematory rites by a Benares river. The precise libations and laments of unnamed, unsubtitled mourners baptizing their dead make a cruel abstraction as the passing-on of the dead and of death’s rituals become the one constant of the movie’s world: a ceremony of anonymous performers performing the same role to a chorus of monkeys and dogs. Gardner’s refusal to interpret individuals as anything but visual motifs is the surest way of exoticizing his subjects as icons of local tradition; no translations, explanations, or context are given to comprehend or interfere with “the other,” and Gardner’s respect for his subject doubles as a kind of fetishization, with caveats:

-Gardner, like Jean Rouch, is only turning into a public spectacle events that already are: his non-interference is more or less genuine as the locals sublimate private griefs into communal rituals.

-“Communal” not with other people, but with the river, wind, ruins, monkeys, dogs, all of which play their role in the rites; Gardner’s theater, even framed with a proscenium arch, extends to the open air so that the rituals of burial and consumption are never self-contained displays, but part of larger life cycles of animals eating their dead, the river swallowing corpses, and men entering and leaving the film in an ebb and flow of a not totally coherent montage.

-Counter that, the moments of men dragging carcasses down stairs, which cut through the abstraction of the rites, of the “life cycles” that transfigure each event into a thematic hinge, of Gardner’s penchant for the figural over figurative, fog and film grain occluding his subject matter prettily.

-A book, Making Forest of Bliss: Intention, Circumstance and Chance in Nonfiction Film (2001) that gives all the exposition eluded by the movie.

The burden of context and understanding is the viewer’s to shoulder and shed. The feeling that outward appearance and bodily action are enough to conjure some “deeper understanding,” a rapprochement with the spirit world, is after all as much the film’s—or any film’s—as the ritual’s itself. And Gardner’s play of metaphors and meaning can be ignored as he balances his movie on the point where men, like the dead, become nothing but outward apparitions, the stuff of film grain (“an artist,” Brakhage called Gardner).

But that approach could be pitted a few years later against Wiseman’s Near Death: another decontextualized survey of grief rituals in a local population as men are exchanged into corpses across shots. Where Wiseman circles around all the moments in Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital when the ritual becomes a broken mask onto feelings that could never could never be adequately formalized—doctors experimenting with new ways to tell patients their loved ones are dead—Gardner takes the ritual at its word. His movie’s both a corroboration and rebuke of claptrap that poetry’s the opposite of material detail. Gardner’s idea of historical tradition is eternal beauty, that thing beyond time or conscious thought, and maybe the oldest idea of all.