Arts

in focus

One man’s mundane meeting is another’s cinematic drama

A scene from James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s “Public Hearing.”
A scene from James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s “Public Hearing.”

Many documentarians try to observe and make sense of reality, but James N. Kienitz Wilkins is interested in reality as reflected in the media, on the Internet, and in our minds. In “Monrovia, Indiana” (2018) Frederick Wiseman films the workings of a town council meeting and edits it in such a way that its inner drama and implications are revealed. For “Public Hearing” (2013) Kienitz Wilkins — whose playful, provocative works have been featured in a retrospective at the SPACE Gallery in Portland, Maine (May 7-June 2) — has googled the minutes of a similar meeting and used them to script his deadpan, absurdist, intertextual collage.

“Public Hearing” also depicts an ongoing social and economic tragedy in America, the destruction of small-town businesses and community values by a greedy, faceless corporation. In the film, city officials, concerned citizens, and representatives of Walmart gather for what seems like a pro-forma zoning board hearing on the pros and cons of the chain’s latest development plan. 

Shot in black-and-white and almost entirely in close-up, the film evokes both a 1960s direct-cinema documentary and a “Twilight Zone” episode. As the speakers fumble with microphones, feedback, and syntax, Kienitz Wilkins intercuts seemingly random details of attendees pondering a cigarette pack, playing with a pen, or drinking a Coke (if Kienitz Wilkins doesn’t have a product placement deal with the Coca-Cola Company, he should). These digressions develop into mundane mini-dramas that underscore and sometimes undermine the seriousness of the event.

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Even so, the eloquence of some of the speakers describing the insidious effects of the project on the community rings clear. Kienitz Wilkins’s film recalls Heinz Schirk’s “The Wannsee Conference” (1984), though it doesn’t approach the profundity of that film’s tragic subject or its gravity of tone. Based on official minutes, Schirk’s docudrama re-enacts the 1942 secret meeting at which high-level Nazi officials worked out the details of the Final Solution. Despite their differences, both films bring to life the workings of bureaucracy and expose the evil wrought by their banality.

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The retrospective is also screening an assortment of shorts by Kienitz Wilkins which expand on the themes and style of “Public Hearing.” In “Mediums” (2017), an assortment of ordinary people gather at the steps of a courthouse awaiting jury duty. They engage in small talk and mild networking and discuss their jobs, problems, and aspirations. Almost all of their dialogue — delivered by actors who sound like they’re on a locally produced TV commercial in front of an unsettling, rear-projected image of the courthouse — comes from texts available online. Kienitz Wilkins cites the sources of these texts at the end, and they include the New York State juror’s handbook, a Dunkin franchise contract (see the Coca-Cola note above), and a listing of the rules for fair use of copyrighted material, which he might have included as both a reflexive joke and as protection from potential lawsuits.

The two other shorts consist of extended voiceover narration backing related visuals that explore the permutations of language and the elusive significance of images.

Occupations” (2015) follows an actor turned occupational therapist as he stumbles through the woods wearing a blindfold or drives around town at night to grab a snack from, no surprise, Dunkin. Somber baroque organ music (performed by Kienitz Wilkins’s mother) plays in the background as the subject discusses the relationship between his former and current professions and the various meanings of the word “occupation.”

In “Uncertain Pitch” (2016) the wordplay intensifies as, in free associative voiceover, Kienitz Wilkins “pitches” a movie idea which is actually a description of the lost 1927 silent film serial “The Masked Menace.” The film’s madcap but calculated stream-of-consciousness structure is reminiscent of Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” (2007), but the only images are black-and-white stills of the swirling, toxic Androscoggin River as it flows to Berlin, N.H., from Kienitz Wilkins’s hometown of Lewiston, Maine. Like the polluted river, the voiceover eddies and meanders, pondering different meanings of the word “pitch” (the baseball term, the dynamics of a river flow, the sticky stuff from trees), dipping into dicey youthful memories, opining on the switch from celluloid to digital film, commenting on the opioid plague, and reflecting on Maine’s then-governor, Paul LePage, all while the narrator’s voice rises in pitch to near-helium levels.

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Kienitz Wilkins muses near the end, “These are just thoughts . . . rooted in facts that have been freed by time, flowing by a polluted but very attractive river, touching everything along its path.”

All screenings take place at the SPACE gallery in Portland, Maine.

Go to www.space538.org or www.pointsnorthinstitute.org(And if you can’t make it to Portland, some of the films are available on demand at www.automaticmoving.com and mubi.com/cast/james-n-kienitz-wilkins.)

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.