Past midnight, a one-man pirate radio station broadcasts to the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Almost menacingly, the host waxes lyrical on a political polemic; how in today’s world reactionaries give in to artistic expression over violent action. The film you’re watching is about this man, with early images skittering between him, animated circles, landscape footage and grainy stills of protesters clashing with police. Then:
“This broadcast is aimed only at you. It’s for your ears only. Everyone else can fuck off.”
A love story, told as if retracing footsteps, the city mapped on psychogeographic lines. Travis Wilkerson’s Machine Gun or Typewriter? is at once a landscape essay film, a fractious collage piece and an abstract confessional, restlessly serving the film noir narrative trope of a missing woman. Wilkerson plays the radio man, seen only behind a pop screen and a Sennheiser mic, who tells stories about falling in and out of love with his partner, another would-be political reactionary. Each anecdote is tethered to a place, both physically — mapped out with pins and string on the man’s wall — and figuratively: the man’s fury at the injustices perpetrated at these landmarks wrests attention away from the woman who has gone missing. There’s a perverse solace he finds in re-visiting narratives of systemic racism, class divide and police brutality.
These landscape sections, in a sense indebted to the work of Patrick Keiller, are driven by voiceover narration — the man mentions a building, we go to the building. It might seem a small, even trivial, shift from having narration reflect on the images as they are presented, but it speaks volumes about the film’s grounding in a singular point-of-view. What is not singular, though, is the aesthetic approach taken by Wilkerson. His recent work has been defined by its efforts to perpetuate the filmic approach of Cuban political filmmaker Santiago Álvarez. Álvarez was best known for his work in ‘third cinema’, an anti-capitalist movement anchored in Latin America across the 1960s and 1970s. Wilkerson met the filmmaker in the mid-1990s, made the feature documentary Accelerated Under-Development about that meeting, and was heavily involved in the re-discovery and home distribution of Álvarez’s films.
Like Álvarez, Wilkerson has set out artistic principles his work abides by. In a submission to the World Socialist Web Site, Wilkerson notes that “the new cinema can only exist in a state as unfinished and incomplete as the world it aims to mirror and engage”, and that “it employs, without prejudice, any and all tools available to it”. This goes some way in justifying the heavy reliance on found footage in the film, as well as the recycling of elements from his earlier work.1 Machine Gun features some direct allusions to Alvarez’s work, too: a shot of a cracked photo portrait on a tombstone looks like a manipulated image of President Lyndon Johnson in Álvarez’s Hanoi, Tuesday 13th; a confronting frame-by-frame breakdown of the infamous streetside execution of Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem also in line with Álvarez’s Vietnam-era films.
Narratively, though, Wilkerson pivots from Álvarez’s agit-prop to his own self-described “agit-noir”. The most effective narrative section in the film comes late, wherein the radio host’s partner becomes heavily involved in the Occupy movement in 2011. Wilkerson re-purposes footage shot by Occupy protesters in Los Angeles but distorts it; overexposed and slowed to a crawl, the footage loses a lot of visual coherency, these protests now reflecting the radio host’s dismissive view of them rather than reality.2 The political implication of superimposing this narrative of gradual uncoupling over Occupy protests is hazy; Wilkerson himself was a strong supporter of the Occupy movement but his film seems critical of the approach to politics taken by both characters in the film.
The political and narrative confusion is all part of the gambit, though — the film’s climactic final twists and turns are relayed through on-screen text that seems steeped in political fantasy. Wilkerson, whose previous features have had a political directness, seems to relish the opportunity to toy with truth and ideology.3 Machine Gun or Typewriter? is entrancing because of this restlessness, an alternately potent and perplexing work of experimental cinema.
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