Act of God (2009, Jennifer Baichwal)

I found out about this due to the Greenaway short (also called Act of God, also about people’s experiences with lightning) included on the DVD, then was intrigued to discover that the feature is Baichwal’s follow-up to the great Manufactured Landscapes. Landscapes got to piggyback off its photographer subject’s artworks and visual ideas. This one is an interview documentary, so Baichwal and her cinematographer/husband were on their own to create meaningful enough images to justify the film, and I think they succeeded. And the storytelling definitely succeeded. I’ve never been afraid of lightning before, and now it’s all I think about.

A man in Ontario tells of a camping trip years ago, everyone stunned and scattered by a lightning strike, one kid had his insides burned right out. A man in France who won’t show himself on camera built a museum of lightning-struck objects. An ex-soldier in Vegas had his life changed by a strike through the telephone, opened a clinic for dying veterans. Three kids killed and others injured from a hilltop strike in Mexico. And, connecting these stories of powerful electricity hitting the human body, musician Fred Frith improvs while being hooked to brainwave machines, measuring the electrical impulses he uses when creating. He invents some wonderful storm-music at the end. Baichwal and husband filmed most of the lightning in the movie (and there’s a ton of it), set out to make a film about randomness and meaning, hence the Frith bookends.

Act of God (1980, Peter Greenaway)

Baichwal said she tried cross-cutting between segments but it didn’t work, so she lets each story stand on its own. Greenaway, of course, does not – he breaks up the questions and lightning-strike descriptions into categories (time of day/year, height of subject, etc), sorts them, and interrupts with bursts of Michael Nyman music. He’s also less natururalistic, arranging interview subjects into amusing compositions, including one person struck through the phone line who tells her story through a handset. Unless IMDB is messing with me, his DP later directed Surf Nazis Must Die. The short makes efficient use of its 25 minutes, but it wouldn’t have made much of an impact had I not watched the longer, calmly frightening feature beforehand.

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Act of God DVD

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