Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 7:30pm
Elliott Erwitt's Beauty Knows No Pain + Frederick Wiseman's Basic Training
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
Beauty Knows No Pain, Elliott Erwitt, 1971, digital projection, 25 mins
Basic Training, Frederick Wiseman, 1971, 16mm, 89 mins
An early institutional portrait by Frederick Wiseman, Basic Training chronicles nine weeks at the US Army Training Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1970, following a new batch of enlistees and draftees through the rituals of armed service. Made near the height of popular disapproval for the war in Vietnam, Wiseman’s film provides unparalleled observations of how resistance to the conflict played out within the military itself, inflecting the training process, the attitudes of soldiers, and the mentality of commanders. The culture of the Army base seems relatively unchanged since WWII—a fresh crop of young men from across the country arrive, some still pimply, and are educated in the the dual arts of combat and compliance, each individual pressed into the mold of the 16th Battalion. Wiseman’s close-ups tell a different story, subtly conveying the ambivalence and unease of the freshly conscripted. Elsewhere in the film, more profound skepticisms slowly begin to surface. “Have these guns been used before?”, one soldier wonders during an introductory session on the M16A1. The instructor, clearly vexed, explains that the rifle he’s holding is distinct from a gun, and the young man apologizes, rephrasing his question. “Have these weapons ever been used before,” he asks, “to kill people I mean?” The officer’s response is immediate, unadorned: “Not yet.”
Roughly contemporaneous with Basic Training, photographer Elliott Erwitt’s Beauty Knows No Pain presents another perspective on the aesthetics of discipline and the complicated negotiations of group psychology. “On one level,” Amos Vogel observed in Film as a Subversive Art, “this amazing and secret film is a first-rate documentary of the rigorous training and indoctrination of some attractive Texas co-eds for the Kilgore Rangerette Team, a nationally famous corps of marching majorettes performing on television and at sports events. On another level, however—in its portrayal of false values instilled and the over-all insipidness of an enterprise undertaken with utmost seriousness by its perpetrators—it must be read as a corrosive critique of bourgeois America. This is no verbal editorializing; the ‘message’ resides in the visuals (and montage!) and will be decoded by the viewer in accord with his own value system.”
While Basic Training proceeds as a study in the mounting distrust of nationalism and the hesitancy to subordinate oneself to a dubious ideology, Erwitt’s film considers an opposite yet equally powerful set of impulses, the allure of wholesomeness (that great American myth) and the hunger of belonging. “Keep smiling, girls...keep smiling...” intones the drill squad’s matronly martinet, repeating a mantra to aid the Rangerettes through their exacting maneuvers, “because a beauty knows no pain.”
Tickets - $8, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.