Cremation has in many states supplanted the traditional coffin burial as the method that families use to deal with the body of a family member after death. The family may say goodbye to the body of the deceased in a morgue and then a few days later receive a small box containing the deceased's ashes. The transformation of the body into dry gray matter is something that happens in a crematoria, far from the eyes of the family.
In his film "Open Air," Adam Sekuler documents a cremation as memorial at an open air cremation site in a valley of the Rocky Mountains in the southern part of Colorado. He screened his film with five other films he chose at last night's Cellular Cinema at the Bryant Lake Bowl in a program called "Films from the Front Range." These films were produced by faculty and students at the University of Colorado film program, where he is working on an MFA.
Sekuler, formerly of the Twin Cities, looks at the mystery of death with the camera technique of a film from 1905. His camera keep a respectful distance and tripod stillness that helps us notice the smallest of movements, and leaves it up to us to apply to them significance.
Near the beginning of the film we see the backs of people forming a line along a path with an impossibly majestic range of the Rockies seeming to form its own mourning line behind the people. We know that the body is being carried by pall bearers through this line of people, but it is only toward the end of the shot that we see the body emerge from behind the line of backs and then exit the screen to the right.
The next cut, like a transition in a film by Edwin S. Porter, takes us into the cremation site before the body arrives. People adjust the ceremonial fire and stand in preparation for the body. The body and pallbearers and other mourners enter from the back of the frame and walk toward and away from the camera, leaving and re-entering the frame. The concrete pyre stays in the center of the image, and we occasionally see the shadow of the filmmaker near the bottom of the frame edge.
Sekuler cuts occasionally, sometime to show details, sometimes to show the full shot, as mourners place juniper branches full of grey berries over the body and then completely cover the body with precisely cut wood.
Once the pyre is lit, the flame becomes the lens. We see the mourners thru the bending yellow and orange and notice a distantly smiling woman with her palms to us, a man with a wide brimmed hat who may be the husband of the deceased, and a circle of drummers who march slowly around the pyre.
Sekular looks at death and mourning as dispassionately as Stan Brakhage did in his poetically clinical immersion into autopsy, "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes." The potential emotion of the images must be released by the viewer and his or her own commitment, as Brakhage's title suggests.
Brakhage, who taught for many years at the University of Colorado, is present in spirit in the program of films that Sekuler brought. Many of the films deal head on with death.
In "Corn Mother," Taylor Dunne mourns her mother with a super 8 elegy as her mother walks through her garden and is dwarfed by massive leaves. Phil Solomon's "Valley of the Shadow" combines painfully strange video game backgrounds with voice-over of passages from the Michael Furey episode from James Joyce's "The Dead," a reflection of what life might have been if somebody so full of life had not died so long ago, of illusion, of the falling snow. Other films addressed the mystery of separation, and the way that photographic images can bring the dead back to some kind of life.
Sekuler said that the influence of the landscape is present in many of the films made at the University of Colorado, and we could see that in his choices, in the mountains that tower and threaten the small figures in these films and that end the flat wide open spaces where the people gather, in the faint blue sky that is wide enough to engulf the spirit of the dead.
(Still above from "Open Air" by Adam Sekuler)