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A scene from Ariane Michel's "Les Hommes." Image courtesy Ariane Michel.

Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

Whether intentionally or not -- the publicity seems to indicate the former -- Ariane Michel's 2006 digital video to 35mm "Les Hommes," screening tonight and tomorrow night at Anthology Film Archives in New York, is a sort of anti-travelogue that follows an expedition of scientists and naturalists to Greenland, revealing their, and by implication contemporary Man's, disassociation with nature even as the film-maker tracks her human subjects' probing of the arctic landscape and its animal and floral inhabitants.

The alienation starts almost immediately, with an all too typical contemporary French monotonal sonic landscape that clashes dramatically with the natural one approaching as the arctic explorer ship Tara approaches land, the camera spanning a sea dotted with ice floats and the occasional glacier. I was tempted to turn the sound down during the first 15 minutes of the film that this annoying drone droned on, so that I could just take in the vast ocean, greenish mountains, and gray-green stony beaches in the purity in which the explorers must have encountered them.


Ariane Michel's "Les Hommes." Image courtesy Ariane Michel.

Once on land, Michel initially focuses less on the human invaders and more on the indigenous animal inhabitants, including what look like bison, polar bears, humongous walruses gently plunging into the green-blue waters just off a reef, and dark grey ducks. Once she finally zooms in closer on the human intruders, they're gazing sky-ward with perplexed faces towards flocks of birds. In their orange arctic coats they don't seem to fit in with the environment, and rarely seem to emotionally engage with their breathtaking surroundings. Rather than marvel at the lush tundra, at best they regard it clinically as material to be photographed, bagged and sampled to be brought back to the laboratory -- in other words, something to be appropriated and possessed. It only works for them on their terms, as something to be filtered through a human system of analysis, rather than just experienced. Nothing makes this clearer than a passage where a member of the expedition clears away a cluster of dead feathers -- bagging some, naturally -- to reveal a nest of several large grey eggs, evidently belonging to the grey ducks squawking nearby, only to dispassionately measure their circumference with a metal vice-like ruler. I wanted him to either leave the eggs alone or crack them to eat.

If Michel's film may be frustrating for those looking for their own vicarious expedition to this haunting, simultaneously somber and sumptuous land, "Les Hommes" succeeds in conveying a larger truth, that by analyzing and processing these primal lands and the flora, fauna, and animals that inhabit them, we only succeed in alienating ourselves from them and achieving the opposite of the understanding putatively being sought.


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