Minimalism. Love it. Hate it. Or, you might be addicted to Oxycontin and you're just there all the time. Phil Niblock: The Movement of People Working is minimalist movie making for people who think Koyaanisqatsi is too fast paced, or that the plot machinations of Gus Van Sant's Gerry are too overt and pedantic. Over the course of three-and-a-half hours, this two-sided DVD delivers minimally composed shots of - wait for it - people working (mostly physical, agrarian or craft-based labor) while droning music flows.
Now that we've cleared out 9/10ths of the room, we can attempt to discuss what this is or isn't about. It's art with a capital A, providing the options that you either get out of it what you take in, or that you emerge with less, or nothing at all. We'll concede that it's a rapturous piece of work taken in any length, and that while possible themes manifest, the end result of becalming meditation should be quite sufficient reward for most viewers.
Niblock's 16mm footage comes from the early/ mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, shot mostly in Peru, Mexico, Hong Kong and Hungary. His shots aren't precious compositions, many early ones simply zero in on gnarled fingers weaving, planting, working wood, making shoes. Framing is economical - the compositions evolve from repetitive, often similar motions. Yet in their simplicity, they become instantly fascinating, we form subliminal attachments to the motions, and their outcomes. We're witnessing skilled knowledge that becomes intuitive through repetition, poetic instinct.
Niblock opens up his full frame subjects while moving to Asia and Hungary for the second side of the DVD, pulling focus out to show dockworkers moving crates of fish, or men using pitchforks to fling hay bales, and the rhythmic swing of the scythe. For the adventurous, we even witness people with arms elbow-deep in cows' nether-regions, or women killing and dressing chickens. In an ultimately minimalist, anti-heroic stance, Niblock ends our non-journey with silent footage of communal meatball making - it's curiously powerful happenstance.
But 99% of footage is accompanied by Niblock's other passion, musical composition - which can best be described as drone. Amelodic, polytonal chords stretch for twenty minutes at a time, in no way synched to what's being seen. Liner notes indicate Niblock would set up live exhibitions with dual projections and music, none of which corresponded, nor was meant to correspond, to the other - and this DVD isn't any different. Niblock draws out a single chord using one voice, perhaps a stringed instrument, layering that voice over and over without regard to musical intervals, creating a constantly shifting yet monolithic strata of mysterious overtones. While a shot of hands trimming shoe leather may hold two minutes, only to be replaced by similar hands combing wool, a single, imperceptibly undulating chord persists, but check it at minute five and later at minute eighteen, and it sounds completely different.
Not even our minimalism-loving constitution is able to take all 210 minutes of People Working in one sitting; but two, or three, or however many sittings work equally well, and all are valid. This work can be absorbed and digested in thoughtful, measured doses, but its very similarity to itself makes the search for shifting meaning - or quest for calm - possible with little effort. We'll use Niblock's work to validate our thesis that human existence boils down to moving things from one place to another. We'll also hail Niblock as a hero of minimalism we wish we'd known about earlier (not that we're experts on the subject, just ardent admirers). If this sounds good to you, rest assured it's very, very good.