Neil Young’s Film Lounge – An Injury To One

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

AN INJURY TO ONE

6/10

USA 2002 : Travis WILKERSON : 53 mins

In 1987 a scrawny youth named Will Oldham made his screen debut in John Sayles Matewan, a drama based on the violent dispute between miners and employers in 1920 West Virginia. Though showing considerable promise in his prominent role as watchful teenage preacher radicalised by an ill-fated union organiser, Oldham has seldom since appeared on screen. Hes hardly had time, having become one of the leading (though less politically-committed) lights in the musical genre known variously as alt-country and Americana under various guises including Palace Brothers, Palace Music and, most recently, Bonnie Prince Billy.

So there’s a very neat circularity that Oldhams work appears on the score of Travis Wilkersons documentary An Injury To One, which tells a very similar story to Matewans: the 1917 killing of union agitator Frank Little in Butte, Montana. An agent of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), Little aroused the wrath of copper-mine company Anaconda by encouraging the efforts of striking miners and soon after he was found hanged from a railway bridge with a threatening note pinned to his corpse.

These events formed the basis for Dashiell Hammetts novel Red Harvest the writer was employed as a strike-breaker by Anaconda at the time, the experience proving crucial in the development of his political ideals. The Little case, according to Wilkerson, was even more pivotal to the tragic story of Butte itself, which he traces from its meagre 19th century origins, through its boom times, to the areas current status as the most polluted industrial site in the whole of the United States. The downfall of union power in Butte, according to Wilkerson, led directly to the persecution and subsequent collapse of the IWW – and, in effect, the whole of radical US unionism, which was cracked down on as a seditious enemy within during World War One.

Wilkersons style is an arresting combination of the sombre and the staccato. He relates the key episodes from Buttes past in bursts of machine-gun intensity, providing his own commentary and employing no other voices on the soundtrack. Dividing up the films various sections are the songs of the Butte miners, instrumentals in which the lyrics are imposed, word by individual word, on picturesque shots of the modern-day towns industrial decay if these three-minute static-camera images recall the work of James Benning, that’s no coincidence: An Injury To One is part of Wilkersons work for his postgraduate degree at Calarts college, where Benning is one of his tutors.

But while Bennings remarkable work is no less politically effective for its minimalist restraint, Wilkerson adopts a much more aggressively strident approach. An Injury To One often resembles an admirable but somewhat hectoring lecture, in which key words and phrases are flashed up on screen (often stark white capitals on a black background) in support of Wilkersons breakneck narration. Theres no doubting the sincerity of his intentions, and as the facts are presented its very hard to avoid feeling a deep anger at the scandalous economic and political deficiencies which allow disasters like Butte to occur, and occur on such a depressingly regular and worldwide basis.

But no matter how compelling a case Wilkerson presents, the films radical stance is clear from the outset, with its preamble contrasting the repressive employing class with the hard-working, ruthlessly exploited working class. This black-and-white approach is maintained throughout: Anaconda are the despicable villains, Little a saintly crusader for good. The absence of talking-heads (so often the cliched bane of the documentary form) is refreshing, but Wilkerson might have considered somehow introducing some slightly more objective, perhaps even mildly dissenting voices. This would at least have had the benefit of breaking up the relentless barrage of facts and opinions, all of which emanate from one single ideological perspective. The only respite comes with the lyrical mining songs interludes, but these interpolations feel gimmicky and contrived in their experimentalism.

This is symptomatic of Wilkersons whole approach he employs a barrage of visual trickery seemingly designed to enliven potentially dry material, with only intermittent touches of flair. Instead of the arty black-and-white shots of modern Butte, he’d perhaps have been better advised to interview some of his fellow Montanans, or even questioned modern-day decision-makers to see if the towns costly lessons have made much practical impact. Instead, were left with a retrospective requiem which, though undeniably powerful, is limited by the fact that it consists of a single monotonous voice, preaching persuasively to the converted.

20th March, 2003
(seen 19th March, CineSide Newcastle)

by Neil Young