Sunday, December 14, 2008

AIFF - Streetsweeper by Neil Mansfield

I'd been hearing contradictory messages about Streetsweeper - some loved it and others thought there was nothing there. Quite literally, one friend said, "There's no there, there." So I went into the theater Saturday night prepared to be let down. But also prepared for something very different from a typical Hollywood movie. And I walked out pleased with the movie and with it's being selected as the best feature of the festival.

So, why would someone like it and others hate it? I propose that it depends on someone's idea of a movie. From a traditional movie perspective, we would take it very literally and say:

  • It's about a crazy homeless man with a streetsweeper cart who acts out his mental problems by sweeping the stripes in the crosswalks, polishing traffic signs, and lugging his cart up and down stairs, and reading the scraps of paper he picks up.

This appears to be how Peter Porco at the ADN saw the movie:
Once we get the general idea that the homeless man is in his own world, reciting to himself bits of poetry, lines scrawled on notes he finds in the street, memories from a wretched childhood; once we fall into the easy rhythm of Keith pushing his broom cart through the margins and empty corners of the tidy, humdrum city, it isn’t long before we’re bored.
(I would note here that Porco wants to speak for everyone, replacing his first person perspective and claiming to represent all of us with the use of "we" throughout. He doesn't represent me or most of the people at the Bear Tooth Saturday night who stayed for the whole movie and the Q&A afterward.)

So if we don't look at this as a typical Hollywood movie with a plot line, how else can we look at it? There are several overlapping ways to watch the movie that brought me a great deal of satisfaction.

  • Streetsweeper can be seen as a visual concert. Just as the symphony is sounds without verbal content, this was a series of visual images (with the added sense of sound). In his visual composition, Mansfield challenges us to look at things so ordinary that they have become invisible. We normally walk [drive] past them without seeing them - the patterns of railroad tracks, of cracks in the street, of the all angles and curves of urban settings, but he shows us the beauty that is all around us that we don't see. If it were a series of spectacular shots in brilliant color, this wouldn't work. Instead he takes the totally mundane and asks us to reconsider what we usually pass right by. The streetsweeper is a device as significant as, say, giving a piece of music a title like, "Pictures at an Exhibition" or "The Flight of the Bumblebee." It gives us a reason to be looking at these images, but there is no exhibition, there is no bumblebee, just notes. Probably there is no streetsweeper either, it's just an excuse to wander around Newcastle and look at it with fresh eyes.

  • Another way to think about the movie is as visit to a gallery where we look at photos of urban landscapes. But these are more than photos; they move too. And there's sound. Just as someone could easily lose herself for an hour or two looking at pictures (at an exhibition?) that don't have a story line or even content, she could just sit back and enjoy the visual stimulation and soothing of Streetsweeper, and even relive the excitement of seeing the beauty of the patterns of lines made by railroad tracks that most of us haven't seen since we were first exploring the world as little children. When everything was new and didn't have names and contexts and we could just enjoy how the images tickled our eyeballs.
  • One could also think about this as a walking tour through Newcastle, Australia. Wandering this way and that, past signs, up steps, down steps, by the river, crossing streets, past trees, just wandering without a clear plan, to get a feel for the place. I think this alone wouldn't carry the average viewer without the more generalized rediscovering of the invisible beauty experiences mentioned above. But I thought about how this would be an interesting way to explore Anchorage as I was watching, and even toyed with the idea of going off to some unknown city, getting a cleaning cart and broom, and exploring, say, Buenos Aires or Barcelona or Budapest, by sweeping and cleaning my way through town.
I found the movie allowed me to relax. If I skipped a few images, it didn't matter. I wouldn't miss some important clue in the plot, I wouldn't miss someone's head being blown off. I didn't have to listen carefully to every word. First, there weren't that many. Second, they didn't really matter. And the pretext of the street cleaner evaporated as his stops to clean zebra stripes became less frequent and precise, as time between his dusting off a street sign became longer and longer and he just pushed his cart along, and as the broom eventually disappeared altogether. Like at a concert, my mind could drift, could think of other things, and then come back to enjoy new images and sounds. I even slid, a few times, into some unconscious interactions with the streets of Newcastle and then rejoined the journey taking place on the screen.

But if you were headed to the theater expecting Brad or Meryl in some dialogue heavy Hollywood formula of character development with plot with dialogue, and didn't know how to 'see' this movie, it would be easy to be bored. I think of a perception game I've used with students. I show them several series of numbers and ask them to give me the next number. The first few series are figured out by looking at the mathematical relationships between the numbers. Say, add 2 to the previous number. Or multiply the first number by the second number to get the next number. But then I ask for the next number in this series:

2, 3, 5, 6...

I get all sorts of responses and mathematical justifications. But the next number is 8, because it is the next number with curves.

Then I give them

16 5 18 3 5 16 20 9 15 ...

This drives them crazy. The next number is 14. These are the numeric equivalents of the letters that spell the word perception.

Just like we first are looking for mathematical patterns and then can't see the visual patterns, or the symbolic use of numbers for letters, I think people go into movies looking for what we are programmed to see, and cannot easily switch to see a movie using a different way of organizing images and sounds.

I enjoyed Streetsweeper because its film used a different model than the standard we normally see, a model which focused on the visual images, which, for the person willing or able to see differently, gave a chance to see the beauty in everyday things. It showed us the poetry in words on lost or tossed pieces of paper. It isn't for everyone, particularly for those going to see blood and body parts, or just to have one's rational brain cells stimulated. This is a very non-verbal movie. And since this isn't part of our tradition, it's the kind of movie that doesn't have good commercial prospects. But it pushes us to see differently and is precisely the kind of movie that Film Festivals should be about.

Somewhere on my disk are some visuals to help illustrate this, but I'm not sure they are necessary. We'll see. If I have time, I may add them later. Thanks Neil for a great show.

[Update: Sunday night - Here's Neil answering questions after the showing Saturday night.]
[Update: Monday night - I've been having trouble viewing the videos I've posted since yesterday. I'm on a Mac using Firefox. I switched to Safari and it was fine. If others are having problems seeing the video, try changing to another browser. Also let me know if there are problems and what system (pc, mac, linux) and browser you're using. Thanks.]


  1. I liked the Streetsweeper. Once I figured out that this is it, I stopped waiting and looking for the plot and sat back and really enjoyed the man in his world, in his city, and with his experiences.
    Very calming and relaxing, but also I felt empathy and in touch with the streetsweeper. I felt compassion for him, but also felt close to him, like he was sharing his life with me.
    I liked the streetsweeper stopping and looking at ordinary things in his environment and soon began to appreciate the shapes, textures, and structures of the things, too. In fact, we went cross country skiing after the film - from Goose Lake to Westchester Lagoon and we found ourselves looking at the hoarfrost, the bridge over Northern Lights, the graffiti in the tunnels, the creek gurgling around the ice, the almost full moon, and even a moose lying in the snow in a new and more conscious way, like the streetsweeper might have. I saw things that I don't usually see or look at. I even felt the temperature of 7 degrees with a different perspective! We remarked to each other that we wished that the film director and photographer could go with us on that ski and capture our environment the same way that they captured the streetsweeper's world.

  2. Wow Steve

    That is some review. The way you have engaged with the film is just how we hoped people would. It was an amazing film to make, and I'm so pleased that so many folks have seen the film in Anchorage... Thanks for your thoughts and words. Toby

  3. Thanks Steve, that's a fantastic response, much appreciated. I cannot tell you how great my Anchorage experience was.
    And, who knows, hopefully we can come back some day soon & shoot a sequel there!? Cheers NM

  4. Toby and Neil, Given that some people didn't get it, I was just trying to explain why I liked it. Was it one of the best movies I've ever seen? No. But it was ambitious, experimental, and succeeded on many levels. And for me it was a very satisfying experience.

    I'm glad you submitted the film here and that you got to come here as well. Next time, Toby comes along, right?

    I'm glad you enjoyed it here midwiner - it was particularly beautiful with all the frost on the last Sunday. But remember that in summer it is a totally different place. Light all the time and green and lush. So, you really do need to come back to see the other Anchorage. As well as more of the rest of Alaska.

    I'm already thinking of routes to take through town.

  5. I'll be back as soon as I can be. NM


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