Friday, January 31, 2014

Closing Frames in Shell Game

At Cascadia Chronicle we are asking contributors to submit commentaries on Lou Karsen's remarkable short film "Shell Game" (2013), in which Washington state Poet Laureate Emerita Kathleen Flenniken meditates upon the legacies of the Hanford plutonium production site in eastern Washington, where she grew up.  You may view the six minute film at:

Please submit your reflections on the film to the journal at our submission portal:

To start things off, here is my short commentary on the film (NOTE: The director just removed the final section of the film, so the following commentary is no longer really relevant.)

Opening and Closing

A commentary on  Shell Game
A closing frame: Shall Game, dir, Lou Karsen (2013)

I am drawn again and again to the opening and closing frames of Lou Karsen’s film. We open to a five second shot of Kathleen Flenniken outdoors in her coat, shot from below, her smile enigmatic, framed against a blue sky, looking off in the distance as her voiceover begins. “I liked that we were a scientific community, I felt that that made us better.”  We next see her repeatedly indoors, facing us directly, head shot against a studio wall, as we venture, step by step, deeper into her story of gradual disenchantment with the reigning Hanford mythos. And then, just after the credits have rolled and the musical chord progression in elegiac minor key has ceased, at 5:38 we are back in the opening outdoor scene. The front page of the Seattle Times fills the screen for a moment: to the left we see a green lawn, a white house and bare trees in the background. And then the camera lifts:  we see Kathleen once more above us, wearing the same coat as in the opening shot, framed against that same blue sky, silently holding the newspaper with that same enigmatic half-smile. And the scene fades to black

What are we to make of this? We briefly glimpse, upon repeated viewings, the newspaper date: March 3, 2013. I am unsure of the precise reference. Seventy years earlier that week, on March 9, 1943, the residents of Hanford Reach received the infamous eviction notices, giving them thirty days to leave their homes, so that (although they did not know it at the time) construction of the Hanford Engineering Works might begin tater that summer.  There was considerable hoopla in Richland this past Fall as the city’s leaders celebrated Hanford’s seventieth anniversary, with the issue of festive “Plutonium Passports” and a Cold War James Bond-styled gala.  None of that here: just the silent poet, holding a newspaper with a date that quietly witnesses the passing of the seventieth anniversary.

I can’t help but think of a kidnapping victim, forced to hold the day’s newspaper as she faces into the camera, proving that she is still alive.  Is the poet here held hostage to History, even as she awakes, with us, from the dreamworld of Hanford? Here, we are suspended with her between the moment of origin and the present day, between the child’s longing for the approval of the national Father Figure and the adult’s sober reflection on seven decades of deception, cancer, and an ever advancing plume. Here, in the final frames, we glimpse our Poet Laureate somewhere between mourning and wry humor, in the “in between state” -- the very state within which, as she reminds us in her closing line, poetry allows her to reside.

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