Independent Lens: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. PBS. Monday, May 8, 10 p.m.
Watching The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, I was reminded of an old movie joke. Q. How many surrealist directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? A. November.
Airing as part of the PBS Independent Lens documentary film series, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is not really surrealist, just torpid and self-consciously arty. It's the sort of stuporous film in which you get languid shots of trains rolling endlessly along a track, images to which aesthetes can assign virtually any metaphoric value—the inexorable human will to free movement, the industrial world's uncaring despoliation of the environment, the quiet desperation of Americans awaiting delivery of their breakfast Cheerios—without fear of contradiction by actual reported facts, which are few and far between in Twelve Landscapes.
Twelve Landscapes is rooted in a clever (conceptually, anyway) attempt to make virtue out of necessity. Making a documentary about America's burgeoning prisons (population 2.2 million and growing all the time) is an exercise in frustration because it's nearly impossible to get cameras inside them. So Canadian filmmaker Brett Story approached from the opposite direction, with a series of vignettes about how incarceration affects the world outside.
But lots of thing can go wrong between conception and birth. Story's affection for the tedium of cinema verite, her rejection of journalism for aesthetics, and, most fundamentally, her neo-Marxist certainty that the driving force behind American penology is corporate conspiracy all combine to make large chunks of Twelve Landscapes nearly unwatchable.
The fact that a lot of New York City chess hustlers learned their trade in prison (if it is a fact; if Story has any evidence beyond the assertion of a single player, it's not to be found in in Twelve Landscapes) is an interesting tidbit. But the key word is "tidbit"; watching guys stare at chessboards for four minutes is even more excruciating than it sounds. I thought it was interesting to listen to the musings of a California inmate who's part of an all-female forest-fire-fighting crew ("I think of myself as a hero, and [even though the prison rules prohibit me from talking to them] sometimes I can tell that the public does, too") until I learned—and not from the film itself—that she's actually an actress playing a composite character whose lines were collected from many different interviews.
Story's refusal to use narration or otherwise provide facts to establish context for her vignettes actually damages her own arguments at times. The fact that people in Wheelwright, Kentucky, think their local prison is an economic boon to their community would have a lot more impact if Twelve Landscapes had mentioned that the surrounding counties host more than a dozen prisons, regional jails, and detention centers, including two supermax facilities; pockets of depressed rural America are becoming unlikely headquarters of the prison-industrial complex, welcoming correctional facilities that the suburbs don't want.
Yet even with that detail added, the prison boom in Kentucky is more interesting than significant. Does Story really believe that America's enormous prison population was produced by the tawdry manipulations of powerful Appalachian political forces? A bit of actual reporting might have disclosed that—depending on whose numbers you believe—somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of U.S. prison inmates are incarcerated on drug charges. Even at the low end of that spectrum, ending the drug war would result in enormous savings in both dollars and broken lives.
For all its flaws, though, the small-ball approach of Twelve Landscapes sometimes hits the target. There's a fascinating interview with the owner of a warehouse that assembles gift packages for prison inmates, helping their families negotiate the eternally mutating jungle of security rules about what can be sent in and what can't. (CDs, which can allegedly be broken up and used as shivs, are prohibited; but tin cans of tuna and their sharp-edged lids, perplexingly, are okay.)
And if you've ever doubted that America is over-policed, at least partially to fund mushrooming local government, watch the interview with a woman from a ramshackle town outside St. Louis who was dragged into municipal court because the lid of her trash can wasn't properly secured. Learning the fine was $170, she hotheadedly told the judge she'd rather go to jail: "I work too hard for money to give it to you over a frickin' trash can lid." Three days into her stay in a miserable, overcrowded and filthy jail, she began wondering what she'd gotten herself into. "How long do you hold somebody on a trash can lid?" she asked. Fifteen days, came the reply. Ahhh, the majesty of the law.