Mana: Beyond BeliefReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/29/05 14:24:54
In her new book “Assassination Vacation,” Sarah Vowell writes briefly about what she calls “the thingness of things.” I love that phrase, as it reveals how we as people give importance to objects, sometimes so that our obsession with them elevates them in our minds from mere items to grand artifacts. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and I think Vowell would get a kick out of “Mana: Beyond Belief,” a documentary which travels the globe to discover that for all cultures, for all slices of life, we all have an innate fascination with stuff.“Mana” - which, it turns out, is “the Polynesian word for the power that resides in things” - opens in New Zealand, where we find a new age-y type guy discussing with Jedi fervor the energy that can be found in, say, a rock in the woods. Here’s a stone that’s been here long before the humans, and will be here long after, and in between, it’s absorbing and releasing energy from all life forms around it. You may or may not go for such a speech, but it sets up the film’s message quite nicely: here’s someone who’s placed great significance on something that is not alive. To some, it’s just a rock, a stone, an inanimate thing, but to him, it’s a symbol of nature’s power.
We then spend the next thirty-some minutes exploring various cultures, criss-crossing the planet to witness various thing-related rituals. They’re all different, but they’re all the same, if you follow me.
Those next thirty minutes can be tough going; they are, for the most part, wordless, and going that long without commentary can be a bit much for this movie. It’s a travelogue with no introductions or explanations, and that sort of thing can run a bit, well, dry.
Things pick up - perhaps coincidentally, probably not - once language returns to the forefront. It creeps back into the film in the form of an announcement made over the P.A. system during a showing of the Shroud of Turin: “Would you kindly switch off your mobile phone. We hope you enjoy this spiritual journey.” Surely this unexpected juxtaposition of the religious pilgrimage with the “enjoy the show!” voiceover grabbed the attention of filmmakers Peter Friedman and Roger Manley, who from here on in begin to capture little moments of irony and oddball logic.
Consider, for example, a painting that was granted its own room - pedestal, special lighting, and all - when the museum that owned it thought it was the work of Rembrandt; when it was revealed to have not, in fact, been painted by Rembrandt, but merely some anonymous other person, it was shuffled off to a random corner, where it sits today, usually overlooked by visitors. And yet it’s still the same painting. Why does its attachment to one famous artist (or lack thereof) make it better or worse?
Of all the other examples the film offers - Elvis impersonators, fish auctioneers, a funeral involving a Papier Mâchè car built merely to be set on fire, a computer program that reduces Hindi worship to point-and-click interactivity with a virtual Ganesha - the most memorable for me is the Flags Over the Capitol. We learn that U.S. citizens can mail a request to their Congress representative to have a flag flown over the Capitol Dome on a certain day. The flag will then be returned to the citizen, along with a letter explaining that the enclosed flag flew on such-and-such a day for such-and-such a reason. The problem is, Congress gets so many requests for the same day that the government offers a full-time job for a couple of guys to hoist flags all day long. From morning until evening, flags go up, touch the top of the pole, then get lowered, boxed up, shipped out.And that, above all, is the meaning of “Mana.” To some, these flags are just pieces of cloth to be processed and boxed up; to others, they are something meaningful, a representation of the nation they love and a day they will always remember. It’s the same piece of cloth. What makes the meaning differ from person to person? Why does the fact that it touched the top of one specific flagpole make it so special? “Mana” offers no answers, just observations. It points its cameras at all corners of humanity, and just by watching us, it asks, what is it with people and our thingness of things?
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|