We can't do it without the rose

A review of the film 'Under Foot & Overstory'

Under Foot & Understory

Under Foot & Overstory

a film written by Jason Livingston

16mm, 34:30 min, 2005

I’ve been captivated by the title of a Joseph Beuys lithograph since I saw it years ago. The image features the artist at his Documenta V desk in 1972, where for a hundred days he tirelessly debated radical politics with gallery visitors. An alert, focused Beuys anchors the bottom center; a section of the back of a head (his conversant) dominates the left foreground.  On the tabletop separating them, a single long-stemmed rose reaches up into the blank top portion of the composition, slicing the image in half. We can’t do it without the rose. What can’t be done without the flower and why must it go unnamed? Why the plural pronoun: “we”? Two heads converge with the help of a plant — and visuality is implicated. The image itself would wilt without the graphic aid of the flower — its diagonal stem line, tight crowd of petals, leaves pushing back at the picture plane in every direction. The rose is essential for some constellation of conversation, communion and composition.

There are no roses in Jason Livingston’s 16mm film Under Foot & Overstory (2005), but there are dozens of tall wild flowers in full and distinct bloom. Delighted, saturated, undeniably first-person views of burgundy and fuchsia petaled plants, Queen Anne’s Lace, bluebells, dandelions — as well as insects that roam them — punctuate this work in which the filmmaker himself is a double-headed creature, sitting at both sides of the table. He is both observer and participant as he documents the process by which the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, of which he is a member, struggle to produce a mission statement to protect two hundred acres of untouched land in Iowa City, currently threatened by development. His own “I” comes and goes willingly as he listens carefully to the way language works. The sound track consists, in part, of fragments from the transcript of collaborative composition-in-process, swaths from the stream of mission statement deliberation. Members labor over sentence construction and word choice. “I have a small issue with using the word natural twice,” the filmmaker himself declares. Others weigh in: “I’m a believer in bullets, colons.” “It doesn't have to be poetry — it’s a mission statement.”

Perhaps not, but poetry is strewn throughout the film, less an object or intention than a force — an animating presence. Livingston is an essayist, but his eyes are set firmly on the poetic mobility of language shards — he’s a collector and reassembler of samples from multiple and contradictory sources of mind-in-nature and he asks us to read them all. Accompanying the conversations of the convening Friends are images from a larger constellation of park-talk that turn language-making into something we can see: the printing press production of park calendars; journalists jotting on legal pads; views of a hand-scripted park journal written by a local outlaw; and a charades sequence, shot in black and white in the snowy woods, that dominates the film’s middle section (bracketed on each end by a piece of paper announcing “intermission”). Each is a fragment of inscription, a close up of the meeting place where the chaotic stream of language meets the ground of materiality.

… encouraging the well being of physical and mental — mind, body and spirit, if we want to go — go in that — crazy little thing — well-being — of mind, body and spirit — that’s good — encouraging? well-being. enhancing? I like enhancing. enhancing, that’s great. ok. would it be a mistake to move into words like contemplation? exercise? relaxation? contemplation. reflection? reflection is a nice word.

everybody could come up with a list of … these words, that they get out of it. by saying just well-being, we leave that open to — I think that’s right — open to personal interpretation. enhancement of personal well-being. overall well-being. I just rather — without getting into those touchy-feely words that — not that I’m opposed to them.

this is an interesting struggle we’re having here. I don’t mind using the word spiritual. I don’t mind using the word spirit. It’s that phrase — it connotes too much. yep. uh huh. but I think promoting well-being might be something …

which in itself has … carries meaning. it’s not empty. well-being.

does anyone feel like we've lost something significant? 

do we have a word processor?

We enter Under Foot and Overstory on a dirt path cutting through an emerald swath of woods, the image slightly rising and falling with the motion of what feels like the filmmaker’s feet. The up-and-down treading reappears, enlarged, in the ongoing joining of ground and sky in the film — from bare feet (again, the filmmaker’s, it seems) landing on grass to upward views of a snow-caked tree and towering flowers resting against a sky that couldn’t be bluer. This vertical travel is abstract as well: the film’s reverential consideration of the lush parkland (its spiritual potential) is joined by a steady taking-in of its most mundane and material elements — clipboards, throat clearings, bullet points.

The distinction between the filmmaker’s own feet and those of others blurs; the first-person singular morphs into the plural (again: we can’t do it without the rose). The rhythm of Livingston’s opening walk catalyzes a cascade of park-traversal from every direction and at every rhythm: a woman repeatedly roams its fields with a camera; a little boy bounces down a walkway with his father; a monarch jaggedly flutters; cross-country skiers glide by. Wheelbarrows, tractors, and shovels also make their own tracks in the land — at this point the “we” of the film includes the developers, too. All these crossings of the park, all the indentations made in the ground, are part of the cosmos of inscription that Livingston is following. 

The variety of language threads and registers present in the film — bureaucratic, poetic, public, private, spoken, written — stems in part from Livingston’s insistence on relentless listening over stylistic continuity. He describes Under Foot & Overstory as an experiment with placing “intervals of very subjective visionary-inflected styles of shooting” side by side with the reformist and persuasive impulses of documentary. As one of the mission statement writers says: “the problem with having a lot of voices — you end up with different styles.”

Toward the end of the film, the Friends of Hickory Hill Park struggle to know how or if “permanence” should appear in the mission statement — can they demand the infinite protection of this public land? But in the final moments, next to views of the sun dropping in a burnt orange sky, text informs us that “soon only a handful of private homeowners will see this sunset — developers bought this vantage point.” Livingston returns to the emerald path of the film’s first shot — but this time makes a 360-degree rotation, revealing the fact that there are multiple paths at this juncture.  He chooses one, and soon we are out of the woods, and the dirt path turns to a new stretch of sidewalk. The camera finds the place where ground and concrete meet and pivots, so that the screen is split in two.