W.I.S.O.R./Chain Camera
review by Gregory Avery, 22 June 2001

As the first wave of summer Hollywood blockbusters knock and stumble about in multiplexes across America, two new documentaries are having their theatrical premieres in New York City and will, hopefully, be coming soon to a town or screen near you. Both films provide generous amounts of interest and insight, the kind of thing one would want, or hope, to see from a movie for which you plunk down your two bits, then wrestle your way through the concessions stand and make it into your seat just in time for the lights go down and the first of seven preview trailers start to unreel before the main feature makes an appearance.

In W.I.S.O.R., a group of engineers take on a challenging but seemingly feasible project: design, make and implement a robotic device that could perform the type of basic maintenance work in the New York City underground steam pipe system which would normally require a team of workers to dig up the pavement and snarl traffic all over the city. The New York steam system was first put into place over a hundred years ago (as seen in historical footage included in the film) as a safer and cleaner alternative to coal-burning heat. But normal deterioration in the pipe system has resulted in burst mains which, in some instances, spew asbestos, used as pipe insulation before it was found to be a health hazard, over entire city blocks, forcing temporary evacuations of buildings and cleanup efforts.

The situation presented to the engineers of Honeybee Robotics is to come up with a near-autonomous device that could travel inside the underground pipe system and can perform inspections and spot-welding. This would, in turn, require the device to be able to perform a number of functions. It would need to be able to stop the flow of steam in the pipe that it is working on (achieved with an inflatable, inner-tube-like device that goes 'round the outside of one of the robot's components). It would require parts that could withstand high degrees of temperature (the steam can reach up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and travel at up to 100 miles-per-hour). It would have to be able to get around inside an underground system that runs for hundreds of miles under downtown Manhattan, serves over 2,000 office buildings (including all of the city's main skyscrapers), and can operate in systems where the pipe fittings are not all of uniform diameter (smaller pipes feed into larger ones, then back into smaller ones). There are possible scenarios to take into consideration. What if the robot gets stuck in a pipe that provides heat to the World Trade Center on the morning before an important meeting is to be held there?

The engineering team, headed by Stephen Gorevan, who has a great shock of greying hair and keen, piercing eyes, are all skilled and intelligent men in their respective areas, and we follow them as they go through the initial paces of trying to come up with what W.I.S.O.R. will need, how it will do it, then create its components, testing them, and their reactions to when they do not do what they are supposed to do, such as a simple electronics system that would enable the robot to communicate with its "human interface" on the surface. (W.I.S.O.R., pronounced "wiser", stands for Welding and Inspection Steam Operations Robot, and it will end up weighing 700 pounds.) We see the men's reaction to mishaps, partial failures, things that keep going kerflooey time and time again and they can't figure out why; they become impatient, exasperated ("Optimism is a disaster waiting to happen," says one engineer, who places his faith in proof and certainties rather than hope), pushed to the point of endurance. They not only want to see the robot work, so that all of their work will not be for nothing: their company, which operates out of fairly modest quarters, has created specially-made robots for everyone from N.A.S.A. to Coca-Cola, and they make a point out of the fact that they have always delivered a project.

The director Michel Negroponte -- whose earlier documentaries include Jupiter's Wife, an affecting portrait of a woman living in the streets of N.Y.C. and in Central Park -- keeps the film from turning into a dry, academic account of an endeavor. Not only does the film make each of the engineers distinctive (they exchange philosophies, worry openly, debate topics such as baseball and the existence of God), but it also does the same for the robot that they are bringing into being -- the film eavesdrops on what it might be thinking as it regards how it is being put together by its creators, in words that have for the most part been re-mixed and reproduced from words and phrases that have been already spoken by the humans, while working on W.I.S.O.R. or in small talk, then recombined to form the robot's thoughts. The result is that the film pulls you in and becomes a fascinating, even exciting, experience, a sort of race-against-time story in which a group of fallible but smart and dedicated men attempt to save a city that could be blown from its foundations by a subterranean force that it has nonetheless come to depend upon, with W.I.S.O.R. as both its tamer and the city's savior. In the end, when the completed W.I.S.O.R. is packed-off to go to work for the first time, the film makes W.I.S.O.R. sound invincible, in the manner of the old robot "menaces" in some 'Fifties science-fiction thrillers. Given the enormity of the responsibility it's supposed to perform, though, you can't blame it for sounding that way.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, ten of the students attending John Marshall High School, just outside of Hollywood, were handed ten video cameras with the directive that they were to use them to record their lives for a week, after which they would pass on the cameras to ten other students who would do the same, and so forth… The director Kirby Dick (whose last film, Sick:  The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, detailed the controversial practices of a cystic-fibrosis sufferer who attempted to turn his pursuits in S&M, triggered in part by his medical condition, into art) and editor Matt Clarke have assembled Chain Camera from the video "diaries" made by sixteen students attending the school during the 1999-2000 academic year.

Almost immediately, one calls into question how much "truth" we are seeing in the footage and how much may merely be acting-out in front of the camera. After all, the students (not to mention the filmmakers) can be as selective as they want over what they choose to reveal and how they want to reveal it. We are living in a very media-savvy age, where just about everyone knows how to manipulate the medium to get whatever kind of message they want to get across. Each of the students is given a fairly short amount of screen time, and many end up falling into "types": the guy who never has had a girlfriend, but would like to have one before too long; the girl who doesn't think she's "pretty" but who thinks that her boyfriend is just "the hottest"; a guy who lives to play football, but can't play on the team this year because of his grades. The student body at John Marshall encompasses "forty-one ethnic backgrounds" and the whole range of economic living status. Many of the students in the film come from single-parent families, and some have to take on the added responsibility of looking after siblings and even running the household.

There are many surprises to be found in the film. The aforementioned guy looking for a girlfriend is affable, upbeat, has a fine relationship with his mother (who works two jobs), and lives with her and his younger brother in an apartment space that appears to be no bigger than a closet, with outside walls that are pock-marked from drive-by gunfire. Another guy is first seen using every sort of racial epithet in the book, because he can "say whatever the f*ck I want", but has already set his sights on working in law and civil liberties and is shown presently channeling his energies into volunteer community work. A third boy turns out to be an astonishingly gifted singer, songwriter, and musician, playing the guitar like he was ringin' a bell. One girl has given up on guys because of all the expectations she found they kept making on girls, and has started going-out with another girl, and not only do they appear to be getting along just fine but they also attend the senior prom together. And a member of the school's academic "Decathlon Club" doesn't think anything about openly saying that the reason he has been able to do so well in the honors program is because of his "one basic truth: the majority of people in the world are stupid".

The graduation ceremony at the conclusion of the film comes with a troubling but telling moment, when the student commencement speaker suddenly starts chastising the school administration, during her speech, for "enforcing a million self-defeating rules, at the cost of the overall success of the students", but then adds that, actually, is a good thing, because, by being unfair to the students during their school year, the adults have prepared them for the fact that "nothing is fair. Get used to it."

The statement comes across as a petty and easy one to make, and it gets the wildly enthusiastic roar of approval from the graduates that the speaker seems to, in part, have been angling for. It also seems like something of a booby trap sprung on the administration, judging from the reactions of those sitting on the podium. But one wonders how many of the students are buying into what is being said, and in what way. The speaker concludes that, as they enter adult life, they shouldn't have to "get used to it" what with the "knowledge and vision" they have armed themselves with. These students are going to be the ones who will be shaping this country over the next fifty years. Will they put forth the effort that sometimes has to be made in life, even if you don't see anything immediate in return for it or should even expect anything in return, or will they have already started to resign themselves to the consideration that, well, life is "not fair", so, "So what?" We'll have the next fifty years to see what mighty trees from these acorns will grow.

Directed by:
Michel Negroponte
Kirby Dick

NR - Not Rated
This film has not
yet been rated.








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