No End in Sight

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13



      HUMANS ARE IN a never-ending battle with their surroundings—and ourselves—and writer/director Hartmut Bitomsky breaks down this confrontation into its smallest particle in his unwieldy doc, Dust, which could just as easily be called Death is in the Details.The story of the pervasive particle, according to Bitomsky, suffers greatly from the enormous task he’s undertaken: to turn mundane data into big ideas about people and their place in nature.

    Mostly using the testimony of workmen and scientists, Bitomsky tells us about something we encounter every day but choose to ignore.Throughout the film’s episodes, that transformation from fact to idea stalls at every step of the thinking process, from enumeration to visualization to extrapolation. In other words, sometimes the film’s stats about dust feel like common knowledge given grand significance, and sometimes they feel like a never-ending laundry list of minutiae.

    What gives Dust its appropriate but fairly loose form is the expectation of authority Bitomsky assumes as omniscient narrator, the “Herzog” of his particular world of dust bunnies and grim reapers. Along with the film’s polished tracking-shot-tastic camerawork, Bitomsky’s monotonous mutter gives voice to an inescapable presence that is part tour guide and part magician. He links different bits of research and work like they were booths in a bizarre psycho-scientific exposition in hopes of making dust—a mundane, omnipresent something—appear to be a colossal something we try to rid ourselves of every chance we get. Perhaps, Bitomsky suggests, our fear of the stuff comes from its intimations of impermanence or, more than likely, because of our trained indifference to something we’re actively trying to get rid of. Perhaps these ideas only stick because of the pleasantly gruff flatline of his voice but then again who am I to say? That’s a matter for the experts.

    Dust’s biggest problems unfortunately arise from the inconsistencies in Bitomsky’s presentation rather than his ideas. In certain scenes, he gives too much room to make assumptions, and the film feels like a bunch of facts from a nature documentary. In others, his pan-happy camera gives the viewer a tantalizing mystery that transcends the scientific or philosophical details it’s meant to enrich.

    The worst scenes, when he’s yammering contentedly (i.e., explicating the grandness of the small), come few and far between.

    These scenes suggest that perhaps there is something insurmountable in Ophls/Fellini/Fosse/Kaufman’s preoccupation with synecdoches, the part that stands in for the whole and vice versa. If dust is like everything and subsequently everything is like dust, then there’s no end to the time one can pore over a speck of lint or a flake of dead, dry skin. If you holistically buy Bitomsky’s spiel, you could potentially mull over anything forever and never be done— because dust is that ultimate anything. Like when Bitomsky says in a particularly heavyhanded moment of self-indulgence: “Dust is unwanted matter, matter at the wrong place. It has no home of its own. It spreads everywhere. It leaves the trace of a fundamental denial.” And on. And on. And on. -- Dust Directed by Hartmot Bitomsky Dec. 3-9 at Film Forum, Running Time: 90