November 12, 2006
In Loving Memory, 2005
My introduction to Robert Todd's cinema was through the experimental short, Our Former Glory, a film that juxtaposes clinical, often destabilized shots of urban architecture with footage from a makeshift missing persons posting center turned public memorial on a promenade overlooking a still smoldering World Trade Center site to create a powerful and provocative rumination on human commodification, transience, and symbolification in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. It is within this context that Todd's socially relevant, yet deeply personal essay film, In Loving Memory, proves especially suited as a logical progression in his continuing exposition on human fragility and consumability. Composed of a series of re-enacted character anecdotes and recorded telephone interviews with death row inmates set against depersonalized, institutional architectures and contrasting, idyllic images of verdant fields and voluptuous, highly textural natural landscapes, often paradoxically near prison grounds (an exquisite visual aesthetic that favorably recalls the austere, yet sublime rustic terrestriality of Jon Jost's cinema), the film confronts the myth of the prison correctional system as a punitive, but reformative agent for inmate rehabilitation and social reintegration. Indeed, what emerges from the film's illuminating conversations (or more appropriately, monologues, since Todd allows the prisoners to tell their stories in their own voice, seemingly without intrusive interjection) is not only a thoughtful, poignant, and wistful account of quotidian life that form the transcendent (and transitory) memory of indefinable happiness - youthful wonder, the birth of a child, the intoxication (and ache) of a romantic love realized too late, the humbling (and spiritually uplifting) act of selflessness - but also a profound awareness of moral culpability and inevitable mortality. Eschewing on camera interviews, photographs, or even establishing biographical information about the prisoners, the film renders a provocative and incisive re-assessment of the true meaning of blind justice, where expedient, yet prejudicial social stigmas of underprivilege, systematic abuse, limited education, and tragic lapses in judgment undercut - if not consciously obfuscate - any attempt at illustrating the humanization of the prisoners in the aftermath of their captivity, where a renewed sense of purpose, self-respect, integrity, and determination - in essence, the uncomfortable reality of confronting a condemned prisoner's actual enlightenment and transformation - is revealed through self-introspective (and implicitly, atoning) acts of spirituality, ministry, education, charity, and victim advocacy. Assembled during the filmmaker's recuperation from illness, In Loving Memory serves, not only as a social interrogation on the morality of capital punishment, but also as a broader commentary on human frailty, rehabilitation, and disposability.