Asking For Whom the Bell Tolls

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

Seeing gurneys of babies trundled through the chiaroscuro of old black-and-white footage at the start of Scott Noble’s Human Resources, the gurneys in the tunnels of God only knows what kind of institution, the viewer does well to brace herself for the coming onslaught. 

The piano accompaniment is not so much music as it is the hammering of wires in the industrial mode, a harbinger of doom.  And as it turns out, there is nothing in the film to save us from its earliest suggestion of menace.  Not the reassurance that the institution is a hospital rather than a death camp, not the good-natured and wacky antics of the scientist donning a fierce mask to impress Little Albert the plucky human baby in a famous set of experiments, not a single routine bell of work or school by which we recognize ourselves as modern subjects.  Not one of these scenes can silence the tolling bell of modernity as it calls out to us across a century of darkness and names us as we sit, not quite cowering, before the flitframes of Human Resources, our faces backlit by our computer screens like so many ancients clustered around a faggot fire at the center of the night.

Perhaps we have seen some or most of these images before.  They lurk in the sensorium as a subliminal archive of what it is we know collectively—but Noble’s synthesis cracks the code of their proper arrangement.  This is the order in which they need to be seen, these are the appropriate experts interviewed and brought to the film with just the right finesse of juxtaposition.  Appreciating Noble’s relentlessly inquisitorial talent as a film-maker is like the moment when you first realize that a piano is not a plucked-string instrument but an instrument of percussion.  Listen and learn.  Noble’s skill is at such an exalted level that the wise viewer might well hold something in reserve, a suspicion that anything this good, eliciting these sorts of responses from us, might possess its own dark behaviourist powers.  Glad we might be to have such a mage as Noble on our side.

While I was a grad student at Princeton, I went to Duke University for a couple of years to hang out in classes with Fred Jameson, the theorist and critic of modernism.  It took me a while to get up to speed.  Human Resources is the film I wish I had been able to see before sitting in on Jameson’s lectures on Fordism, Taylorism, and the whole shtick of capital and Western civ in the 20th-century industrial mode, and what that portends for culture and for the 21st century.

Is Human Resources a masterpiece?  To know this, you’d have to answer the old zen conundrums, like whether a truckload of dead babies is worse than the possibly-less unsettling notion of a live one eating its way up from the bottom.  I advise viewing the first half of Human Resources in the educative mode, learning the ropes of that skein of modernity that has held us so resourcefully to our tasks as good worker bees and advocates of box-style public education.  I advise viewing the second half of the film with the willingness to weep that is the corollary of modernist inquiry.  Unless you weep, you may be damaged by this film.  It answers the significant events of the last century the way a glass answers the implicit questions of a man who peers into its reflective surface—point for point.  It corresponds, in short, to reality.  Perhaps this is what we mean when we say that a work is a piece of the master. 

Human Resources, by Scott Noble.  Viewer discretion, and love, advised.

DAVID Ker THOMSON is a once-and-future prof at the University of Toronto.  He teaches in the Language and Thinking Program at Bard College.  dave.thomson@utoronto.ca

 

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