SXSW Film Review: The Arc of Oblivion

Documentary explores the beautiful effort of human record-keeping

credit: Wicked Delicate Films

For such an existential question as whether the human urge to make a mark against the entropy of the physical world is folly, Ian Cheney’s Arc of Oblivion takes a pretty cheery tone.

In self-effacing narration and twee animation for the South By Southwest Film and Television 2023 selection, the King Corn director creates a musing, meandering, but sneakily organized look at the compulsion to memorialize. As Cheney builds a landlocked ark in Maine on his parents’ property, he invites guests in the realm of record-keeping to visit – like journalist Brian Palmer, who uncovers and preserves forgotten Black cemeteries in the American South. Cheney himself travels the world, exploring forms of record-keeping for himself, from the oldest libraries of the Sahara, to the Memory of Mankind project that seals knowledge onto ceramic tiles, preserved in the salt mines of Austria for a million years.

Cheney grounds what could be an impossibly vast subject in his family, sharing anxieties about losing photos of his kids, plumbing his photographer father’s archives, and showing his parents’ witty reaction to the building of the ark in their backyard. He’s aware of the human hubris in building grand libraries and tombs, as he marvels at the earth’s unintentional forms of memory-making that far outlast humanity’s – rings of trees marking atomic bombing, bat guano marking weather patterns – and invites a cosmologist to contextualize the human species as the speck in time that we are. He explores memory loss too, whether by physical forces like flood or a hurricane, the fallibility of the human mind, or something more spiritual.

In such a wide-ranging exploration, there are some digressions that confuse, glancing on complicated scientific ideas or veering too much towards the unorganized philosophical. The narrative conceit of talking heads interacting with meta footage on an old-fashioned TV is a tad played out. Yet it’s hard not to be charmed by Cheney’s steadfast wonder at the world, and his impressive craft – the visuals are lush, the editing trots along at an expert pace, and he has a knack for drawing perfect quotes out of interviewees.

This is also a filmmaker’s film, through and through; Cheney is reflexively curious about the urge to record, exploring how the camera necessarily changes the scene it’s capturing. We get producer Werner Herzog performing a reading of "Ozymandias" by Percy Shelley as a finale.

Though at times the artistic navel-gazing and endless pondering did remind me of film class in undergrad, it also made me nostalgic for it in the best way. In the end, Cheney lands on what imbues the film with such refreshing wide-eyed optimism: Yes, the urge to record is folly, but it’s beautiful.

The Arc of Oblivion

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

Sat 11, 8:30pm, AFS Cinema
Wed 15, 7:30pm, Violet Crown Cinema 4

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