The playwright Will Eno says, in Title and Deed, that “we all come from blood and salt water and a screaming mother begging us to leave.” The photographer Sebastião Salgado, subject of Wim Wenders’ new documentary The Salt of the Earth knows screaming mothers, blood and salt water, and has dedicated his life to showing us the struggle that happens when we leave. Wenders has always been a meditative chronicler of what’s going on beneath the surface, and in his seventieth year, only moreso. We see Salgado elegantly framed in reflections of his photographs – close-ups of children dying from cholera, wide shots of Rwandan refugee camps that look like Hollywood epics, amazing and even light-hearted images of seals and polar bears. It’s relentlessly cinematic – as it should be, with one great photographer making a film about another one.
“Having a photographer in front of your camera is different from anyone else,” Wenders narrates – there’s a lovely moment where he and Salgado compare the pictures they have just taken of each other, but there’s more to The Salt of the Earth than art history. This is billed as a journey with Sebastião Salgado, not a film about him – far more immersive than typical observational documentaries, or the all-too-popular re-tellings of stories in which all the happenings had happened before a single frame was shot. Noise and action are conveyed over still photographs without even the “Ken Burns” effect; we’re getting into both the life of this “great adventurer” and those of his subjects – gold miners, liberation theologians, famine victims. The images are stunning – the one in which a plant dwarves children, and a Galapagos island turtle who “may have seen Darwin” just two example of how Salgado shows us ourselves, and the planet we inhabit, anew. Indeed he sometimes makes it seem like a different planet entirely.
Salgado has spent much of his life in “places where life and death are very close” to each other, and he doesn’t want to hide from suffering, much of which he sees as “a problem of sharing.” Or not sharing. Sometimes the pain of life is too much, and it seems that distress cannot be undone. But Salgado has transcended the suffering in his photos, and done something astonishing. His son – Wenders’ co-director here – considered him “some kind of superhero” due to long childhood absences and magical returns, and he has actually done something heroic. With his life partner Lelia, Sebastião took environmentally degraded land in Aimorés, Brazil, and started planting seeds. In fifteen years, they gave birth. Out of blood and salt water, a new forest: “The destruction of nature can be reversed.” Salgado has done something every human being gets the chance to do, but few of us actually pursue. He has become present with his own life.
If you’ve ever met a movie star, you might be familiar with the strange sensation of feeling like you know someone intimately who doesn’t know you at all. It’s no wonder, really, given that all our feelings are the results of what psychologists call ‘projections.’ Our experience of movie stars has been the experience of projection, literally, the human face animated by dancing light on a blank screen. So encounters with movie stars in the real world can be unnerving, asymmetrical. The power dynamic is paradoxical, because the fan may have been deeply touched by the star’s work, may have been moved by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep’s divorce in Kramer vs. Kramer, may have changed careers after seeing Matt Damon change direction in Good Will Hunting, may have felt understood by Brendan Gleeson’s priest in Calvary or Juliette Binoche’s uncredited artist in Three Colors: Blue, or Chris Cooper’s decent bloke trying to cut through political machinations and deal with the past in Lone Star.
These feelings – which are, of course, part of the point of cinema and all art at its best: to help us live better – may spill over into the intuition that we are not just being understood, but that we understand the star, that we have a relationship with them. Which is, actually, somewhat true. Just not the way gossip columns in the past or Twitter today would have us think. Our projection of the star assumes they are actually like the parts they have played (and depending on the actor, that may be true as well). But meeting Harrison Ford or Cate Blanchett is different from meeting Indiana Jones or that nasty Russian woman who tried to kill him with the alien crystals, or whatever it was she was doing. Having said that, there is still a space in the heart of every moviegoer that gets the opportunity to distinguish between character and performer, between familiar performer and friend.
Meeting Marlon Brando in real life might be a momentary thrill; but meeting him in his films is an aesthetic, cultural, philosophical and psychological treasure. If you learn the gift of cinema, then you’ll eventually figure out that the person you’re really meeting is yourself. The new film Listen to Me Marlon is one of the most original pieces of nonfiction cinema, turning Brando’s personal audio recordings into the soundtrack for a film that caused me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about him. Famously private, now his inner life is made available to the very audiences who made him want to hide. Speaking from beyond the grave, tender about his family, passionate about his causes, coruscating about celebrity, and sometimes addressing the audience through his own animated digitized face, Brando comes alive like never before, as a real living breathing person – like you and me. Not a god, but one of us, pained and elevated by the sorrow and joys of life.
Director Stevan Riley has constructed a profoundly moving and exciting film (and it’s a powerful act of generosity on the part of Brando’s family to make the recordings available); when it comes to Brando discussing the concept of death while we watch Don Corleone expire in the sun-dappled garden, well, it would be fair to say that we just experienced a new definition of ‘meta.’ Don Corleone’s death means something to me. So does Brando’s. Mine even more, and both Don Corleone and Marlon Brando teach me something about it. Cinema means something more than flashy exposures of larger than life personalities. It’s an opportunity to meet yourself, and change.
Gareth Higgins is the Founding Director of Movies and Meaning, a weekly newsletter and upcoming festival decicated to finding and featuring only the most meaningful of movies. Keep up with him by frequentling his personal website.