Snake Hill and The Practice of Bibliographic Cinema

Mustafa Sakarya, from Mercy College, has the third article in our Media Librarianship in the 21 Century[Zoopraxographers] series. He writes: \"In answering the question of why librarians should make movies, one might first ask why librarians should write stories. One of the world’s greatest fantasy storytellers, Jorge Luis Borges was a devoted librarian who composed some of his greatest works in the basement of the National Library in Buenos Aires. Concerned with the history of scholarship, many of his stories make liberal use of the metaphor of the library as universe. In his classic philosophical tale, The Library of Babel, he states that, “the Library is unlimited and cyclical”, cyclical in the sense that within its details, an image of the world is discernible from generation to generation. With Borges as a model, I find it useful and interesting to think of librarians as information artists and the library as a studio of infinite possibility, where past and present knowledge converge in a space limited only by imagination.There is no comparable figure to Borges in the realm of film and librarianship. In filmmaking, the librarian’s role is all too familiar and uncreative. The librarian is called upon during pre-production to assist in the gathering of data, information, photographs and other material that screenwriters, set-designers and directors need to give shape, content and authority to many different kinds of films. Documentary filmmakers such as Ken Burns will easily devote 75% or more of their films to footage taken directly from library archives. While it is understood that researching library resources is the necessary and unglamorous side of filmmaking, what may be less perceived and what I hope to propose here is that the very act of library research itself can be a provocative and unifying image, practice or metaphor, if not the very foundation of a new kind of film genre that I would like to term, bibliographic cinema.

Bibliographic cinema can be defined as a film directed by a librarian and inspired by library resources for the purpose of exploring an idea, issue, story or fantasy inextricably linked to those resources. The process of bibliographic cinema is no different than traditional filmmaking (creation of a script or screenplay, development of characters, film production, editing, etc) and requires that librarians have some knowledge of its technical aspects. The important conceptual difference is that the content of this cinema, its core ideas and themes originate significantly from the library itself. On one level, bibliographic cinema could be viewed as a highly creative and elaborate expansion of the traditional library practice of marketing or publicizing its collection. On another, it represents a grass-roots effort undertaken by a librarian to create a genuine work of film art. In either case, bibliographic cinema is an exciting new initiative for small, public libraries, especially those with a distinctive historical repository of materials and an agenda informed by community needs. By empowering creative librarians to make movies based on their own unique collections, bibliographic cinema breathes life into underutilized resources, pushes the art of independent film onto a new level, and unlocks the hidden storehouse of history and issues contained within an enormous swath of American libraries.

It is important to view bibliographic cinema as a highly flexible and open system not limited to the production of traditional documentary works and not necessarily tied exclusively to a particular library’s resources. In the hands of a librarian auteur, libraries can produce dramatic, fantasy or experimental films and can incorporate information from other sources. What unifies all of them is the reliance upon library resources as a fertile symbol in itself. By resources I mean not just the data, but also the squeaky chairs, the graffiti-worn reading table, the crinkling of acetate sleeves in the map drawers and the blooming magnolia outside the bathroom window. The sensual attributes and mood of interior and exterior space becomes as relevant as data resources in the context of bibliographic cinema.

In the making of my own movie, Snake Hill, I began to understand the larger structural and symbolic role a library could play in the core design of a film. Cast in the form of a fictitious environmental documentary, Snake Hill concerns the demise of an actual hill in Secaucus, New Jersey. Rising dramatically to almost 200 feet above the flat Jersey marshes and surrounded by gas lines and power grids, Snake Hill is a solitary and (to many people, unsightly) prominence visible to commuters who traverse the highways and railroads that lead to and from New York City. Its eastern, graffiti-covered face supports a section of the New Jersey Turnpike while its western face has literally disappeared, garishly strip-mined for gravel and other material during the late 19th and early 20th century.

As narrated by a heroic librarian protagonist, the story revolves around a Lenape Indian legend that foretells a doomsday curse on the world should humans ever cut or harm the sacred and pregnant mound, known by the Indians as Serpent Mother. Citing the current industrial and commercial infestation of the area as evidence of the curse’s effect, the librarian vows to locate and “reconsolidate” the vanished portion of the hill. This Chimerical task is the film’s premise, as stated by the librarian:
If I can piece together the fragments left behind, I might be able
to “de-excavate” a complete picture of the hill. Then the world would
finally know, the most mysterious wonder of my state!

He begins a research mission to far-flung corners and local libraries throughout the state where he locates evidence of the hill in various structures, including the stone facing of several war monuments and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Along the way he experiences hallucinatory visions of war, including images of his own violent death. Industrialized war with its patriotic support is seen as analogous to commercial devastation and both themes are developed concurrently throughout Snake Hill.

The film takes a turn into the baroque when the hapless librarian encounters a sorcerer and his19th century-attired accomplice in an abandoned train tunnel. Warning him of extreme danger should he find “the path to the hill”, the sorcerer nonetheless provides the librarian with tantalizing clues to a mysterious and “ultimate source” of information about the hill. In a series of ruses, the librarian is directed to various New Jersey libraries where, instead of finding definitive answers, he finds that his own personal life is becoming increasingly intertwined with his mission. In a climatic scene midway through the film, genealogical information from the Hackensack Public Library leads him to a WWII submarine dry-docked on the Hackensack River where he receives a final, chaotic vision of an imagined military assault and his own gory death.
The second half of the film finds the librarian wandering disillusioned along the marsh boardwalks of the Hackensack Meadowlands Environmental Center. There he receives and reluctantly follows the sorcerer’s final set of clues to the Special Collections department of Rutgers University’s Alexander Library to locate the so-called “ultimate source” of knowledge concerning the hill’s demise. Guided by the sorcerer, he pages through the enormous toll receipts ledger of the 19th century New Jersey Turnpike Authority where he is shocked to find his own name printed among the early horse and wagon commuters. The sorcerer explains that Snake Hill was destroyed not by the actions of certain wealthy capitalists, but rather by all of us who live off the privileges and conveniences of transportation and industrialization. The librarian’s violent visions were merely a parallel to the violence done to the hill. The “moral” of the film (if there is one) is this basic environmental dilemma: we are part of the earth, as represented by the hill, so by destroying the hill we are destroying ourselves. In the film’s final scene, the librarian hovers above the hill in a helicopter. He accepts the sorcerer’s wisdom as his own, understanding that by searching for the hill’s remnants, he was actually searching for himself. But the hill, or Serpent Mother, in a personified voiceover, states the moral contradiction in poetic terms:

Clever is the world that delivers itself through Caesarian, and becomes
infinite, by exploding the Mother into three dimensions.

Although not produced on behalf of any one particular library, Snake Hill is reflective of the basic tenet of bibliographic cinema: reliance upon library resources as symbol and plot device. Snake Hill actually began not as a film at all, but as a random photography project I began in the mid 1980’s. Having recently graduated college and moved into my sister’s basement in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, I found myself in the midst of that surreal and alienating corridor of northeast New Jersey known as The Meadowlands. There was something strangely photogenic about the area with its haphazard mix of suburban bedroom communities, industrial infrastructure and lush salt marshes. I would often take long, exploratory walks with a camera to record its many visual contradictions. In the style of a pretend archeologist exploring an alien society, my wanderings included frequent visits to local libraries (which I considered almost as strange and intriguing as the surrounding landscape).

I experienced a eureka moment when I “uncovered” the Jerseyana Room of the Lyndhurst Public Library. It was a small, cluttered room that felt barely used, its air smelling of decaying paper, burnt coffee and mimeograph ink. A dull yellow light glowed behind the shaded windows and dust covered the files, maps and the 1960’s institutional furniture. Everywhere there was a feeling of textual ruins. Within an old file cabinet I found hundreds of files containing local, historical ephemera, including photographs, newspaper clippings, maps, business literature and other items as specific as the dinner menu for the 1942 annual meeting of the Bergen County Mosquito Commission.
Certain images kept reappearing in newspaper clips, such as a strange, ruined smokestack in the middle of the Kearny swamp (remains of a WWI munitions factory), a sepia-tinted photo of an insane asylum (constructed next to Snake Hill) or an abandoned ferry in the Raritan River. I was uncovering the contours of “ancient” New Jersey, one that predated the sports arenas and retail outlets, but more importantly, I was linking the physical environment with its recorded history. This relay between past and present, between textual and physical landscape would become the governing structure of the film. In fact, because New Jersey’s textual landscape resides within libraries, it seemed natural to film these facilities and write them into the script. The invention of the sorcerer character was intended to emphasize the importance of library materials - a sorcerer as one that conjures “sources”.

Snake Hill follows in the tradition of mythologizing New Jersey seen in works such as William Carlos William’s Paterson, the poems of Allen Ginsburg and the work of earth artist, Robert Smithson. The film is particularly indebted to Smithson’s essay, The Monuments of Passaic, which documents an anti-heroic travelogue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to points along the Passaic River. Like Smithson, the librarian in Snake Hill imbues materials with a mythic importance (he calls the 19th century-era New Jersey Turnpike toll receipts ledger, the Book of the Garden, as if it were a religious tome).

In thesis form, Snake Hill begins with a research premise based on a dramatized environmental issue and uses the special and historical materials contained within libraries as evidence for supporting “paragraphs” or scenes that take place at related New Jersey sites. Like Snake Hill itself, the evidence is physically manipulated and this unavoidable bias becomes part of the story. The film relies upon New Jersey library resources for traditional content and as a plot device but more importantly, as a laboratory for the film’s exploration of the subjectivity of historical reflection. For these reasons, I have deemed Snake Hill an example of bibliographic cinema in order to place its production in a larger context of librarianship and to identify and encourage a new practice for creative artist-librarians. As the primary repository of much of the country’s local, historical heritage, libraries are ideally suited for the production of compelling documentary, narrative and experimental films.

The librarian exists ab aeterno. This truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, cannot be placed in doubt by any reasonable mind. Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of God.
Jorge Luis Borges
The Library of Babel

By Mustafa Sakarya,
Mercy College
555 Broadway
Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522
Tel.: 1-800-MERCY-NY

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