Empty Quarter


A brooding meditation on open space, forward motion, and the human impulse to make something out of nothing (and, inevitably, vice versa), this 16mm black-and-white documentary from Portland artists Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty is anything but the haphazard slideshow it first appears to be. Shot in scantily populated southeastern Oregon, Empty Quarter presents a series of near-static shots of farms, factories, townscapes, and—in dispassionate middle distance—people going about their mundane daily tasks. These scenes are punctuated by blank-screen commentaries from various residents, each reflecting in some way on what has been lost to the ravages of time and industry. This mix isn’t as dry or dour as it sounds: With patience, the film’s visual rhythm clicks and combines with the palate-cleansing talking-headless voiceovers (which subtly shift our perception of the images that have passed and color the ones that follow) to cohere into a canny, uniquely tactile portrait of American progress in all its ironies. Cultural collapse and eco-destruction lurk in the margins of LeTourneau and Minty’s film to be sure, and its suggestion that mechanization is simultaneously a path to oblivion and a distraction from it is quietly damning. Yet somehow this gives the human endeavors here, both big and small, a kind of resigned beauty. True, the closest Empty Quarter comes to high drama is when a mother tries to wrangle her small children in a laundromat, but even a scene of hay drying in a barn imparts a thrilling, mysteriously reassuring sense of cosmic pragmatism.