Review: Preservation Meditation in ‘The Arc of Oblivion’ Documentary
by Alex Billington
March 30, 2023
Why do we try to save everything? What is the point of saving everything from our lives it will all be wiped out by entropy one day in the distant future? These are the profound existential questions at the core of this documentary. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that – there are no answers to these questions found in this film. It’s more of an exploration of these questions with insight from scientists & great thinkers, intertwined with a personal journey of a filmmaker questioning himself and his own process. The Arc of Oblivion is a new documentary from filmmaker Ian Cheney that recently premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival in the Documentary Spotlight section (check out the trailer). It’s executive produced by doc legend Werner Herzog, who appears in it briefly at the end, and is a friend of the filmmaker. It also has a nice Herzog vibe as a doc, a very humanistic film exploring an unanswerable topic through conversations with many different people.
The Arc of Oblivion introduces us to documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney, who narrates the film and is the centerpiece of the story, in addition to producing & directing (much like Werner Herzog or Michael Moore). In what seems to be pandemic-inspired thinking, he starts to wonder about all of his harddrives with all of his footage and data and files stored on them. This is what sets him off on his journey to begin building an ark on his parent’s land in Maine. The strangest thing about this film is that by the end the construction of the ark is almost irrelevant, it doesn’t amount to much and is used mainly as a catalyst to get people to visit and talk with him on camera about these thoughts drifting around his mind about preservation. By the time he’s done building it, he realizes there’s no point to this ark either – it’s not going to help him store anything forever or save anything from the elements either. It’s just an art project, much like the film itself, and gave him an opportunity to do something while making another new film. It’s a fairly scatter-minded doc, though still compelling and intelligent thanks to many of the different conversations he has with friends and guests.
The film spends most of its slow-paced ark construction time drifting around to various people, interviewing them when they come visit the wooden boat. Occasionally he stumbles into a few gem interviews, whether it be scientific insight or intelligent philosophical ideas that help him make sense of that question of – will anything last? The answer is, obviously enough, nope – nothing will last. We are lucky that a few thousand dinosaur skeletons were preserved well enough in the ground to survive millions of years. However, another visiting guest near the end throws around one of the most profound ideas: if there had been another human-like race of beings on this planet millions of years ago, would we know? Probably not. The universe, and this planet, is constantly shifting and changing over time, and any remnants would be churned up and destroyed during that process. It seems this profound thought helps Ian accept the conclusion he knew he’d reach all along – attempts to save and store anything are usually futile, so what’s the point. As always, just live in the moment, appreciate what we have, and leave an emotional impact – that might be more worthwhile. Or not.
“An ark marks a journey,” one of his interview subjects states at one point. This is Ian Cheney’s journey through overcoming his anxiety of losing harddrives and letting the past go. At least he turned this journey into a thought-provoking film. One of my favorite tangets is when it introduces us to a guy who lets anyone print out text on clay tablets which he then moves to a salt mine to leave in there forever. You can send him anything you want to print (here’s the website) – an amusing example of how preservation is subjective and selective, and we should stop obsessing over what lasts, and start enjoying our time on Earth while we can.
Alex’s Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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