Salvage: A Film and Commentary
University of Tampa
With commentary by Mary Slaughter
California State University, Bakersfield
Citation: Boulton, Christopher and Mary Slaughter. “Salvage: A Film and Commentary.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 22, 2020. doi:10.20415/hyp/022.g01
Abstract: In his 2020 short film Salvage, director Christopher Boulton invokes a Marxist notion of alienation—from experience, from being in the world, from objects—in this meditation on our relationship with objects we prize as exotic, antique. These items may, at least for a time, satisfy our longing for what we imagine are authentic experiences, for “real” existence, having romanticized the actual experiences and lives from which they are derived. To make them precious now is to recognize how apart we are from the physical world that we inhabit so uncomfortably. They then function not as spirit guides, but as matter guides, anchoring us to the world in a way that is a reprieve from our simulated, Pergo-lated lives.
Keywords: film, gender, ethnicity, class, capitalism, labor.
Commentary: The Things That Make Us Feel Real
In the first shots of Christopher Boulton’s Salvage, the camera follows a man as he wanders through an architectural salvage warehouse, as the strains of an early 20th-century barbershop quartet recording can be heard, replete with the soundtrack scratches that help mark its age:
When I’m gone you’ll soon forget me.
When from you I’m far away,
I will leave you in life’s morning.
When I’m gone you’ll soon forget.
I have spent hours and hours – far too much time, really – prowling through dusty places such as this, filled with discarded objects of every stripe: floor after floor of ancient machines, housewares, architectural castoffs, and so on and so on, as covered in grime, and as removed from their original context, as the ones in the film. These spaces contain all manner of objects, whose patina and perceived strangeness – exoticism – have imbued them, in our minds, with a presence that we might call “authenticity,” however arbitrary that may seem. We search for what we might think of as self-expression, or as reassurance, through these objects: of our good taste, of our eye for the “unique,” for the unexpected, to show off to friends, to display on our social media accounts, to inspire the envy of strangers.
This is connected in my mind, at least in part, to a materiality that can be singularly missing in our digital, virtual, simulated experiences. How else to explain, for example, the recent surge in the theft of old barn wood, as people dismantle entire abandoned buildings in the pursuit of “rustic chic” design, succumbing to the call of the “real,” rather than the simulation of Pergo and her laminated sisters?
Boulton invokes a Marxist notion of alienation – from experience, from being in the world, from objects. This is what we seek from these old things, he seems to say, to be inserted into the world in a way we can never really know. These objects might call to us across time – but they belong to that different time, not to us. They may, at least for a moment, satisfy our longing for what we imagine are authentic experiences, for “real” existence, having romanticized the actual experiences and lives from which they are derived. To make them precious now is to recognize how apart we are from the physical world that we inhabit so uncomfortably. They then function not as not spirit guides, but as matter guides, anchoring us to the world in a way that is a reprieve from our simulated, Pergo-lated lives.
The use of voices point to different aspects of this semiotic investigation of our relationship to objects. The first woman’s voice, standing in for things from an obsolete, industrial past, seems to taunt the viewer, challenging our fascination with objects that no longer serve a working purpose:
What do I do? Can you remember? I was your helper.
We are witness to a phenomenological depiction of worker alienation very early on, with the inclusion of industrial footage of a time and motion study, and the literal objectification of a laborer as he is observed and measured by a threatening-looking supervisor in a suit.
I was easy to replace—just like you.
We’re all cogs in the machine, in the final analysis.
But now, I’m a treasure—and you can be the only one to have me.
A different female voice confronts us moments later, the use of Portuguese signifying both indigenousness and colonization, as we watch, via a found footage sequence, the progress of Great White Explorers/Exploiters, pith helmets and rifles at the ready, making their way through what one assumes is a Brazilian landscape, itself standing in for that which has been colonized.
How brave you are to explore this strange place, the voice mocks.
With this second voice, Boulton links the very troubling anthropological notion of “primitive” with the antique notion of primitives, those handmade objects from before the age of mass production, but here more loosely applied to obsolete technology as well. In so doing, he suggests the decadence of “collecting,” of bringing these bits of “authenticity” into one’s home, to be admired, now as “objets trouvé,” curiosities, signifiers of sophistication and taste. The desiccated form of an ancient canoe serves as the stand-in for these objects, these primitives. In the found footage, we see the explorers traveling in just such a canoe, propelled by indigenous guides. It has a kind of agency in this film, literally calling out the collector, and the absurdity of his activity, his quest for meaning through material absented from its purpose:
You will discover something, something that we see every day, and then take it home like a trophy.
It’s easy to extrapolate from this moment, to think of all manner of the exoticized, from tribal totems, to religious artifacts, to any “antiquities” that are jealously collected, stolen, separated from their original function.
Boulton acts out the notion of object as fetish, with shots that slowly pan over the canoe, recreating how one might thrill at the discovery of such an unfamiliar, “genuine” object, adrift on a sea of manufactured detritus.
As you move through my world, I wonder what you’re looking for. But this isn’t a store. It’s a hunt. And I am your prey.
This othered voice then switches to English, to scoff at the collector in his own tongue:
I’m lost—a worn-out relic from another time and place. You don’t need me like you did before, but you still need me, don’t you? Perhaps in the lobby of your boutique hotel, or mounted behind a bar.
It is an unsparing indictment:
And, best of all, I am a story. And you are the hero.
As I read it, Boulton’s semiotic investigation of our relationship to objects functions as a diptych. Halfway through, it switches to the experience of a working-class man, the speaker, Robert Larsen (identified in the credits), who apparently lived through the 1937 Battle of the Overpass, between Ford security guards and striking auto workers. This speaker tells, with great emotion, of the difficulties with which workers had to contend, before the union was formed, due to Ford’s efforts to prevent said unionization. We watch a montage of men leaving their homes for the workplace, filing into a factory, stepping into the most profound alienation of being a worker on an assembly line. Here, individuals are reduced to literal cogs in the machine, mindless, repetitive tasks consuming their days. What could be farther from actively creating one’s life than that?
The villainous supervisor makes a reappearance here, his face a sneer as he measures productivity, while the speaker describes the hazards and inequities experienced by these men. Here, the tasks of the assembly line are echoed onscreen in the actions of an antiquated machine, paralleling the objectification of the worker, repeating the same monotonous action over and over and over.
The film adopts a more documentary tone at this point, as Mr. Larsen recounts how thugs from Ford’s Service Department attacked auto workers at the Ford Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, during the 1937 confrontation, during which the UAW organizer Richard Merriweather was beaten so badly that his back was broken. Larsen recounts the subsequent occupation of the factory by the courageous auto workers, and how their actions led, ultimately, to unionization in 1941. He then laments the decline of unions, and asks us to compare it to a reversal of the Civil Rights movement, so great are the stakes. From object to subject and back again: Salvage is a brief, thought-provoking consideration of our very problematic connection to the things that we use to make us feel real.
California State University, Bakersfield