PRINT November 2019



THE PRESENT FEELS INESCAPABLE, like a miasma too close, too everywhere, to apprehend. Yet it is precisely because of this blinding proximity that the present demands to be given shape in a lasting, shareable form—so that we might make sense of our place within it, so that the feeling of our time will remain available to encounter in times to come.

In her third feature film, The Hottest August (2019), geographer turned documentarian Brett Story proposes one way to give shape to our moment. Story roams the five boroughs of New York in the eighth month of 2017, posing questions from behind the camera to all kinds of people. One query in particular recurs: “How do you feel about the future?” The film’s subjects speak of fears and hopes, employment prospects and gentrification. They dance, protest, wait, and work. They watch for a total eclipse of the sun. They scan for signs of apocalypse, and they don’t have to look far: Televisions broadcast a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and announce storms on the way. The film returns repeatedly to the beach, a site of leisure, but also a threshold that makes manifest our vulnerability to the planet’s rising tides. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was often said that we had lost our ability to imagine the future. Now this faculty has been reawakened, though less by dreams of utopian transformation than by nightmares of environmental and social collapse. The Hottest August charts the shared imaginary of what may await us.

The Hottest August swiftly becomes an untimely archive of a lost world; the present is rendered historical, playing out in the shadow of a fate unknown.

The obvious film-historical precedent is Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le joli mai (The Lovely Month of May, 1963), a collective portrait of Paris in a springtime of tumultuous decolonization and an ascendant société de consommation. A less obvious but just as salient reference lies in another Marker collaboration, Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), made with Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet. This anticolonial film essay opens by imagining a future in which French culture has fallen into ruin, leaving the artifacts of daily life to be preserved in museum vitrines, their origins unknown. Story uses a similar defamiliarizing device. After an initial conversation with two union men, she introduces an unseen woman with a distinctly Upper Canadian accent who reflects back, via voice-over, on August 2017, presenting facts concerning births, deaths, garbage, and extinction. “Since then,” she says, “all types of objects have been recovered. Of course, many were also lost.” She seems to speak not from now, when August 2017 feels proximate, but from a time to come, after untold events. The Hottest August swiftly becomes an untimely archive of a lost world; the present is rendered historical, playing out in the shadow of a fate unknown. This narration intermittently recurs, offering citations from sources such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Zadie Smith’s 2014 climate-change essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons,” moments that draw out the film’s conceptual stakes while introducing a speculative dimension very different from the prognostications of its interviewees.

Already in the 1920s, Siegfried Kracauer recognized the difficulty of diagnosing the present, suggesting that the “position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.” The Hottest August finds merit in both methods. Its careful compositions register a wealth of surface-level expressions emanating from the city’s bodies and spaces—the exhaustion of subway passengers, the expansiveness of a wood table, the strength in a mother’s gaze—while its central conceit is to provide a collection of our epoch’s judgments about itself. Story asserts the need to capture these judgments and listen to them, but she never suggests they are authoritative. We have no way of knowing what she makes of the “robot communism” one man endorses, nor of another’s belief that the principle of private property should be expanded to make it possible to own clean air, because she refrains from explicitly validating or challenging the opinions voiced by her interviewees—and the film is all the richer for it. The Hottest August generously gives its subjects space to speak without overdetermining their utterances. Although suffused with melancholy and foreboding, it is neither optimistic nor pessimistic concerning our chances for survival, giving us something more valuable, more complex, than either warning or consolation: a polyvocal time capsule that allows us to make up our own minds.

The Hottest August appears when narrative, like so much else, tends to be siloed and privatized. Think, for instance, of the vogue for autofiction and the personal essay, to say nothing of the individualism that has long dominated screen storytelling and that is frequent even in documentary, perhaps increasingly so. The Hottest August takes a different path, toward the chorus, toward the forum, recognizing the need to situate individual experience within a larger frame. At a time when a sense of shared reality lies in ruins, it imagines life as a collective endeavor taking place in a world held in common. 

The Hottest August opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 15.

Erika Balsom is the author of After Uniqueness: A History Of Film And Video Art In Circulation (Columbia University Press, 2017) and a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London.