Swimming upstream: Underwood dams his documentary

Michael Underwood's, Escapement.
Michael Underwood, Escapement.

Occasionally, a non-filmmaking artist decides to take a stab at the cinematic art form. Sometimes the results are shockingly good. For instance, painter Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are breathtaking films. Other times, as in the case of Michael Underwood's Escapement, currently screening at the Niche in the Fine Arts Library, well, not so much.

A photographer by training, Underwood and his brother, Matthew, set out in 2002 to make a documentary examining whether or not four dams on the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia, should be removed to allow dwindling salmon populations to recover. In 2009, the brothers completed the project, although it's unclear from the 28-minute video what was filmed when and how the situation may have changed over the seven-year span.

Escapement contains all the elements of a standard documentary. Shots to establish a sense of place? Check. "Talking heads" expressing contrasting viewpoints? Check. A map for geographical reference? Check. Archival photographs enlivened by camera pans, a la Ken Burns? Check. Successful documentaries, though, require attention not just to visual components but also to sound, editing, and storytelling.

Escapement's biggest technical problem is its sound. One minute the spoken words are clear, the next they're layered with interference. In at least two places, the stereo abruptly shifts to single channel. This inconsistent quality is jarring, distracting, and screams "amateur." In addition, when Escapement includes voiceover, the narrator reads the script in a sing-song-y cadence that undercuts the words' meaning.

The editing is also uneven. Interviews last too long, and the narrative thread does not un-spool smoothly. Also, the map is a visual snooze, and the use of black frames to divide the film into sections is overworked. In one instance, an interview subject's words are inexplicably voiced over a black frame for several seconds before he is revealed.

Which is not to say Escapement doesn't have redeeming aspects. Chief among them: every shot is beautifully composed, often contrasting the geometric lines of manufactured structures with the organic flow of nature. Underwood also skillfully imbues the video with a strong palette of red, blue, yellow, and green that provides unity.

Escapement is most successful when its compelling shots wordlessly tell the story. Underwood's images of glass windows at a dam revealing fish swimming upstream through green water are particularly memorable.

But he probably shouldn't quit his day job.

Michael Underwood's documentary, Escapement, is on view through December 31 at The Niche in the Fine Arts Library. Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library, Bayly Dr. (across from the Architecture School). For more information, visit http://thelibraryniche.blogspot.com.

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