It takes a while to settle into watching A Survey of Open Space, the documentary by Austin visual artist Peat Duggins. Anyone looking for the filmmaker to impose dramatic narrative devices on this film about a cross-country bike trek will be sorely disappointed. There is no pumped up character conflict, no artificial suspense or second act reversals. Those willing to invest the time to watch it, however, will find a closely observed and very thought provoking film about the relationship of three people to what’s left of the once vast American wilderness as they encounter it.
Duggins makes a three month bike trek with his sister Michaela and his friend Zach Hall that begins in Brownsville Texas and concludes in the Alaskan wilderness. The film that documents this trip is no misty-eyed, sanctimonious environmental paean to the vanishing wilderness. Rather, it’s a very naturalistic travelogue in the tradition of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley — and thanks to the presence of Duggins’ extremely colorful friend Zach, with a little of Kerouac’s On the Road thrown in for good measure.
Along the way the trio encounter Mormons, bears, mosquitoes, wild horses, snow and the righteous drive to consume enough food to bike between 50 an 80 miles per day. The filmmaker never shows himself, but his meditations on the trip provide a voiceover narrative to the action. And while like Steinbeck he worries about the choices being made with regard to nature, he doesn’t see man’s incursion into it as a necessary evil — but rather, sees a much more complex and animated relationship. “Who can argue with a well-placed bench?” he muses at one point in the film (or something to that effect).
Duggins displays his skill as a filmmaker by setting up the parameters of the journey, and then having the courage to just let it play out. And probably his best and most important choice was having the aforementioned Zach along for the ride. From the movie’s opening scene of Zach singing Queen’s “Bicycle” wearing a white spandex sailor suit that leaves nothing to the imagination, you realize you’re in the presence of a unique American character who provides both the perfect lens for the filmmaker and counterpoint to the landscape. Duggins admits that without Zach, there would be no movie, and he’s probably right.
On a purely personal note, I would LOVE to see Duggins’ sketchbook which he made of the journey printed as a book. It’s absolutely gorgeous and I’d buy it in a heartbeat.