Frederick Wiseman Shepherd Bliss - Essay

Shepherd Bliss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Watching Canal Zone] must be disturbing for people who know little of the Zone. I can testify that it is also an intense experience for an old-line Zonian…. Much of Wiseman's film confirms and illuminates my memories….

I recall the Panama of my childhood as a spontaneous outburst of lush vegetation, sleek black panthers, huge boa constrictors, Latin hospitality, panoramas charged with such vivid hues that surely any filmmaker would want to capture them in gorgeous tropical color. Not Wiseman. He photographed the Zone, more appropriately, in black and white. (p. 286)

As an exposé of the US imperial presence in Panama, Canal Zone is effective. As a prescription for action or an "organizing tool," it is not. It depicts what has happened to the colonizers in the Zone as a tragedy, but it offers no solutions and seems even to be saying that no solution exists….

Not by accident, death is ever-present in Canal Zone. Cemeteries, funerals and memorial services recur again and again; "they have not died in vain" is a frequent affirmation. The film even ends in a graveyard. What is dying, Wiseman seems to be saying, is a culture, a world-view, "the American way of life"—it has flourished for a while in alien soil but its roots are withering now. In the film's final moments, for those with good ears, the faint sounds of Spanish can be heard. The "problem" of Panama will be solved as the Panamanians speak their will in concert. (p. 287)

Shepherd Bliss, "'Canal Zone': An American Way of Death," in Christianity and Crisis (copyright © 1977 Christianity and Crisis, Inc.), Vol. 37, No. 19, November 28, 1977, pp. 286-87.