The subject of the documentary Seat of Empire is supposed to be the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a 1909 event that celebrated Seattle's first big leap toward what it has always wanted to be—a world-class city. But Seat of Empire is not really about this exposition, nor is it about the young man on the cover of the doc's DVD—he sits on a set of dusty steps, hand on face, look of boredom on face, suitcase and sports jacket between legs. Seat of Empire is not about this young man, Shaun Scott, the director and writer of the documentary. The subject of the documentary is not even the city he lives in, Seattle, but its skyline. The skyline we see today was not always there. Where did it come from? How did it get to the place that it is now? The Space Needle, the art-deco buildings, the modernist and postmodernist towers, the stadiums—this collection and concentration of buildings now dominates the identity of the city. Scott follows the path from no skyline (trees, hills, bay) to the skyline of globalized power and ambition (the wall of sky-reflecting towers and the bay's reflection of those sky-reflecting towers).
Scott, who studied history at the University of Washington and originally comes from New York City (he grew up in the Shoreline area), begins with the beginning: the first encounter between Native Americans and Europeans. But this beginning is no fall from paradise for one group (the savages) and will to destiny for the other (the civilized). Scott claims that it was more of an interaction, a mutual exchange of ideas, values, codes, goods, and bodily fluids. It's said that when two stars are close to each other, they exchange star stuff; the same is true for any encounter between humans (who are also made of star stuff): When one group meets another, both are transformed by the experience. The pioneers did not just impress their culture on the locals and the landscape, but were changed by both into something new, something other than what they were to begin with. There is no purity, just mixture—Scott is committed to this position.
He is also committed to the idea that Seattle's fortunes have, from the very start, been closely tied to war, to military spending, and to American imperialism. For Scott, the ultimate fact behind the skyline of power is military power.
But the documentary is not so straightforward and political. It often changes direction and goes into things that do not appear to be relevant. Near the opening, there is something about lovers and an elusive graffiti artist. Then there are the five or so pretty women who sit on chairs or bicycles in front of a mural on 66th and Roosevelt—there is no reason for them to be there; they are thrown into the history of Seattle's skyline because they can be thrown into such history. Later in the documentary, a young woman eats a stick of what looks like Abba-Zaba. The next moment, there's a discussion about the "model minority"; at another moment, there's an examination of the Filipino-American experience of the city, which is different from, say, the Scandinavian-American experience or the black-American experience. At times, Scott is dead serious; at other times, he is playful. In one section, he shows he knows his history; in another section, he jokes about his failure to secure a black-American model for the shoot by the mural.
The end result is a film that is long, strange, funny, informative, disconnected, intelligent, fuzzy, romantic, and incomplete. But it could never be complete. Scott could never finish this project. The history of the skyline has so many pieces, moments, dreams, failures, and forces (some visible, others invisible). One admires Scott for simply trying for the impossible and going into a project that could never succeed—in this respect, he is very much like the novelist/critic Matthew Stadler. Even with 193 minutes, which is too long, he did not have enough time to finish the job he had in mind. For example, the last third of the documentary, which is packed with stunning footage of the city's spectacular rise to power—the birth of its metro, its construction of massive modernist towers, its accumulation of sport facilities—this section alone needs another hour or two.
But here is Scott's real achievement: He might be the first local artist to fully and successfully integrate the art of DJing with the art of filmmaking. His use of music—which is mostly by the Josh Rawlings Trio, Pocket Change, and the Teaching—and his blending of the footage he gathered from the Seattle Municipal Archives, the University of Washington Special Collections, and the Museum of History & Industry is often mesmerizing. For example, the scene with the gorgeous people attending a Jazz Age party is just too beautiful to believe. And then there is the footage of the landfill that is now the ground on which the fancy University Village shopping center stands. One is stunned by the hundreds upon hundreds of hungry seagulls that are swirling, squawking, and sifting through the garbage. Seattle is a strange place, and Scott is an even stranger filmmaker.
You can order DVDs of Seat of Empire at firstname.lastname@example.org for $20 a pop.