One wouldn’t necessarily guess it, but A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness, a collaborative effort by two of the leading lights of international experimental film, Ben Rivers (UK) and Ben Russell (US), is an enquiry as to where utopia(s) may exist (as noted in interviews and screening introductions). Possible locations, it is suggested, are in the present and in cinema (an art-form, the film-makers posit, which is permanently and exclusively located in the present). The film itself is nothing like as explicit.
The project draws on preoccupations dear to both filmmakers – community versus solitude; landscape and the individual’s place in it; and Russell’s particular fascination with trance states, most pointedly in the final section, under the influence of loud, violent music – but the result betrays no division of influence, playing as a truly collaborative vision.
It is something like an experimental, tripartite, non-narrative documentary. The long opening shot goes some way to preparing (or warning) us for the film’s contemplative mode. The camera pans slowly back and forth along the far shoreline of a lake in dim pre-dawn light. The thick rows of trees and their reflections in the water gradually devolve into semi-abstraction, coming to look rather charmingly like the huddled peaks of a digital waveform. This impression, and the incitation to a trance state, is reinforced when finally a gentle, looping, non-verbal a capella piece grows on the soundtrack – an opening that suggests that something like utopia can be found in a blissful surrender to sensation, under the influence of what is basically a very simple, but elegant combination of sound and image in the cinema.
The main body of the film is divided into three distinct sections. We begin with handheld observations of an Estonian commune, all beards and girls with no bras, varieties of accent, children running free, woven hippie jackets, and a high-spirited sauna. Shortly after we see a man deciding to nap with his baby instead of attending to the lunch he is expected to prepare – someone else will make it – a young woman observes that the abdication of responsibility is one of the temptations of communal living. Nonetheless, the group seems perfectly harmonious, building a geodome, face-painting, or simply passing the time as smoke floats beautifully in the sunrays piercing the forest, but the closest this section comes to finding a utopia is in an amusing story told of another commune, at another time, where the participants achieve something like the ultimate in ease with each other and each other’s assholes.
Amongst this group there is a man with a soft openness and self-possession to his face like Eric Dolphy if he’d let his beard grow wild, who strums an acoustic guitar and wanders into the now-completed dome for a smoke, whence we hop to a beautifully-forested Finnish lake. This kind of utopia is solitude in nature, comprising plenty of nice but never transcendent shots of our man hiking through the forest, rowing, or reading in soft sunlight, interspersed with close-ups of the muted colours of Finnish teen magazine covers and patterned home – furnishing fabrics, along with plenty of semi-abstract inserts of lichen, moss, water under ice and so on. The effect is underwhelming until two previous campfires of the film are magnified in a rather striking, if inexplicable conflagration that marks the transition from peace to and quiet to the onslaught of the film’s final section.
The locations are not indicated in the film until the closing credits, and nor is the viewer aware that this man is artist and musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. One might have more of a clue about the final section, however, where the filmmakers put him in the distinctive face-paint and context of a Norwegian Black Metal performance. This kind of utopia – if a trance-state can be equated with utopia – is familiar from Russell’s records of the transformative power of hardcore music, audiences sweating and carried away by the incessant power of the sound. Here it is primarily the band captured in their reverie (though the drummer looks a little bored), by a roaming close-up camera of varying focus, in what plays like a single half-hour shot. In fact it contains two near-invisible cuts, one of which facilitates a pan across the dim audience, their faces stonily impassive until the current song ends and electronic drone waves take over, and heads start to nod. It seems to be a deliberately concealed disjunct of audio and video to give the impression that the audience is so transported that they no longer need the thudding rhythm of the music; a valid point about possibility, but ringing unavoidably false.
The overwhelming nature of this near-relentless noise if undeniable, but the power of the sequence is undermined if one finds such music simplistic and emptily bombastic. Also undeniable is the commitment of the band, in particular Lowe, views of whom are withheld until near the end, by which time he is screaming full-throatedly the sole word repeated over and over throughout the set (“Lie”? “Why”?, “Die”?) As he walks quietly off-stage, apparently returned to his former state of serenity, the camera follows close on his shoulder (as it has done several times already), as he walks out into the night. The well-worn shot-choice is given a nice spin, however, as towards the end of another lengthy take, Lowe dissolves gradually into the darkness accompanied by a breathy electronic delay loop and escalating red noise. So perhaps the spell has not worked after all.
AFI FEST festival film page: A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness
Country: France, Estonia
Directors: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Screenwriters: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Producers: Julie Gayet, Nadia Turincev, Indrek Kasela
Executive Producer: Rouge International
Cinematographers: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Editors: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell
Music: Veldo Tormis, Lichens (Robert A.A Lowe), Queequeg ( Robert A.A Lowe, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Nicholas Mcmaster, Weasel Walter)
Cast: Robert A. A Lowe, Taraka Larson, Nimai Larson, Nick Turvey, Tuomo Tuovenen, Katri Sipalini, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Nicholas Mcmaster, Weasel Walter