Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Slamdance ’21: A Black Rift Begins to Yawn

Analog media continues to intrigue for many reasons, including its intentional purposefulness. Somewhat went to the effort of recording those mysterious old cassette and reel-to-reel tapes and then dedicated the considerable space to store them. Whatever might be on them must mean something, right? That is what two women assume when they start cataloging their former professor’s weird archive in director-screenwriter-editor-composer-prop-designer Matthew Wade’s A Black Rift Begins to Yawn, which screens during this year’s (online) Slamdance Film Festival.

People often confuse Laura and Lara (honestly, if you remember which one is which an hour after finishing the film, then hats off to you). Despite the misgivings of his widow, they have taken possession of a mysterious cache of tapes their former professor, Dr. Meyer was studying. They seem to have been transferred from reel-to-reel tapes to the cassettes, but there are strange, disorienting noises on them which neither Lara and Laura or Dr. Meyer before them can identify. As they continue to listen and examining the tapes, they start to lose track of time and their surroundings. The strange noises could very well be driving them mad.

A cheap review could easily fall back on an easy line like “you can see why the black rift is beginning to yawn.” It is true
Black Rift is a deliberately and sometimes maddeningly slow film. However, it is also clear to see Wade is a very talented cinematic stylist. The problem is he is not a great storyteller.

There are some remarkable visuals in
Black Rift, but the two main characters are basically interchangeable ciphers. It looks great, but it never really connects on an emotional or intellectual level. If Wade ever teams up with an old school screenwriter, they could probably produce something as distinctive as The Vast of Night (which is also stylistically arresting, but also features memorable characters). However, as the work of a one-man auteur, Black Rift is problematically diffuse and opaque. It is good to be challenging, but we need characters and narrative signposts to carry along the heady concepts.

Both Sara Lynch and Saratops McDonald look convincingly dazed and disturbed as the L’s, but we never get a real sense of their respective personas. Frankly, the legit stars of the film are Lila Streicher’s trippy cinematography and Jacob Kinch’s eerie sound design.

You have to admire the ambition of
Black Rift, but when you really wade into it, there is not a lot to engage with. There is definitely an audience for it, but the narrative elements are even thinner than even that of a film like Bateman’s The Wanting Mare. It is impressively crafted, but it needs more. Mostly just for hardcore hipster cineastes, A Black Rift Begins to Yawn screens (online) through 2/25, as part of this year’s Slamdance.