Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ND/NF ’14: A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

You have to do something to while the time away in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and the Baltics. A Brooklyn based musician will chew the fat in a hipster commune, soak up the wonders of nature, and play a death metal gig in a grubby little club, but less adventurous viewers will still look in vain for narrative hooks throughout Ben Rivers & Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Any decent sized festival ought to serve up some properly labeled experimental offerings just to prove their depth and breadth. Spell certainly fills that niche, but if you have a taste for hardcore metal, the final segment of the triptych will also give you plenty to bang your head to. Viewers will follow Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe as he wanders through northeast Europe, starting in an Estonian hippie colony. Amidst the bull sessions, one Finn tells a very funny story that we cannot describe in a family outlet, but could nicely stand alone as an amusing short.

In fact, there are a number of “lucid” moments in Spell, as when said Finn sheepishly prefaces his tale by apologizing for its length. However, his interlocutor insists stories are supposed to be long—that is the whole point of telling them. He has a point. After all, storytelling is a ritual that harkens back to the mead-grogged Vikings orally transmitting the epic of Beowulf. Ironically, the nearly narrative-free Spell helps viewers develop the vocabulary to explain why the avant-garde so frustrates them.

After leaving the commune, Lowe will spend Spell’s relatively short second movement communing with nature in the wilds of Finland. Visually, these are the most striking sequences (bringing to mind vintage ECM album covers), but they are also the most cinematically static.

Eventually, it is time for Lowe to get down to business in a small Norwegian club. As the Bens pan and re-pan the on-screen audience, we see considerably older cats than we might expect for such a fierce show, but when an out-of-town band comes to play, the locals probably go regardless. It is also worth noting the poster of Sun Ra in the backroom, which speaks well of the club’s hipness.

There is an awful lot of grasping at small details in the above analysis, but a film like Spell openly invites viewers to impose their own meanings where they may. It has some interesting bits, but it is specifically intended for a small, self-selecting audience. Deliberately languid and deliberate, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is recommended for those who embrace the lulling effect of video installations more than conventional bourgeoisie narratives when it screens Saturday (3/22) at MoMA and Tuesday (3/25) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2014 edition of New Directors/ New Films.