Co-director (along with Ben Russell) Ben Rivers has been a resident for many years, and used to run the Cinematheque on Middle Street for nearly a decade before its closure in 2005. (Ask any stalwart of the Brighton underground scene about this place and they’ll have plenty to say about the breadth and weirdness of its programming.) This goes some way to explaining the almost-full house at the Cinecity 2011 screening of Rivers’ previous feature, Two Years at Sea. That movie was an immersive and meditative experience, slow but thrillingly consistent in its own vision, marking Rivers out as a filmmaker with an admirable boldness. It was the sort of thing that’s normally only caught in snippets by art gallery punters milling slowly in and out of makeshift video installation spaces. I loved it for the attention it demanded, and the weary wrinkled grit and wisdom it near-silently offered back. At the Q & A afterwards, Ben Rivers came across as a quietly spoken craftsman, a man who loves images and the physical processes of filmmaking on Super 16 stock, and much prefers to talk about these aspects than all the ephemeral stuff – meaning and symbolism and what not.
Thankfully he hasn’t changed; at the Q & A after A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, he remains cautious and doesn’t take the opportunity to explain away this latest collaborative work, instead expounding happily on camera movements and the technical requirements of a shot. But then, nobody from the audience is asking him the conceptual stuff, nobody’s prepared to venture anything from their own tentative reading of a film which, it has to be said, is pretty impenetrable. Esoteric, even. Rivers and Russell have thrown down a real challenge here; aesthetically and sonically, niche is compounded with niche. It’s a film that whittles its audience down as it goes.
A Spell is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different living arrangement and/or endeavour in its protagonist’s life. The opening third depicts the day-to-day life of a rural commune based around a country house. Shot in verité style but edited together in fragments, it comes across like a Dogme film cut into an impressionistic montage. Folks of several ages and nationalities are alternately lazy, awkward, earnest, hardworking, barefoot, and a little drunk. It’s a messy, improvisational existence and the film’s busy and offhand style reflects that. How well this section fares with the viewer rests largely on how appealing they find the residents of the commune; Rivers and Russell succeed here by leaving the awkwardness in and letting it permeate the viewer as it may.
Of all three ‘lifestyles’ this is certainly the most self-conscious, and that’s saying something, considering the third involves the element of costume and public performance. But more on that later. The opening section also deftly achieves the neat narrative trick of misdirecting the audience away from the ‘real’ protagonist, who only emerges as such when the film moves on to its second part.
Next comes Two Years at Sea in miniature: a solitary existence spent fishing, climbing and reading in a remote woodland shack. The takes become longer, there is no dialogue, and we are left alone to absorb the landscape. This hermitic existence is broken by a jarring act of finality: the ritualistic burning of a wooden cabin. Even though the cabin is not our protagonist’s own home, its tonal effect is that somehow a whole lifestyle has been razed to the ground.
Moving on to the final third, I feel I must declare a conflict of interests. This entire section depicts the nameless protagonist in performance as one quarter of a black metal band, on stage at an underground rock club. The camera records the entire half-hour set in one slow wandering close-up, bringing into sharp and shallow focus the magnified parts of each musician’s hands, fingers, heads, mouths, and the protruding parts of their sweat-spattered instruments. It’s a difficult section for me to judge critically; as a pretty big fan of black metal, I have my own complex and contradictory relationship with its aesthetic, its ideological associations, the strictness of its sub-sub-divisions. (To the outside world, internal heavy metal diplomacy is somewhat akin to the Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea skit in The Life of Brian.)
Black metal and experimental cinema do not, to me, share evaluative criteria. I’ve always thought they appealed to my brain at two entirely different registers, so it’s hard to reconcile them both for the purposes of a readable review. But here goes.
Ending a film with a thirty-minute sequence entirely dedicated to a very niche musical style is bold to the extent of bloody-mindedness. This is a real musical performance with no overdubs, and the synchronisation of camera work and sound design is fascinating once you settle into it, but ultimately this will test the patience of anyone who can’t tolerate the music. And it might also alienate the truer-than-true black metal fans in the audience, because these musicians, filmed at work in the genre’s Scandinavian heartland, are in fact all Americans who have made their names in cosmopolitan cultural meccas like New York and Chicago. What you’re watching is an all-star band of foreigners provocatively screwing with the formula.
But I don’t want to accuse the filmmakers of being disingenuous – I think their representation of the music is authentic enough. No matter how earnestly black metal players want you to associate their music with echoing crypts and towering mountains, the reality is that this aggressive, awkwardly harmonic music comes together in clubs and rehearsal spaces, between the musicians in flesh and blood. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness knows this – the camera seems to embody the collective energy of a calculatedly ritualistic performance, before wandering off, outside the club, away from our protagonist and into the night sky.
The film leaves a strange lopsided impression on the mind, like an impossibly-balanced sculpture. Audience reaction ranged from adulation to bemused disappointment. It’s an elusive work, full of people who can’t quite find a place to settle or a truly sustainable pursuit. The restlessness of the film is a realisation that nothing really belongs to us, yet we are forced to make a space and try to find some way to relate. It’s such a universal conundrum, yet Rivers and Russell’s challenging investigation of subcultures and hermitry approaches it from three seriously obtuse angles. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness: file it under ‘special interest’.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith