A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
Directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell
Opens December 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
It would be wonderful to report that Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness achieves a new kind of synthesis of documentary, narrative and the avant-garde; unfortunately, like many films which attempt such alchemy, it’s neither fish nor fowl and winds up being rather unsatisfying. It peaks in its opening scene, a lengthy pan around a Scandinavian lake at night, rendered in a painterly palette of blue and black tones. This is the pagan spirit of nature and wilderness that Norwegian black metal often sets out to evoke. Alas, the rest of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness never recaptures it.
Starring musician Robert A. A. Lowe (Lichens, Om) as a silent man, the film takes place in three parts. The first is set in a neo-hippie commune. In the second, Lowe lives alone in a house in the woods. In the third, he appears onstage as a member of a death metal band in Norway. The first third of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness evokes countercultural filmmakers like Robert Kramer and Alain Tanner, except that this commune’s members never discuss politics overtly. They do talk about orgies and raves, but what we see of their existence looks fairly dull, and the bright cinematography is a comedown from the beauty of the opening scene. The middle third feels like a reprise of Rivers’s Two If By Sea, which also depicted a man living a hermit-like existence. It offers up some pretty vistas of nature, but holds them for so long that one’s patience is tried: Rivers and Russell don’t have James Benning’s skill with duration. In its finale, the film finally becomes straightforwardly entertaining. Here, it evokes Black and White Trypps Number Three, Russell’s short set in the mosh pit of a Lightning Bolt concert, especially when the camera wanders offstage to shoot the audience (who are pretty sedate, compared to the musicians). But the sense of fun it contains seems disconnected from the rest of the film. Lowe’s character may have completed a cathartic spiritual quest, but one has to take that on faith. Steve Erickson