Friday 28 June 2013

HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind

Terror Firmer

HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind
2013 Ireland
Directed by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Limited release at venues when announced.

Every now and then, the director Rouzbeh Rashidi contacts me and asks me if I want to see whichever film he’s been working on at the time. It’s always a double edged sword because I find Rashidi’s work (previously reviewed here, here, here and here) to be really great stuff but it’s also very challenging and I often question myself as to whether I can do artistic justice to his work in reviewing one of his pieces. But I always want to see what he’s been up to and I always bite the bullet and review it after... although I never know just where to start when trying to get down something which tries so hard to capture a glimpse of these specific works. Works which are both simple and vastly complex pieces all at the same time.

HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind is a film which, at first glance, seems to be a bit of a departure for Rashidi in terms of image content and the way that content is treated within the context of the movie. However, as you start getting into it, you realise that, actually, yes it’s very much a part of the “Rashidi Universe” and the concerns and level of what is revealed and concealed is certainly keeping in spirit with the films I’ve seen by him before. It just took me a little longer to adjust because this one seems to have a much more accessible (at some levels) story arc in some ways than the director’s previous films. That is to say, in as much as parts of the plethora of connected images are easy to corral into a rough narrative framework than they maybe are in others of his works.

The film starts off with a sinister face mask in silhouette in varying shades of focus while seaside wurlitzer style organ music, that I most associate with David Lynch’s Eraserhead, washes over the soundtrack. The aspect ratio changes to something approximating 4:3 as the mask seemingly changes form until eventually vanishing from the screen to usher in the title of the movie.

After the title, a man paces backwards and forwards in front of a garishly lit neon cinema before we cut to a shot of a ceiling fan rotating at various speeds in rhythm, which strobes us back to the previous shot at increasing speed. We then cut to an arial shot of clouds in orange and then to a blue tinted cemetery where James Devereaux slowly walks towards the camera to a piece of Philippe D’ Aram’s score to Jean Rollin’s Fascination. And here is one of the few slightly negative criticisms I’m going to make about this movie. Excuse me here while I have a musical interlude...

Quentin Tarantino, amongst others, is the master of the needle-drop soundtrack. And when I say needle drop, I mean he uses bits of his favourite film scores and sews them altogether to create the soundtracks to his films. The problems with this, though, is that even half cine-literate audiences are going to pop right out of the movie experience and start playing guessing games as to what movie the music originally came from. And this is exactly what happened when I first saw this shot of Devereaux underscored to this specific cue. Instead of watching the film my mind drifted off into... “What is that? A violin and a musical saw maybe? I know that music. I have it somewhere... oh, hold up... it’s Fascination.

Now this may not be a problem for the film maker in question, it’s true. Godard would often want to deliberately jump the audience out of his movies and musical approaches were just one of the ways he did this. Now this may be what Rashidi wanted, I can kind of see this modus operandi working with other scenes in this film and also in some of his other films... but I suspect that wasn’t what was required here, although the musical association is certainly a non-verbal indication which supports the films end credits, which include attribution to the work of the famous French lesbian-vampire-surrealist director Jean Rollin. Certainly the film could stand roughly on the same side of the coin as some of Rollin’s early work like Le Viol Du Vampire... and could probably cause similar riots as this early Rollin work created back in the 60s if this was shown to a packed house around my local too, I suspect (that’s a compliment, by the way, if you are in any doubt). So it’s quite possible that we are supposed to make that association with the famous French director’s work from early on and certainly the sight of James Devereaux wearing a mask like some Diabolik or Fantomas or SuperArgo in many of the scenes creates an equally sinister feel as the ones worn in something like, say, Rollin’s La Vampire Nue (reviewed here). So maybe that was Rashidi’s intention after all?

We then cut to James Devereaux sitting on a park bench in two angles, split screen with, again, heavy filtering as he goes into a monologue on the left hand of the screen while on the right hand side of the screen he experiments with the mask from the opening titles. He then wears the mask evoking, as I said before, a typical masked hero/villain/ vigilante style character from early 1900s to late 1960s cinema.

This is a leap for my experience of this director's work because the unreality is hitting you at all angles as both the sound design and shot design are stretched like a piece of fabric with the kind of artifice which is just not that present in the earlier works I've seen from Rashidi. And, at this stage of his career, I can only assume it’s a progressive leap or, if not, then something which will be useful to him in the pursuit of his, very well polished, approach to his art.

In the very next sequence, Devereaux does a startling thing, and you begin to understand the title of the movie a little more (which is probably also a first for me in regards to this director, actually). The Devereaux character is seen fighting invisible demons who may... or may not be... there. I’ll get back to that later.

Things get spookier as scenes and then clusters of shots are pitched against each other in terms of colour tint washed over a changeable level of saturation. This is all good stuff and, as the masked Devereaux goes about his business, mostly dialogue free, concepts are introduced to the viewer’s minds eye due to the introduction of weird props and landscapes which Devereaux interacts with… seemingly almost shamanistically in certain sequences.

Pretty soon, other elements and scenarios are presented in an abstract manner. A lady in blue. James at his apartment waiting the arrival of something, by the looks of his body language... perhaps awaiting a psychic attack if one wants to look at the movie on a purely material level. A guy sifting through objects in the sand. People clambering down perilous, rocky terrain… looking like a mountain expedition washed up on Mars.

More seemingly random elements are introduced.

A gentleman... walking through a deserted alley in the snow. We cut back to the girl… are we watching three parallel timelines or are we, as I suspect, meant to inform the picture with our own sense of time and story within the piece? Mixed up footage inhabiting the same space and treated in a way that gives a sense of the past is also included. Are these flashbacks to one of our characters memories and, if so... which character. The girl on the bridge who leads into the possible flashback or Devereaux’s sinister, masked cypher... who possibly leads us back out of them from a different “mind space”?

And this is where things get interesting and I’ll talk about those invisible demons now.

When I was a kid I had (and probably still do have, I am sure) a paperback sized reprint of the first 12 or so comic strip stories of the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange. Now this guy was interesting to me because in these stories, he often used to leave the physical plane of the earth (leaving his body slumbering) and fight his enemies, often Gods or demons, on a spiritual plane of existence of which mortal man is unaware. And this informs my response to this picture, in as much as I choose to take the “terrors of the mind” of the title as a specific attack on Devereaux from another character glimpsed in the movie. It’s not specifically spelled out and I really don’t think the director wants to lock us into a specific interpretation of the events and footage we see on screen. I do, however, think that Rashidi wants us to bring our own baggage into the screening room with us. These are not, I think, supposed to be passive movie experiences. I’ve said this and underlined it in magic marker before about this director’s work but, seriously, I think he rubs together little bits of incidents of something which he has the coda for, to give it the semblance of a linear structure in certain scenes, but I think he’s much more interested in stimulating the brain of the audience into bringing their own meaning and level to his work. I’m pretty dumb so I tend to take a lot of this at face value... which is why HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind is very much an exercise in surrealist science fiction for me (the HSP stands for Homo Sapiens Project, by the way). At least... I hope they’re not supposed to be passive experiences, at any rate, otherwise I’ve missed the point completely.

As we watch some of the sequences, the images are filtered, interfered with and deteriorated so much that we begin to imagine our own shapes and visions within the cinematic canvass in front of us. Much like a person staring at a piece of wallpaper with a particular pattern might begin to imagine they can make out faces in the surface detail after a while (this phenomenon is, of course, brilliantly demonstrated in Robert Wise’s original 1963 version of The Haunting). Some bizarre goings on with a camel (behavioural mind control?) is added to the mix and pretty soon your brain is really beginning to look at a lot of the footage (if not all of it) as metaphor or symbolistic in essence. But, as I said, with a lot of that kind of stuff... it’s very much open to interpretation.

Like a lot of Rashidi’s films, this one seems to be, very much, a celebration of a character’s internal struggle... the thoughts and moods they have made manifest in a half dream state and then emblazoned across the screen and pumped directly into your cerebral cortex. This kind of basic human state is something that is apparently frowned upon in Hollywood these days, as being something un-showabble. It’s not true though... cinema is fantastic at this kind of mood work. But also, in this one, you get a sense of shared or combined contemplation. You get a sense from some of the imagery that some of the... again, I’ll call them characters, or possibly cyphers, are two different aspects of the same person existing in two different planes of existence and overlapping with each other... a spiritual realm and a more (or less) realistic dimension happening simultaneously... like two different aspects of the old Moorcockian multiverse concept... but also with a sense that there are spiritual invaders trying to take possession of a persons actions. It’s a very interesting, science fiction style concept... and it really begins to get under your skin after a while.

When director/actor Max Le Cain comes in towards the end of the film to meet with Devereaux’s character, you almost feel that he’s a kind of Van Helsing or Carnacki character, here to help rid Devereaux of what ails him and to arm him with the magic bullet he so obviously needs to help him rid himself of the... well.. the terrors of the mind.  The last five minutes or so of the movie are definitely climactic, noisy and certainly feel like an end game before the epilogue. An epilogue which could be interpreted a couple of ways and, again, helps give you a finish to the “story”... if one chooses to look at it this way.

Now, this movie is really good and, if you struggle with it in the way I think is intended, then you’ll be rewarded with a certain state of mind which bypasses clarification in favour of a sense of shared wisdom. It’s not going to be an easy film for someone unprepared for this directors work, I suspect, but it’s certainly a very good one. I can’t imagine it playing in any lengthy cinema runs but, and I know I’ve said this before, this should find a home at least in an art gallery (it’s certainly deserving of finding a good home) and I hope the director plans to submit it to any festivals and screening opportunities he can find. I’m pretty sure the unfortunate exclusivity of an art gallery venue would not be on the directors most ideal list of locations and if he can see a way of getting this into local communities and stimulating thought and discussion on the nature of film and exhibition then all the better for it.

It's interesting because, although it seems to be a bit of a departure for Rashidi… well, as I said before, once you're invested in the film, there's no way you could mistake this piece of work for anybody else's art but, also, I think that this is one of this directors most engaging and accessible works... even while stretching the boundaries of the way footage is treated (or should that be mistreated) and the way we decode the images and sounds we are presented with.

What I do know is that HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind is a considerably mature work from a confident director who seems to be progressing from one phase or period of his work and into something else altogether. That may be a wild claim to make, perhaps, and in 5 or 6 feature films time we’ll get a better sense of the truth or lack of truth of that, I think. But for now, the artist is very much on top of his game and I would urge you to give this movie a go if you get the opportunity to see it at some point. If not, it might track you down and come looking for your cinematic eye on its own terms.

There is no escape!

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