Tuesday 11 April 2017

The Creeping Garden

The Brave and the Mould

The Creeping Garden
UK 2014
Directed by  Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp
Arrow Dual Blu Ray/DVD plus CD

Question: What do you call a toadstall that takes you out to a club all night and buys you drinks?
Answer: A fungi to be with.

Okay, let me make something clear here, before I go any further... this new(ish) documentary film is about slime moulds... not fungi. It was believed at one time that these things were one and the same kinds of species but... well... since slime moulds tend to go wandering off on their own (very slowly) then they are now believed to be something categorised somewhere between fungi and the animal kingdom and this movie by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp makes a very good case for that. Between the two of them, then, it’s the slime mould, not the toad stall, that is (marginally) more likely to take you out for a night on the town, truth be told.

I’ve been following Jasper Sharp on Twitter for quite a while now because of something I accidentally accused him of once and as soon as I’d been put straight on a specific source of information, I realised he is an absolute expert on various aspects of Japanese cinema, for which I have something of a layman’s passion. He's also, as it turns out, is a genuinely nice person on Twitter and, in a strange twist of social media oriented fate, seems to somehow be someone who has his head screwed on straight. So that’s always a good thing.

When he first started tweeting about the new book he was writing... and the accompanying film he was co-directing with Tim Grabham... called The Creeping Garden, my initial burst of enthusiasm that it might be something to do with Japanese cinema soon vanished when I found out it was about slime moulds. This is, after all, not something that most people would rate as their number one
avenue of exploration, if the matter ever came up. As a year went by and I heard various things about it, I became a little more interested but still, as it happens, quite cautious. However, at one of the stalls at last year's FrightFest I saw the book for myself and started leafing through it... I’m a graphic designer by trade and was admiring the spot varnishing on the cover and some of the beautiful photography inside. Overwhelmed with curiosity, I hastily purchased said book although, for various reasons, I still haven’t had a chance to read it yet (don’t worry, I’ll get to it at some point this year, I hope).

It was in December that I pre-ordered the film and it finally came out in March of this year... although mine was a little late in arriving due to “overwhelming demand” (I quote the customer service email I received from them) but, lets face it, that’s the nicest reason to delay a package... they must have been flying out the door. So I’m really pleased it’s doing well for them but... is it as intriguing as it looks?

Well, frankly... yes.

Starting off with an old black and white news broadcast from the US about a group of slime moulds found in some gardens in Texas, presumably feeding into the general paranoia of that time, the film takes us on a journey through the ‘secret life’ of the slime mould as seen through the eyes of various experts and artists who seem to be under the spell of said ‘creatures’ and who might happily concur with the modified expression, 'a man’s best friend is his slime mould’.

After we pan across some grass in much the same way an American thriller might pan across some big city rooftops to introduce a story, we start off by walking around a forest with an amateur mycologist and the first thing which struck me is just how good the cinematography is in this movie. It’s like watching something shot for an Andrie Tarkovsky film and there’s some very special footage in this piece. It also uses a fair amount of time lapse imagery of various slime moulds going about their daily business,...or at rest... and this leads us nicely into a gentleman talking about the early time lapse films of British naturalist/photography pioneer Percy Smith and his 1931 movie Magic Myxies, which was pretty much the first movie to show slime moulds in this fashion. We get to see the apparatus which he invented to do this and it’s all very fascinating and, of course, totally different to how we’d do it these days (although the principal is probably very similar).

We also spend some time with an artist who is fascinated with various moulds and she uses the patterns produced by them in her art. We find out from her that slime moulds are very into eating porridge oats and we see a time lapse of a slime mould trying to reach an oat in a maze and see how it starts off by sending 'tendrils' down different routes until, once it’s found the oat, it regroups and sends everything that way... the quickest path to the food source. We also see some of this artists popular wallpaper using patterns from slime moulds reacting with various parts of her own internal organs such as blood, a cheek swab or a cervical smear. With it she introduces us to the concept of using the wallpaper to decorate your interior space with your own interior space. Of course, another way of doing that could be demonstrated in the arm chop/arterial spray 'painting the wall' scene in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (reviewed here) but I guess her technique here is a much more practical  and survivable example. ;-)

We also follow this lady as she conducts ‘human slime mould’ experiments with groups of volunteers to see if groups of humans tied together and without being allowed to speak to one another are able to work together towards achieving their food source as well as a slime mould could... with limited success but it is quite fun.

And so it goes. We are introduced to slime moulds who play a piano and help a composer with his compositions and we see a robot which has been built to be driven, rather successfully, by these ‘creatures’. When it really hit home for me that this is a much overlooked creature was when these things, which had already been described as working together like an ant colony, were put on various points to join food sources on maps of the world and then, when they expanded out and the tendrils joined the various ‘destinations’ they’d somehow echoed human road network systems of various periods. One guy even said they’d managed to mimic the division of Germany in 1947 on one of these maps but I wonder what the conditions of the experiment were to do that and how much the human factor influenced the results.

Later on, we are told about ‘organic computer science' being pioneered using slime moulds and one wonders how that may impact on technology in the near future.

One thing that's clear, though, is that the majority of the people talking about how interesting and worthy of study the much maligned and diverse world of slime moulds is, seem to share the common agreement that they don’t have a brain. However, I’d have to question that conclusion a little bit because, given the way the human neural network builds and creates new pathways... I couldn’t help but think that maybe the collective brain of a slime mould may be a bit bigger than we’re currently looking for... if you see what I mean. After all, these things have a circulatory system which somehow flows backwards and forwards, quite curiously, and one can’t help but think what kind of alternate pseudo-neural network might be getting missed by science somehow. Which is a nice thought but perhaps too wild a claim to make... at least for now. The point is I have no idea how close these things are to a more intelligent form of life and, at this stage, it’s impossible to know.

What I do know is that this beautiful film is something which has at least, wild theory or not, kickstarted that idea in my head and so, next time I notice a slime mould in the forest, I certainly won’t ignore it as quickly as I might. I have to tip my metaphorical hat and respect the mould.

This movie captures these often spectacular  things in all their glory and in a way which never lets the material get boring. It includes lots of nice, uncommented visual metaphors scattered throughout the film and the juxtaposition of certain elements do spark the odd thoughts, quite deliberately I’m sure, in the mind of the viewer. For instance, a lady studying a slime mould on a slide presents us with a magnified shot which, when we cut back to a giant close-up of that persons eyeball, we are focused on the rich network of veins on the whites of her eye which very much resemble the slide she was looking at. Also, there are some great time lapse shots of various moulds in a more or less resting state where the mildly shifting shape, when sped up, makes the things look like they are actually breathing in and out as the camera watches.

All in all, this is an impressive, certainly odd but ultimately thought provoking film which makes you contemplate your place in the universe... at least that’s how I reacted to it. Arrow's current dual format Blu Ray/DVD of The Creeping Garden is an absolutely astonishingly crisp transfer, comes with a limited edition booklet and also, and this was another big pull for me, contains a bonus CD with a rearranged recording of the, somewhat ambient, score by Jim O’ Rourke. It’s a pretty great release and one of the reasons why boutique labels like Arrow continue to be as popular as they are. I’d recommend this one to anyone who wants to watch something totally different from what they would normally expect to see in a documentary movie and I’m so glad I accidentally hooked into this.

One last thing though. There’s a point in this movie where one of the interviewees ponders the relevance of these organisms to the Earth and says that, at the moment... “If slime moulds were eliminated from the planet, we might never notice.” Well... yeah, maybe. But flip that around a minute... what about if humans were eliminated from the planet? Other than the huge lack of pollution and extended life of this strange sphere we wake up on every day... would any creatures feel any less benefit if humans were removed entirely from the equation? I’m not so sure they would.

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