Thursday 31 May 2018

Phantom Islands

The Phantom Menagerie

Phantom Islands
Ireland 2018 Directed by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Experimental Film Society

"And saw the island rising in the distant sheen,
white and filmy; a phantom island."
Sheridan Le Fanu

Thus starts Rouzbeh Rashidi’s latest work of cinematic art - Phantom Islands -  with this quote by Sheridan Le Fanu, who is perhaps best known to lovers of film as the writer of Carmilla, on which a fair number of vampire movies over the years have been based. This quote followed by the legend “A Pictorial Film by Rouzbeh Rashidi” and the title of the movie appears, superimposed over an abstract, stylised liquid background before the tranquility of this opening is violently disturbed by a sped up, crashing and extremely colourful thunderstorm... slicing the peace, quiet and passivity of the viewer with a shock to the system which is something which the director here obviously has as one of his objectives; to raise the stakes on the audience from the passive to the interactive... but I’ll get to that in a little while.

It’s been a long time since I reviewed one of Rashidi’s films on this blog and I was lucky enough to be sent a private screener of this latest by the director himself. I guess he must like some of my past reviews and, phew, luckily I liked this one enough that I can at least give him something honestly positive by way of feedback here.

If you’ve never seen a Rashidi film then you will probably be taken unawares by the way his particular brand of visual art plays out. This movie offers absolutely no dialogue whatsoever, for example, and any connections to a coherent and correct interpretation of the events you see taking shape before your eyes are constantly dashed and reshaped by the director to make you work and bring a sense of yourself to what you see before you. Something which not many films out there are doing yet... think of it as a beautifully shot, immersive video game where the rules are unclear and the images before you seem to relate but, not necessarily in a linear order.

From very early on, Rashidi sets up some ground rules to get your brain responding to what you see in front of you in a very specific way. For instance, certain lead-ins to scenes go through a series of, definitely not traditional, establishing shots which are short montages with slow drops of black (which last about a second) between each little shot before slipping into a longer scene. We meet the two main protagonists/lovers played by Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais and we watch as they explore an island (possibly more than one) in Ireland and become somewhat dislodged by the proceedings as they fight or make love in a series of vignettes which, it seems to me, deliberately defy any meaningful scrutiny when placed together in the edit in this way. However, I believe the point here, like many of this director’s films, from what I remember, is that you do try to rub these little pebbles of story ideas together and bring the coherence to the narrative, as much as there is one, yourself.

The director uses various tactics to deliver that kind of vaguely surreal experience by using deliberate blurs and refocussed visuals. There seems to be a lot of post-production enhancements and effects to the footage captured here, actually... more than I remember seeing in his previous works... and so you will get things like radial blurs or even sharp verticals of crisp image when the rest is much more blurry. One shot shows just the two protagonists standing side by side in front of a field looking at the camera but they are completely out of focus in the foreground. Then, of course, Rashidi uses another completely different shot of the field itself as a midway stage to a similar shot of the same composition but with the focus reversed.

I tend to think of the director as a bit of a surrealist but, at the same time, his surrealism doesn’t necessarily come from the worlds which he captures in camera... which are usually quite naturalistic (albeit somewhat ‘manipulated’). Instead the editing of various shots and the way they interact... or don’t, they sometimes just imply a connection for you to find yourself... is what gives these films, at least this one, a definite surrealistic tinge to proceedings. Indeed, the director’s dedication at the end to Marguerite Duras, Jean Epstein and Andrzej Zulawski might tip you off to the kind of atmosphere he is trying to invoke here.

So yeah... disparate visual elements such as a coruscating sea, an old polaroid camera, fish in an aquarium, or a wonderful exploitation style moment involving the lead actress, naked and being covered in red paint (presumably as a stand in for blood) are punctuated by both different colour schemes and sound/musical elements. Stretches with a very subdued colour palette and tranquil, hypnotic music, for example, may suddenly be jarringly juxtaposed with shots of strong colour and a more energetic scoring method, courtesy of composer Amanda Feery or, in some sequences, Cinema Cyanide.

And sometimes they won't be...

For example, rhythmic sound cues such as a kind of sonar sound familiar from submarine movies may play in time to the blackout cuts I described earlier, setting up a audio pattern that is suddenly continued into a single languid shot to not jar you out of the action completely. Other times that won’t happen and the opposite might seem to be the desired effect... such as the use of record crackle or whale song added to the soundtrack.

At one point I thought I’d spotted a mistake as the couple are laying half naked in bed for what one can possibly assume is a long time... however, the marks on Clara Pais’ back from the recent removal of her bra seem to contradict the passage of time which I gave to the image order and, rather than a mistake, that’s probably the point. Time, or the illusion of it which many people cling to so dearly in their daily lives, is not a constant or required element in a Rouzbeh Rashidi film, for sure, and the way in which his films are constructed are definitely flying in the face in such a standard perception of temporal stability.

One thing which I don’t recall seeing in some of the director’s earlier films is a sense of direct interaction with the audience from both the actors directly, as they frequently look into camera and take snaps of the crew in the background (Rashidi has more than one cameo in this movie). These moments become more frequent as the running time plays out and this pretty much encourages an almost Brechtian reading of the subject matter. Or, if you prefer a more cinematic allusion, as I would, then a somewhat Godardian approach to the way in which the film is constructed.

Now, I don’t pretend to be clever enough to decode these films by Rashidi but I am optimistic (or even ignorantly arrogant) enough to suggest that they aren’t necessarily meant to be understood at a narrative level and, like all his films, there is no spoon feeding of the audience for an objective explanation to his art. That being said, I might suggest that the frequent insert shots of sea creatures in an aquarium, horses in a field or lizards in an equally man made environment may suggest a sense of voyeurism or even captivity and I couldn’t help but think that this might be a visual metaphor for the way in which the audience are receiving the images in, hopefully, a less passive way than they might another directors work (although David Lynch might come close, at some points).

Or maybe it doesn’t.

One never knows with Rashidi but, maybe the point for me is... whatever he does, if you relax the way in which you tend to perceive and decode images in commercial cinema, then you are going to see something which is, at the very least, extremely interesting... when it comes to this director at any rate.

And that’s all I have to offer on Phantom Islands, I think. If you want to catch this and perhaps some of this director’s other films then you may be lucky enough to either find it at a festival or access it via the internet at a later date. This one is definitely worth a watch if you’re fed up with what you’re seeing at your local multiplex, it seems to me. So maybe give it a go.

For more information about this one you can go to the following link... and if you want to know more about the Experimental Film Society and watch some of their videos ‘on demand’, then you can check them out here...

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