One of the great things about going to a film festival is sitting down to watch something you know next to nothing about, save maybe a brief sentence or two and a still image from the website or guide. At the AFI Fest this year, a great many of the movies are completely unknown to me, and that’s really exciting. Saturday night, I chose a movie more or less at random, knowing only what the website told me. The movie is called A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness, and on the official app for the fest, it was accompanied by the description, “Filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers team up for the first time to create this triptych of stories revolving around a silent protagonist,” and the below picture. This sounded interesting to me. My, how wrong I was.
Ben Russell and Ben Rivers are two experimental filmmakers who specialize in images and “documentary,” meaning it’s a lot of just extended shots and not much in the way of anything else. I’d heard murmurings from people waiting in line about the death metal aspect of the movie, which intrigued me, and the full description on the movie seemed to suggest that our hero was going on three different adventures in remote and beautiful places. Again, it sounded quite compelling, whatever it turned out to be. Unfortunately, what it turned out to be was boring.
The film opens with an unbroken take of the camera panning across a lake as the sun sets. It goes on until the sun is completely gone and the screen goes black. This lasts for at least five minutes with no sound other than nature. Then, we begin our first “story,” that of a hippie commune in Scandinavia somewhere. Everyone speaks English, but many have very thick accents. I’m not sure if the English was for our benefit or for the benefit of the American members of the commune. At any rate, these people sauna together, cook and eat together, and spend lots of time waxing philosophical about intellectual things. You know what hippies are like.
I don’t care much for this lifestyle, and the filmmakers didn’t seem to say much about it, if anything. Yet, I was soon surprised when I realized that the section with the navel-gazing granola-eaters was actually the least irritating section. For the second portion of this “triptych,” a guy who’d barely been in the last bit is seen rowing a boat out to a remote forested island, again somewhere in Scandinavia, where he lives in solitude in a hut. If you ever wanted to know what ten minutes of a guy fishing looked like without having to actually go on a lake, then this is the bit for you. And if you started to feel yourself get a little fidgety, you only have a little bit to wait until the riveting scene of him reading a book quietly in a room. At this point in the screening, about a dozen people got up and left.
As this portion winds to a close, we get a steady shot of the man watching the hut burn in a massive blaze of fire in the dark of night. It’s a strange way to end it, but it leads somewhat nicely into the final section, in which the guy is now in a death metal band complete with white face paint. The camera weaves in and out of the band so close as to see nothing but a face, a hand, or a guitar pickup at a time, and it lets us listen to three complete tracks from this band, all of which contain the lyric “RAAAAAHHHHHH” shrieked into the microphone. I say “contain the lyric”; what I actually mean is “contain ONLY the lyric,” as there is nothing even approaching a word here.
A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness may as well have been called An Experiment In Trying An Audience’s Patience. I really disliked all of it, which makes me wonder why the person who wrote the blurb for the AFI flyer seemed to love it so much. I feel like I’m just not the right crowd for a meandering, plotless movie that seems to think it’s doing more important things than it is. There are probably people out there who will find it moving or engaging, but those people likely went to art school and read meaning into paintings of dots.