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Disintegrants [John Harlan Norris, USA, 2017 /// Going to the Mattresses [Mary Beth Reed, USA, 2018]

March 9, 2019

As myriad abstract shapes and floating objects move at a reassuring pace across the screen, the mind instantly throws up memories of early Windows screensavers. But despite this seeming slight, the effect is one of relaxation and self-reflection. John Harlan Norris’ experimental short film Disintegrants offers up a variation of portraiture, which comes without a human subject. Across a slowly changing pastel coloured background, rectangular shapes pass with an occasional pair of sunglasses, a cherry, straws or a piece of cloth.

Rendered in 3D, Disintegrants is a true fine-art piece. There is no story, the camera does not move and there is no soundtrack. In fact, it is a piece that would be better suited to a gallery than a film festival. But as a piece of experimental film, it is bewilderingly hypnotic and oddly comforting. There is no music to ground you, the objects do not drastically speed up or slow down and, if the path of one passes that of another, they simply pass through each other like glitches in a computer game.

 

The piece’s total absence of a soundtrack is an interesting choice, perhaps confirming it as an attempt at fine art rather than art-house film. Maybe it is simply that, despite being over five minutes in length, the movements of the floating objects do not take you on a narrative journey and so there would be nowhere for the music to go, no crescendo to form, and nothing for its involvement to add. But as much as an absence of sound is instantly noticeable, it doesn’t take long for the viewer’s attention to shift and for the denial of music to become inconsequential. The shapes on screen are enough to fulfil the artist’s purpose.

 

Artist/filmmaker John Harlan Norris says of his work that it explores a sense of disembodiment “that can occur as the mediated images and virtual relationships of our digital lives begins to make our physical forms feel tangential.” It is interesting that the artist talks of disembodiment, when the act of watching his work is akin to a meditative experience, an attempt to remove your consciousness from the distractions of the corporeal world around you.

 

Disintegrants is a piece that showcases an undeniable skill, but one that’s future life is destined to be decided by art critics and not by a cult film following.

Going to the Mattresses innovatively presents a collage of travel footage from Tuscany and images from women’s marches in Washington DC in 2017, all whilst being set to dialogue from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather [US, 1972]. What makes this approach from director Mary Beth Reed so notable is that only lines delivered by female characters have been lifted from this tale of male dominance, meaning no Michael or Don Corleone. Interestingly, one notable exception to this rule (the times where male dialogue is left in the edit) is when the male characters are saying, “please”, when they are left powerless and at odds with the usual dominance associated with Brando and Pacino.

 

The short film is an exploration of the strength of women’s voices in the world, and how such subjugation can go seemingly unnoticed, unless elevated to the fore. The film’s cinematography features a handful of stunning images, including a bird’s eye view following a bell rope down a spiral staircase. The image is shot with double exposure, leaving a haunting and ghostly image, which at first viewing tricks the eye into believing it is nothing more than a snail shell.

The film’s editing flits between lines delivered in The Godfather taken out of context, and visual images that alternate between digitally shot and Super 8 footage, purposefully making the film a disorientating watch. The effect, however, is that once it gets into its swing, it serves as a truly thought-provoking experience. Images from modern day women’s marches are presented in black and white and made to appear grainy, delivered alongside dialogue from a 70s film, forcing us to question how far gender equality has really come and how much further there is still to go.

 

Moments of harrowing dialogue exhibiting the seeming powerlessness of the film’s female characters are juxtaposed amongst un-stylised holiday shots of a trip to Tuscany. At times this editing style is powerful and, at others, comes across as slightly unpolished. Several moments in the film are undeniably poignant, as lines delivered by subjugated characters of a predominantly masculine filmic masterpiece are set over scenes of desperate calls to action at 21st century political marches.

 

Going to the Mattresses raises some interesting questions, delivering upon a brave, creative premise and, overall, is a very important and engaging watch.

'Disintegrants' and 'Going to the Mattresses' were film submissions in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.

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