A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness opens with a lake at night, the camera panning the calm waters and landscape in a circle, too slow to make us dizzy but enough movement to make us feel afloat. We hear a choir of voices chanting over the dark waters, but only the camera is moving. And then stillness, the texture of solitude. We are beyond interaction at this point, inside a space created where we as viewers have disappeared, as if the lake has found its way into us and we no longer think. A place outside the tragicomedy of discourse, of selves.
Filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers make an interesting decision to bookend the film with this opening scene and the final twenty-something-minute-long black metal concert, as if to say these two types of surrendering — one to nature and its bellowing within us, and the other, an immersion in thrashing sound and screaming — experience a loss of self. At first we dissolve in scenery, and at last we dissolve in sound. Neither is hung up on anything other than tone, and this breathes a rare life into the film, making it seem alive. Both Russell and Rivers have explored the ways in which experimental filmmaking and living in an isolated state can impact art, identity, and politics, and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is reflective of these inquiries and experiences.
The film’s middle section depicts a communal living situation in which families cook together, take naps, play with children, go to the beach, build houses. These routine activities take on an intentionality that is in contrast to the vacancy in which the other scenes thrive. As a woman breastfeeds her baby on the beach, she discusses the influence and societal effect of community and autonomous zones with her housemate. There’s a feel for constructed improvisation here, as their dialogue is loose and inquisitive, yet pertinent to the overall questions: What makes a shared experience, how can we locate the social effect of the Self, and why is it important to us? Why seek others? Are we here to distract each other from dying, or is it more of a reminder? Two men have a conversation about past communal living, and one of the men tells a story of when everyone in a sauna ended up with fingers in each other’s assholes. Sexual pleasure seems irrelevant at this point, and perhaps it’s really a condition of what “intentional community” might mean, or not mean. Nothing.
Musician/artist Robert A.A. Lowe (of Lichens and Om) carries the remainder of the film, as we watch him embark on a solo journey through lush moss and ice and thickets swarming with insects to an empty cabin, where he sits reading, his long fingernails patiently turning each page. He takes his time. There’s a sense of mystique to his wanderings; we have no idea what or why he is doing what he is doing, or where he is going, but something else is lurking. Much of the last half of the film, in the midst of attempting to parse its own impact, veers off into a flood of images and journeying through landscapes that are both transcendental and terrifying in their hugeness. Lowe is very much alone, and he makes Emerson and Thoreau seem crowded. But even loneliness is a machine, a manipulation of presence that is controlled and aware of itself to the point of being a construct, a falsity. Nothing is true. Lowe watches his cabin burn to the ground. The camera so close to his face we can make out the gloss of tears in his eyes, but none fall. He is at the edge of something and what comes next is a bending of time, a splintering of instances between instances into a swallowing up. A twenty-something-minute-long black metal show.
Lowe stands at the microphone and screams. Everyone in the band paints their faces white. The music comes into us as if we are factories sucking something from the sound and passing it back out, through our eyeballs and earholes into the space of the room in which we are watching the band play, although we are not in that room, but still. The drums and the silver splicing of the guitars and the screaming upon screaming gets in our blood and obliterates. Each riff builds in a kind of pyramidal stacking that houses us within. This scene is where the film makes itself apparent as more than a sum of affective ideas or dialogue, as it is in these final moments that A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness consumes. As the music ends, we watch Lowe walk off into the night. There is little else but the back of his head. And air. Maybe some light. The grip of the moment is strong, and whatever we’ve been absorbed by does not let go. No sense in warding off the darkness, because it’s already come and gone, a puff of smoke. What’s left is for us to disappear, and it is only with this disappearance of Self that utopia can be found.