The first line on the bio page of filmmaker Jacqueline Goss’ personal website reads, “I like stories about people who set out to objectively measure or chart something and then fail in interesting ways when they get tangled up in the natural color and noise of the world.”
Yes, she does. The quote is a mouthful, but it sums up what The Observers, Goss’ almost feature length narrative, is attempting to capture. Such a simple goal coupled with such attention to detail and such impressive eyes and ears for color and noise make for a lovely, if not exactly revelatory, meditation on the pleasures of solitude in the high mountains.
The film has two parts, each given more or less equal screen time. First, we meet Woman A (so named by me, since I have to call her something; she’s played by New York video artist Dani Leventhal), who is manning a meteorology lab at the top of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. It’s the dead of winter; just suiting up to venture out into the wind (the strongest recorded gusts in the country) requires a ritualistic attention to detail that seems to turn Woman A into a kind of mountaintop stoic. She seems dutiful, taking objective weather readings and logging them onto a computer. In her downtime, she drifts through the lab’s cafeteria playing tunes for herself on the recorder. At times, she seems melancholy; at others, happy immersed in her quiet work. There’s no real way to tell how she feels about mountaintop isolation because Leventhal plays her, probably intentionally, as a workaday blank.
Then there is Woman B (Katya Gorker), who takes over Woman A’s job when the weather turns nicer. It turns out that the station isn’t just a meteorology lab; when the elements lighten up, the lab expands into a tourist attraction, and in addition to taking weather readings, Woman B is in charge of the grounds. This gives her much more to do than Woman A, though she carries out tasks like cleaning the grounds, fixing the nearby railway tracks, and taking her weather measurements with the same detached, seemingly thoughtful devotion. Both, you might say, are occasionally distracted from their work by the color and noise of some very windy peaks, though not nearly enough to fail to log their weather data.
Also, there’s a mysterious box found glinting in the snow by Woman A. She and Woman B are linked both by their job and then again by the box. It’s small and silver with a combination lock that Woman A can’t open because she doesn’t have the time to go through each possible combination, though she does try. She locks it up in the deep freeze for Woman B to discover in the summer when she can carry on the combination quest. In film language, the box might be known as a MacGuffin: an object with no intrinsic worth meant only to keep the plot rolling. But this isn’t a movie about plot; the box is clearly intended to have greater meaning.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very short story, “The Great Carbuncle” — on which Goss has loosely based The Observers — begins with eight people sitting around a fire high up in the mountains of the Northeast. They’re all dreaming of the ways that they will become happy or rich or famous once they finally lay hands on the radiant, mythical gem — the titular carbuncle — that they all seek. Hawthorne warns of the myopic avarice that overtakes such seemingly pure tasks as scientific research and poetic creation when rewards become their goal. Through his impeccable, wry, mid-19th-century prose, Hawthorne instructs readers on the twisted ways people view life’s most hollow treasures, sometimes through long exchanges between characters.
There’s no talk between anyone in The Observers. In fact, the only speaking we hear at all comes in two short bursts of voice-over consisting of Woman A and then Woman B delivering detailed weather reports. Women A and B don’t appear to have any of the greed and lust that Hawthorne wrote about — their peaceful high-altitude refuge seems actively comforting most of the time, which must be a product of the film’s slow and lovely visual grace. Whatever the box’s relationship to Hawthorne’s Carbuncle means, Goss keeps it to herself, an example of her rare ability to leave much that’s in her movie up to interpretation.
A great deal of care has been put into the film’s photography. It doesn’t look like a team of lighting technicians, camera loaders, and focus pullers sweated for hours over each camera setup. Rather, it looks like someone with a love for photography was paying attention to film’s potential for movement. Goss achieves what Steven Soderbergh calls the “snap” of digital cinematography — the ability to shoot on the fly and still come up with crisp, stark results — but with the added bonus of the natural, realistic saturation of 16mm film.
At heart — a frigid, frigid heart — The Observers is what happens when a collection of high-minded avant-gardists (Goss, Leventhal, and Gorker are all video/web artists) borrows lightly from a 19th-century cautionary tale — not to mention from the best shots of Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and Brakhage — in service to an oblique love letter to mountaintop solitude. It’s something like The Dharma Bums for the spiritually neutral: meditative, cohesive, and often completely gorgeous.