Films with a challenging (if any) narrative structures can be underwhelming. But somehow, American experimental filmmaker Ben Russell's work manages to coalesce in a magical way. Atlantis is at times confusing and strange, but in the end it has a strong impact and the questions it made me ask were not out of frustration but curiosity.
I knew nothing about Atlantis before entering the theatre, except that it was a Ben Russell film. If this film was combined with Ben Rivers' The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers (read my review here) you would indeed get A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, the 2013 Rivers/Russell collaboration (my review here). Rivers brings the outlandish, the theatrical, and the performative. Russell brings the juxtapositions, the dreaminess, and the combinations which don't always flow together. But even when they are jarring, they are also transcendent.
Atlantis is rougher and more ethnographic, a magic realism of ethnography and history. It begins with an accented man reading a passage about Zeus from Plato. There are shots of the sea, old men singing a strange song about Utopia in a village bar while patrons watch a sports match, religious processions, more shots of the sea, often with mirrors. It seems to be the Mediterranean and I guessed Malta, but I suppose as it is Atlantis, it is really no place, and we shouldn't try to guess where we are but enjoy the fleeting glimpses of a Utopian community.
Jenni Olson's accompanying longer film, The Royal Road, ignores film trends and current fashions to express her very particular vision. Do not be surprised to often hear it described by adjectives like "beguiling" and "ambitious." It combines a continuous personal voiceover, section breaks and topics designated by titles onscreen, and was all shot on 16mm film.
The title references El Camino Real, the road created and used by Spanish missionaries to colonize California. Olson twists this history into a tale of love and obsession and the movies and nostalgia. The ways she attempts to connect the Royal Road to her own desires is through a defense of nostalgia and thoughts on the act of remembering. It is only partially successful - the jumble of elements didn't ever truly gel for me as they did in Atlantis. But the film has plenty of subtle charm. It is visually appealing - the images, mostly of San Francisco, are ones Olson had been shooting around her home for years, in her attempts to preserve urban landscapes even if they are only in memory or on film. There were a few too many obvious "artistic" shots like wires crossing against the background of a sky or bulky shipping containers and soaring cranes. Other than that, I was intrigued by this experiment.
One more show on October 9th at 10am at the Vancity Theatre.