While I spent a good deal of time out of doors last weekend taking in, among other things, an obligatory pilgrimage to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a jaunt on the historic schooner Alma with the WE Players, the 30-year anniversary of the Sea Chantey Sing, and Chicken John’s book release party, it was the introspective medium of the cinema that captured my attentions most of all. From the Star of Tyche at ATA, to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at Lost Weekend’s “Offline In-Store” Film Festival, I devoured a sumptuous visual feast the satiating effects of which still linger days after.
The expertly-crafted, surrealistic films of Nara Denning have a decidedly ephemeral quality about them. Soaked in sepia tone and fantasia, they appear to be both of this world but adamantly not tied to it, flitting around the edges of stark reality like moths ready to plunge into a deadly yet strangely compelling fire. Her deeply-compelling yet minimal storylines tend to feature quixotic protagonists who have somehow lost their way, treading unworn paths through incongruous scenery, from jungle islands to funhouse rides to oceanic squalls, while trapped in the dubious limbo between waking and dreaming.
Scored by Stoo Odom, and featuring a slew of talented guest musicians, the films sound as good as they look-which is to say, exquisite. Over the weekend at ATA Denning presented five new films, each more haunting than the next, collected together on one DVD entitled Under the Pavement.
The first film of the new series, The Pendulum Heart, starring Christine Bonansea and Christopher Comparini, is set in a tangled, wooded area where a masked Bonansea dances, struggling, against a backdrop of branches and darkness before encountering a hybrid tree-man (Comparini) with whom she makes a connection. The tormented and hilarious Dogmatique, starring Will Franken, opens with a Monty Python-esque sequence of feet walking in place on a treadmill of giant gears accompanied by an effervescent Allison Lovejoy composition: “Dog Rag”.
Surrounded with a city full of men who have turned into dogs (literally), Franken struggles to retain his humanity, a battle he is increasingly in danger of losing. Sentenced in court to “the bone mine,” forced into a ring to face off against a suited canine opponent (one “Peter Bones”), Franken eventually gives himself over to the soothing jazz of the full moon (sung by the Blue Fairy, Momo Cheeskos).
Two nightmare-tinged vignettes Narcissus and The Nun (presented together as Still Life), starring Nirmala Nataraj and Emi Stanley respectively, plumb the depths of violence and regret shrouded in Denning's characteristic sepia tones and billowing fabrics and featuring an especially mournful sax solo played by Willy the Mailman.
The last film of the evening, the Odyssey-inspired Star of Tyche, floats on an ocean of unease, as Julia Zeffiro steers her fragile craft on an increasingly treacherous voyage. Encountering goddesses (Margaret Belton), mercenaries (Wylie Huey), and spirits of the dead, Zeffiro never makes it to shore, exiled to endless navigation of the unsympathetic waters and other-worldly obstacles. An ending one suspects is occasionally entertained by Denning herself, but if the quality of this latest batch of films is an indicator, it is a fate she will handily avoid.