A close collaboration between two Bens (Rivers and Russell), both well-known experimental filmmakers, results in “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness,” a triptych that purports to explore possible utopias in the postmodern era. A single figure, musician Robert A.A. Lowe, loosely connects the discrete sections, wandering through a commune in Estonia, roughing it alone in the Finnish hinterland and fronting a screaming black-metal band in Norway. Fervently non-commercial, opening with an actionless, underexposed seven-minute pan across a lake, “Spell” will reward its small fest/museum audiences. Its unique concert approach, though, could conceivably influence mainstream musical docs.
There is nothing even vaguely postmodern about the peaceful, verdant Estonian island commune through which the camera meanders, sampling people preparing and eating meals, caring for babies, building a small geodesic dome, or swapping stories about a party where everyone had their finger up somebody’s ass. Indeed, except for the brief glimpse of a computer, a penchant for saunas, and the absence of any questions about one’s sign, this could be a 1960s hippie enclave in California or Vermont, particularly since everyone speaks English, though obviously hailing from various parts of the globe. Lowe, seen occasionally flipping pancakes or strumming his guitar, stands out only by being the sole black person in a sea of white.
On the other hand, Lowe registers as the only visible human figure, period, when he explores a remote area of northern Finland where he next settles (it’s unclear how much time elapses between the film’s three segments). The camera lingers lovingly on the moss- and lichen-covered rocks in stunning formations over which Lowe climbs. Protracted, contemplative long shots find him fishing from a rowboat in the middle of a lake, heating a kettle on an open fire at night, and silently reading a book in his cabin. Rivers and Russell pick out closeup details in the cabin’s interior, whether isolating photographs and magazines or poring over wallpaper designs.
The only indication that this solitary idyll will soon end spectacularly is a shot of Lowe reflected in a mirror as he ritualistically applies dead-white face paint. Outside, an extreme closeup of Lowe’s eyes precedes the sight of the cabin completely engulfed in flames. These last images prefigure the Dionysian frenzy that follows.
After the leisurely stroll through the peaceful Estonian commune and the stark beauty of Finnish solitude, the death-metal concert in a Norwegian bar presents a very different spell that seems to conjure rather than ward off darkness. In a virtuoso 30-minute single take, the camera slowly inches over the stage, stopping and continuing onward, exploring performers and objects in shifting foreground/background configurations that move in and out of focus, and zeroing in on white-painted faces contorted by guttural screams-cum-lyrics. Even the faces of the standing audience, flickering in strobe lights, receive similarly minute exploration as the camera continues past the stage and back again, finally locking in on Lowe and following him out into the night.
Though certain sections seem to stem from one or another of the two Bens’ work, the filmmakers decidedly collaborated on each shot (with both Bens doing the Super 16 lensing, often covering the exact same scene). If the film does not necessarily achieve total transcendence, it offers experimental-film aficionados a sporadically arresting trip.