In 2009, experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell toured a program of their short films. Called We Cannot Exist in This World Alone, the program exposed the intersections of the British Rivers and American Russell’s concerns: ethnography, alienation, and artistic and social primitivism. Their first collaborative feature, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, further explores these themes, tracking musician-artist Robert A.A. Lowe (of Lichens and Om) as he moves through three uniquely defined social configurations.
In the first, Lowe’s nameless itinerant mixes among members of an Estonian commune, his character (such as it is) receding as the people around him prepare food, frolic in saunas, tell stories about sticking fingers in strangers’ assholes, and wax on the conditions of their own liberty (“A party is temporary autonomous zone, isn’t it?”). The keystone in Spell’s triptych sees Lowe rowing out to a desolate forest to live in solitude, recalling (however incidentally) the hermit of Rivers’s 2011 film Two Years at Sea. Shooting in Super 16, Rivers and Russell capture the lush minutiae of the northern European backdrop (jade moss clinging to craggy stone faces, water gurgling under thawing ice) as well as the sometimes sublime, sometimes suffocating quietude of Lowe’s isolation. (They also spike the mise-en-scène with sun-bleached gossip mags littering Lowe’s rustic cabin, as if to underscore the impossibility of anyone ever really escaping from civilization’s cornier excesses.)
In the film’s final section, Lowe is found in a basement club, fronting a black metal band, his face lathered in chalky white corpse paint. Here, the film’s transcendentalism reaches a full sonic boom. Having burned down his forest cabin, in a gesture of pointed denunciation that seems to deliberately recall the widely reported church burnings that have structured the mythology of black metal’s notorious second wave in Norway, Lowe’s wanderer abandons the quiet for its opposite, forcefully embracing the darkness instead of warding it off.
Rivers and Russell’s ethnographic exploration for a kind of profound utopian moment acquires its clearest, and most intimate, articulation in their long takes of Lowe and other corpse-painted musicians—including Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, who once penned a broadly mocked manifesto on “transcendental black metal” that’s easy to imagine Rivers and Russell taking very seriously. The harmonious aesthetic and fluid camerawork creates a compelling tension in concert with the pummeling, anguished music. The scene captures a kind of essential form of self-expression (and pleasure) that exceeds categorization, creating a shared experience between the musicians, the filmmakers, and the viewer that feels sublime.
When Lowe’s character breaks from this space, escaping into the night alone, en route to who knows where, it underscores Spell’s central concern: that utopia is a construction, an experience that is made up, not found but created. All social formations are possessive of their own pleasures and problems. But each may contain moments of rare gratification and meaning. In the film, Rivers and Russell prove themselves able to sculpt (or maybe even just reveal) these pockets of meaning. It makes their docu-fictional exploration of community, seclusion, and rejection feel like that rarest of things: a gift.