“High concept” doesn't begin to describe Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn's Two Plains & a Fancy, a psychedelic buddy comedy that takes place in the Colorado mountains over a few days in September of 1893. That's exactly a century before the pre-internet milieu of the filmmakers' last period piece, L for Leisure, and as with that film, Kalman and Horn use meandering intellectual discussions between characters to put their animating themes and ideas front and center—less buried subtext, more accumulated supertext. Pithy banter, delivered with a stiltedness that wouldn't be out of place in a vintage porno, lays the foundation for something harder to describe, a mysterious alchemy of groan-inducing repartee and full-bodied pastoralism.
The story, such as it is, follows three tourists from New York who arrive in Colorado in search of the perfect hot spring, unaware they've blown into town just weeks after the Denver Panic, whereby the silver-mining bubble of previous decades burst, and whole towns evacuated after the industry collapsed. Alta Mariah Sophronia (Marianna McClellan) is a reformed con artist who has since turned to mystical pseudoscience; Ozanne Le Perrier (Laetitia Dosch) is a French geologist whose expertise makes sense of the jaw-dropping landscape; and Milton Tingling (Benjamin Crotty) is a watercolorist with a penchant for painting with scarves draped over his face. While the founding prompt of Two Plains & a Fancy seems fodder for some kind of easy punchline—a mystic, an artist, and a scientist walk into a ghost town—the ostensible narrative climaxes within the film's first 20 minutes, when the characters find their first hot spring in a tactile communion with nature, easing corporeal boundaries to the point they seem to have evaporated.
That quietude doesn't last, however, and the trio's ensuing trek is dotted with encounters—with time-traveling charlatans, lazy cowpokes, and, at one point, a melancholy rancher played by Michael Murphy—that comment on an old-world desire to repeat the past as closely as possible, betraying the filmmakers' utterly singular approach to not one but two long-stale clichés. First, Milton, Ozanne, and Alta Mariah's journey is very much its own destination, culminating in a geothermal shake-up that's better seen than described. Second, the filmmakers effectively make Colorado's craggly rockfaces and towering geodes into characters in their own right. The camera scans ancient formations and desert flora with a patience that grows unnerving, zooming in on mountain cliffs and holding as if waiting for them to come to life—only for the frame to wobble or pull down just before the cut.
No description can do justice to its best moments, which render the absurd and sublime one and the same.
These little imperfections serve as reminders that perspective is always set by human beings, reifying the grand sweepstakes of tectonic history that silently undercut the characters' hilariously petty, self-impressed worldviews. Short of Nathaniel Dorsky, it's hard to imagine an American filmmaker working today who's as serious as Kalman and especially Horn—who also serves as Two Plains & a Fancy's cinematographer—about putting beloved natural environments on screen, or forcing their viewers to drink them in.
Two Plains & a Fancy has been billed by its makers as a “spa western,” and its lack of forward momentum is akin to that of Henry Fonda's The Hired Hand, while a magic-hour seance late in the film improbably summons the spirits of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven hand in hand with Griffin Dunne's Practical Magic. But Kalman and Horn aren't toiling in a facile game of spot-the-reference cinephilia: If their latest is a western, it's also a work of brazen and surreal anachronism, clued all the way in to the genre's established tropes of self-reinvention and, per John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, printing of legend. These sojourns are, of course, built into the grand American project; Crotty's own short film Division Movement to Vung Tau, made with Bertrand Deoteux, performed a similar re-exhumation of the capital-P past by inserting wildly inappropriate digital cartoon fruit characters into real-life 8mm footage shot by U.S. servicemen in Vietnam.
No verbal or written description can do justice to Two Plains & a Fancy's best moments, which, as with L For Leisure and Kalman and Horn's 2009 novella-movie Blondes in the Jungle, seamlessly render the absurd and sublime one and the same. One scene, which bears witness to a pair of ghosts descending upon an empty whorehouse, lumps cinema with mass hypnosis, playing the film's unabashedly low-budget artifice for metaphysical sex comedy, complete with the unforgettable image of wax candles, obviously puppeteered by hand, dry-humping each other on a webby windowsill.
How to best treat Milton after he injures himself in a river—an arbitrary, slapstick moment depicted with Tex Avery-esque aplomb—becomes the subject of disagreement between Alta Mariah, whose auras and healing stones make for pointed foreshadowing of a future generation's obsession with astrological snake oil, and Ozanna, with her need for hard, empirical evidence. It's easy to imagine these three as frontier gentrifiers, or ancestors of the petit-bourgeois grad students of Kalman and Horn's earlier work. There's a mite of tragedy to this core dissonance, foregrounding the chatter of pithy humans (who assume they stand to inherit the world) against such transcendent terrain as to nearly spoil the moment.
It's true that the screenplay of Two Plains & a Fancy carries a borderline-punishing number of geology lectures and philosophy debates, but the function of these will keep viewers guessing to the very end. Nobody else is making films today like Kalman and Horn, and anyone who's been monitoring their progress will be relieved, if not exhilarated, to root through their latest mementos from way outside the indie-film reservation.