Review: The Observers

Jacqueline Goss’s images imbue both the forbidding landscape and her characters’ scientific aerie with a poetry of the seemingly eternal.

The Observers
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Observatory appears to sit at the geographic end of the world in the first half of The Observers, a debut feature by Jacqueline Goss that’s a compelling visual essay, in semi-documentary form, on watchful isolation and near-monastic work amid the brutish extremes of nature. Over the course of a winter, a lone climatologist (Dani Leventhal) routinely ventures onto the exterior perches, and into the surrounding snowbanks, of the observatory, taking readings of the sub-Arctic conditions with instruments that remain exotic to nonprofessional eyes—particularly one that resembles a small silver suitcase, with dials near the handle that are calibrated without ever popping it open.

As the resident staffer endures the long season in the cocoon-like complex, her lack of human company making the absence of dialogue seem inevitable rather than experimental, she doesn’t acquire the emotional or psychological baggage of a filmed protagonist so much as purely prosaic or behavioral ones: the red jacket she dons for her treks, her short hair and large wristwatch, the flute she tootles on at the end of a day. The soundtrack not only howls with omnipresent wind, but emanates the clanks and hums of the weather center, and Goss’s rigorous formalism keeps the location’s fortress-like, acutely evident shield from deadly conditions simultaneously comforting and menacing, as with a Tarkovskian circular pan of an oval chamber’s windows, several coated, like portions of the observatory’s façade, with layers of ice.

The Observers divides in two with a screen of data marking the spring thaw via mellowing statistics of daily temperatures and wind gusts, and finds a new seasonal worker (Katya Gorker) on duty, whose similarities (regular sit-ups) and contrasts (conducting her measurements in the company of summer visitors to Mount Washington) with her predecessor are quickly evident. The sun, a steady supporting character, continues to wax and wane through blowing drifts of snow, and as in the first act, the human voice is heard once, disembodied in a recording of the observer reciting the daily forecast. Goss’s film carries its unique forms of narrative suspense (e.g., what will the thin yellow and blue ropes fused by the winter observer be used for?), but her 16mm images imbue both the forbidding landscape and her characters’ scientific aerie, though the observatory only dates from 1932, with a poetry of the seemingly eternal.

 Cast: Dani Leventhal, Katya Gorker  Director: Jacqueline Goss  Running Time: 67 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2011

Bill Weber

Bill Weber worked as a proofreader, copy editor, and production editor in the advertising and medical communications fields for over 30 years. His writing also appeared in Stylus Magazine.

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