For those still reeling from seasickness induced by Leviathan, Art of the Real has the tonic. Dead Slow Ahead, another experimental, largely nocturnal portrayal of industrial seafaring, moves with the lava-flow tempo suggested by its spot-on title, with director Mauro Herce’s camera a seemingly high-tonnage contrast to Leviathan’s plethora of featherweight recording devices. Panning, tilting, and dolly movements are sparse, usually occurring at paces almost imperceptible to the eye as they scan the musculature and intestinal corridors of a gargantuan cargo ship pushing through the Atlantic toward New Orleans like an undigested chunk of food exiting the body. An organism at once labyrinthine and blocky, it becomes the primary object of study for Herce, who appears only to reveal the human laborers on the vessel incidentally—and even then, as tiny instruments within the alien mechanics of the larger machine on which they toil.
Herce’s background as a cinematographer on such painterly films as Arraianos and Ocaso is instrumental in Dead Slow Ahead, as he approaches his milieu less like a documentarian sniffing out stories than a scientist carefully calibrating the parameters of his environment. The images have a stately, interstellar quality, like cautiously distant views of an alien planet visited for the first time. Large patches of pitch-dark negative space nearly engulf the frames, while the spotty lighting on board the ship clarifies only fragments of cryptic machinery otherwise covered in shadow. The effect occasionally recalls the dreary twilight worlds of Béla Tarr’s films (especially in shots showing silhouetted figures gazing out windows somewhere in the bowels of the vessel), though Herce’s arresting color scheme—kiwi greens, clementine oranges, and blood reds—shares something of the visceral immediacy of an Ian Francis painting.
Conceived like an ambient album, Dead Slow Ahead is at its best when simply airing out its otherworldly energies, improvising on a core notion of the ship as some kind of postindustrial sea monster floating its passengers toward nowhere in particular, if not death. (The percussive transmission beeping that reverberates throughout the vessel, weaving in and out of a soundtrack awash with the low-frequency drone of immense bulk weighing down on water, might just as easily be that of an EKG.) In the film’s home stretch, however, Herce tentatively approaches his human players (most of whom are of Filipino descent), first sitting in on a shadowy karaoke session and later allowing a few disembodied voices to come forth in the mix for the first time. Over shots that call to mind the basement wanderings of the camera in Syndromes and a Century, letters to family members and lovers are dispassionately recited, and it’s on this haunting note that Dead Slow Ahead parts, leaving the sudden realization that the film has been rooted in the very human sensation of anesthetized despair all along.
José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses also requires patience to detect its emotional climate. The film opens with a designation—“An educational experience…filmed by J.L. Guerin”—that downplays directorial solicitation, as though the proceeding events are merely recorded by an impartial filmmaker for the purposes of posterity. And frankly, that’s how the film feels when committing its attention to philology lectures run by real-life University of Barcelona poetry professor Raffaele Pinto. The scholar’s course is on musedom is classical Italian literature, and the film cultivates a steady visual back and forth between the male teacher and the largely female student body that’s dictated by the cadence of the heady discourse more than anything. That said, the more-or-less 180-degree cutting axis established by Guerín does imply a certain intellectual competitiveness that will gradually grow in relevance as the film expands beyond the lecture hall to observe the place of academic philosophy in personal life.
It turns out that Pinto, a stubbly, humorless bookworm with rather romantic ideas on female agency that tend to register as condescending, values his students so highly that he fervently resumes his conversations with them off campus. He also has sex with them. The film’s scant and slowly blossoming melodramatic narrative involves the realization of Pinto’s wife, Rosa (Rosa Delor Muns), to this fact, though the drama that ensues stays well out of the realm of histrionics and grounded in the increasingly knotty terrain of dialectical discussion. Guerín’s conjuration of complex, naturalistic performances in delivering such highfalutin’ verbiage (from non-actors, no less) should not go uncelebrated, as the film’s interest derives largely from parsing the motivating rationale behind obfuscating language, such as identifying the behemoth of self-interest belied by Pinto’s claim that his adulterous pursuits are part of “my research.”
It’s a shame, however, that The Academy of Muses’s verbal qualities far outpace its formal attributes, especially given the sophisticated use of point of view, camera movement, and reflective surfaces found in Guerín’s last fiction feature, the great In the City of Sylvia. The latter aesthetic trope is brought to bear here in a multitude of scenes viewed from the far side of a pane of glass, albeit in such a repetitive manner that the implications of the pictorial technique—the duality of human existence, the splintering of perception—nearly overwhelm the nuances playing out through the interaction between the actors. Meanwhile, the film’s low budget and digital cinematography have been cited routinely in explaining its shoddy look, but it’s hard to work up excuses for some of Guerín’s lazy staging, arbitrary cuts to black leader, and jerky camerawork.
Art of the Real runs from April 8—21.