Sundance Film Fest 2010: Obselidia Review


By Patrick Z. McGavin

A bittersweet piece on love and possibility, Diane Bell’s "Obselidia" traverses the history of movies in an attempt to reclaim a fragile, disappearing past. It is a movie suffused with ideas and thoughts, but they are rather didactically argued and articulated by the movie’s characters rather than dramatically explored through incident, emotional detail or observational subtlety.

Bell’s movie references, visually and conversationally, a distinctly erudite and wide range of directors and films skipping easily from Chaplin and Bresson to "Jules and Jim" and "Greed." The movie has a fairly recognizable screwball premise of a smart though emotionally recessive man whose orderly and carefully designed world is blown into smithereens by a beautiful woman.

The screwball potential requires a greater contrast of character and situation to make it work. To her credit, Bell gains confidence and a more comfortable narrative rhythm the deeper she gets into her story. The movie is still far more successful in isolation than the whole.

George (Michael Piccirilli) is the self-proclaimed last door to door salesman of encyclopedias. George is a solitary autodidact who listens to music on a Victrola, writes letters on a manual typewriter and moves around Los Angeles on a bicycle. Naturally, he's deeply suspicious about love.

Supporting himself by working at a library, George is obsessed with compiling a multimedia dossier for technologically obsolete professions or objects.  He films his subjects with a late model video camcorder and transcribes the interviews by collecting them as a single source, an encyclopedia, broken down into a series of epigrams or ethereal asides (“The magic is gone”).

One of George’s subjects, Sophie (Gaynor Howe) is a projectionist at a silent movie theater who’s instantly intrigued by his project. If other women have failed to penetrate George's emotional distance, Sophie manages to immediately embed herself into his orbit. When a reclusive scientist (Frank Hoyt Taylor) accepts George’s invitation for an interview, Sophie facilitates it by driving him to Death Valley.  The scientist is a curmudgeon and scold who forecasts a cataclysmic end to the world because of personal failings and extreme scientific and social neglect.

His pessimism occasions a philosophical inquiry by George and Sophie about life, death, and meaning. This kind of material was great when Ingmar Bergman made his great trilogy "Winter Light," "The Silence" and "Through a Glass Darkly."

By contrast Bell seems ill at ease at how to work this material into a larger fabric about relationships, men and women and social interaction. The movie’s sometimes hectoring tone and sanctimonious undercurrent is very hard to take at times. In arguing against technology, consumerism and modernity, "Obselidia" tries to animate a world that few people would ever want to live.

It is unfortunate because Bell clearly has some talent. Zak Mulligan’s cinematography is the strongest formal element in the movie. Bell reveals both a nicely understated compositional eye and an ability to locate soft, surreal touches on the margins. There’s a terrific moment where George, who improbably finds a pogo stick in the middle of Death Valley, tries to operate it on the inhospitable terrain. Likewise, a moment of Sophie caught in motion, her body, hands and face vertically shooting out a convertible like a periscope, is a lovely burst of freedom and impulsiveness.

The two leads are never less than very watchable, especially the loose limbed and sexy physical movements of Howe. Bell’s script strands them too often. One fascinating though frustratingly underdeveloped subtext is a foreigners’ impressions of America (the two leads are both Australians). Part of what is mysterious and strange about the opening sections is the lack of specificity and trying to get a sense of where and what place the movie is taking place.

Again, that idea of cultural dislocation is central to the movies of Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger than Paradise," "Down by Law"), illustrating that Bell is very good at summoning other people’s works but less successful at finding shaping her own ideas.