A SURVEY OF THE UNDERGROUND FILM STUDIO
By Patrick King
Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais are The Underground Film Studio, though they’re always accompanied by a tribe of friends who help out on their no-budget microcinema explorations of the unconscious. Fawcett and Pais met in late 2010 in Brighton, UK, at the launch of Fawcett’s film magazine, in which Pais had contributed an article on Stan Brakhage. The Experimental Film Society, a film collective out of Ireland said of the duo that they have a “shamanic approach to cinema” and that their films provide an “alchemical experience.” Yes, well, it’s hard to argue with that description. Indeed, it sums up their work quite nicely.
The meeting of Fawcett and Pais feels fated, almost inevitable, and what a wonderful thing that they did meet. They’ve been at the forefront of Britain’s new underground cinema movement since the release of their first feature, Savage Witches, in 2012. As one might guess, they were influenced by experimental filmmakers like Brakhage and Jodorowsky, but they also have quite an affinity for Golden Age Hollywood films. Well, if that combination doesn’t get you excited, you might not be my kind of film freak.
In his youth, Fawcett thought of himself as a painter. This makes a lot of sense when you watch the films that have come out of The Underground Film Studio, which are obsessed with color. Though Fawcett and Pais didn’t meet each other until well into adulthood, they both started their video experiments around the same time in the mid to late 90’s. Fawcett began experimenting with Hi-8 video as a teenager, and Pais, eight years younger than Fawcett, started shooting video on a family trip to Stonehenge.
The pair realized how much they had in common soon after they met each other and started on the frenetic journey that would lead to Savage Witches immediately. The process took eighteen months in total, and Fawcett says they didn’t take a single day off during that time. In an interview with the web magazine (Re) Search My Trash, Fawcett said, “The film started with a conversation between Clara and I when we first met about the films we wanted to make. We both believe cinema is an art form that has the power to have a transformative effect on us both as makers and viewers and we wanted to create a film to find out what this really meant.” And Pais, from the same interview, said, “Our intention was to make a film to celebrate all that we loved in movies – the artifice, the playfulness, the theatricality and magical quality of cinema.” And indeed, Savage Witches is their most sweet and playful film. It’s almost – though not quite – an exploration of innocence. They wrote a script for the project, but ended up merely using it as a rough guide, and decided not to tell Victoria Smith and Christina Wood, the two teenage actresses who are in nearly every scene of the film, what they would be shooting until the day of the scene. This caused some frustration with the actresses, but Fawcett and Pais say that the performances were more spontaneous this way. We can certainly feel the spontaneity when we watch the film.
Like Cultured Vultures favorite Fabrizio Federico, the pair use all sorts of video and film formats when they construct their films. This is most obviously apparent on Savage Witches. There are also quite a few other aesthetic considerations that were established on this movie that would become continued features in Underground Film Studio productions. Probably the most prominent of these is the method of shooting silently and adding or discovering the sound in post-production. In this sense, Fawcett and Pais make silent films by the strictest definition: movies without any synched dialogue.
There are quite a few nods in Savage Witches to Věra Chytilová’s Czech New Wave film Daisies, which is itself an experimental freewheeling adventure concerning two young women who give fuck-all about the rules that society expects them to follow. In its way, Savage Witches might be seen as an extended homage to Daisies, tonally and thematically. Though Fawcett and Pais have a video and text manifesto called The Quest for the Cine-Rebis, Savage Witches serves as a sort of manifesto itself, since it contains the seeds of so many ideas and aesthetics that the duo will explore in later movies.
Color, black and white, film, digital, analogue, animation. It’s all here in abundant beauty and variety. The colors are stark, washed out, bold, faded. They always have a dreamy, other-worldly quality about them. Here we have the manifestation in color and sound of the unconscious desires of two teenage girls who have found themselves on the other side of the looking-glass. So cool to see just how vivid images can get on archaic video formats not exactly known for their boldness of color. The video, of course, is missing a sort of “warmth” that one associates with film formats. You can tell what’s been shot on video and what’s been shot on film, and that’s part of the charm. Savage Witches also features animations of all sorts, from hand-drawn to collage.
The film is a celebration of the feminine in everyone. The girls run, play, frolic in their dream world, always inviting us to play along, to let our imaginations wander. This is not to say that there’s no dark side to all of this, though the movie doesn’t lose itself in the darker elements. There is, however, a wave of foreboding underneath it all. One thinks of the fact that the girls will soon shed their youthful skin to succumb to adulthood. But then we remember that the characters in Savage Witches will, in fact, never grow up. They will remain forever young as long as copies of the movie exist. A movie is always a document of its own making.
At one point, the narrative as we know it is abandoned and we get a meta-narrative with animated storyboards and the young actresses talking about their experience and frustrations with the film in voice over. All this reminds one of the final scene of The Holy Mountain, where the camera pulls away to reveal a film crew, and the great revelation for the characters is that they are in a movie. And this is not a pipe moment if there ever was one. It is rarely acknowledged, of course, but every film is both a representation of reality and needs some sort of pre existing form of reality in order to be. Something has to be photographed for another thing to be represented.
I have to say before leaving the subject that Savage Witches is a very fun film. I don’t ask for good art to be fun, and it often isn’t, so this isn’t a value judgement, but I was legitimately entertained here.
In an interview with Faye Gentile, Fawcett said that his follow-up film, Splendor Solis was about his “journey as an artist.” Makes sense enough, but going into it blind, one might or might not get the autobiographical aspect of the film. Fact and fiction merge here to an even greater extent than Savage Witches because much of the footage consists of home movies taken from the time Fawcett was a teenager up until the shooting of Savage Witches, a fifteen-year span. But a lot of the footage is staged, so to speak. Fawcett and his friends play acting, making short films, etc. It’s all chronological, but the “fictional” stuff is thrown in with the documentary stuff without an attempt to separate or categorize them.
It should be noted that even though Fawcett is listed as the director, Splendor Solis was co-edited by Pais, and since this is a film that, by definition, came together in the editing, this is certainly another Fawcett / Pais co-creation. And why not? They’re pretty much a single filmmaking unit.
The majority of the film is in split screen, with images appearing and disappearing relatively quickly. You will miss something on your first viewing. And that’s okay, because this is a movie that’s never the same experience twice. Myself, I’d get lost in the images taking place on one screen and realize that I totally neglected the other. Or I’d try to process what’s going on with both at once. I missed stuff. Everyone will miss stuff, and that’s okay. Really, the film reminded me of those late nights I sometimes spend cataloguing memories before I fall asleep. Everything comes at me quickly, only time to grasp a few things, analysing one image while the other passes away into the aether. The pacing feels somewhat frenetic. Not because Fawcett and Pais use particularly quick cutting, but because of this problem of the brain trying to process and contextualize everything it’s seeing on both screens.
And here we have again some spectacularly bold colors taken from lo-fi video formats, beginning with the format that many a 90’s kid used: Hi8, which was pretty much the last step in analogue camcorders before everything went digital and we all sat around talking about these amazing three-chip digital cameras coming out. Can you tell that I first started experimenting with film and video around the same time, too? Man, this movie made me nostalgic as hell. Sure, Fawcett might be from the UK, but those late-90’s hipster fashions were pretty much identical here in the states. It was a hell of a trip watching the 90’s turn into the early 2000’s and become the near-present day. But you don’t have to be from that time to really get the time-capsule aspect of the film. I felt the same way watching Magic Trip, the documentary about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters that used a ton of archive footage from the mid-60’s.
Again, there’s no synched dialogue. I suspect there never will be with this duo. Without any dialogue, the film resists becoming a more experimental version of Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical documentary that I also very much enjoy. Instead of people, we get archetypes, instead of individual personalities, we get a sort of group consciousness. Instead of words, we get dance.
With In Search of the Exile (2016), Pais returns as co-director. The film is at once the most abstract and aesthetically streamlined of The Underground Film Studio’s filmography so far. This was, for me, the hardest film to get a grip on. There was such a sense of loneliness about the thing that I was often filled with a deep existential fear, the source of which I couldn’t place. About halfway through the film we get a neon-colored nightmare, as people dance in shadows, sometimes around each other, sometimes merging with each other, though only briefly. It’s like observing alien life. It doesn’t resemble anything we’re used to, even though we know intellectually that we’re watching human representations on our screens. In Search of the Exile is proof that language can only provide a muddled translation of film. The film also proves that there’s no limit to the themes, ideas, sounds and colors that Fawcett and Pais are willing to explore.
The Kingdom of Shadows, also released in 2016, is the Biblical creation myth re-told using amateur actors, though everyone Fawcett and Pais used were artists in their own right. The catalysts for the film were, fittingly enough, a couple of dreams that Fawcett and Pais had. Fawcett dreamed of himself as an archaeologist, and Pais dreamed of exploring an old family house. And so the movie explores the darkness and the light of the collective unconscious.
Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel are the main characters, along with a near-catatonic postwar family in an old house (they actually did use Pais’s family home for these scenes). The Kingdom of Shadows harkens back to Savage Witches in that there are actual identifiable characters. The film also gives a body to the Alchemist, up to now only an idea explored in all of their films, but here as an actual archetypal character, shown at the beginning and end of the movie.
Fabrizio Federico plays Cain in a very haunting performance. He seems to take all of the world’s collective suffering into his body at once. He is the constant sufferer, cast out of God’s kingdom for killing his brother. All of the performances are brilliant, actually, making it even more surprising that only amateur actors were used. The performances are convincing, haunting, packed with metaphysical verisimilitude. Bruno Senune and Joana Castro are fascinating as Adam and Eve. Castro does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting, but Senune is marvelous in his restraint.
I think the beauty of The Kingdom of Shadows is quite like the beauty of surrealism in its broad sense. As much as the original French surrealists raged against symbolism in language and images, it is inevitable that we look for what’s underneath things, since we are creatures of symbols. But the beauty of surrealism is that there’s no one key that will unlock all of the mysteries at once. Try to do this and everything will unravel. The Kingdom of Shadows, like all of the films by Fawcett and Pais, refuse to let go of their mystery.
There will one day be great academic writings about these films, which makes me happy that I’m not an academic. Fawcett and Pais are young still and have plenty of films with which they can teach us what it’s like to wonder. And how they wonder.