MEANDERING THROUGH INT. LANDSCAPESBy Richard Ashrowan
Mist. That blurry disorientating trickster inhabiting the space between night and day. It rolls from high places and coasts, it smothers fields and valleys, it suspends time. To be in mist is to become outwardly indistinct, blurred: the more invisible we become to others, the more visible we become to ourselves, the more internal. The most liminal of interstitial substances, between light and dark, between above and below, between air and water. It is from mist that pearls are formed, as oysters rise to the sea surface at night, opening themselves to the night air. They snap and gulp great drafts of sea mist, gently close themselves, and quietly descend to incubate their pearls. Perhaps INT. LANDSCAPES was born like this, like the snatching of a pearl from sea mist.
It was from Gaston Bachelard, the master of the elemental material imagination, that I learned how pearls were really made, a fact he gleaned from The Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon (ca. 1121) describing the transformation of dew into gemstones.1 While dew is invested with certain specific qualities of actuality, as an imaginative substance, mist occupies an entirely different psychological space. Spectral, diffuse and undifferentiated, unformed, motile and ill-defined. It belongs to the moonlight, not to the moon itself, but to its emanating and reflected silver light. Ghouls and vapours, fears and uncertainties, the dreaming mind, hallucinations and nightmares, they all find their true home in luna-saturated mist.
Neither water nor air. INT. LANDSCAPES itself exists in a viscous vapour between the real and the imagined. Our narrator, walking and talking in semi-darkness, cleaves to perceptual reality at first, “I am walking in the garden | It’s misty | The grass is wet | Visibility is low… I am filming”, his voice a whispering intimacy, a conspiratorial conjuring of familiar images, factual perceptions and reassuring actualities. I think of John Ruskin. “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way.”2 Yet Ruskin’s use of the word ‘plain’ here is strange, and it has always intrigued me. For in the same passage he goes on to say “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.” How can the capacity to describe something plainly cohere with seeing as prophecy, religion, and poetry? Perhaps this is the key. That ‘plain’ vision is never only what we see, it also inescapably involves all that we might feel and imagine. Are not vision and imagination forever entangled in a kind of lovers knot? Caught in the circuits between thought and perception, INT. LANDSCAPES deconstructs reality into a kind of blurry-eyed apparition, hovering between boundaries, as the mist itself.
From the darkness, images emerge, but where exactly do they come from, and to whom do they belong? Blood on the grass. Petals on his shoes. A woman streaked in blood, but we don’t know what she is – a spectre, a dream fragment, a real-life horror? Actuality bleeds into dream, dream into actuality, the mist seems to permeate the entire imagistic and psychic space, to be slowly consuming the narrator, and perhaps ourselves as well. The film begins to observe itself, or at least, our mysterious narrator does. In this sense, it exists as if within its own terms of reference, we are witness to the film being made, we are witnessing the film, while also being drawn into a peculiar sense of voyeuristic complicity with the narrator.
Rich with images, while the screen often remains a stoic black emptiness, a sense of place and close human presence is nonetheless viscerally felt; the sound of walking, of stopping and listening, of a camera held close to the body, intimate with us. Within the studied blackness, the impulse to show and tell is withheld, a deliberate restraint which has the effect of bringing the viewer into the film itself as a co-creator of its images and possible meanings. It may also be a canvas upon which our more fearful imaginings might take flight.
Flashes of images appear, fleeting glimpses. These are not so much fragments or traces, they feel more like minor eruptions out of primordial darkness. It is as if only those images that have allowed themselves to become fully psychically formed are allowed to break out, from some dark subterranean cavern, into visibility. Everything else remains … internal, imagined. The film’s shooting format, Super 8, feels essential to the overall psychological affect, the filmic equivalence of mist, a soft-edged blurry haze cast in flashes of luminosity from its elemental substrate.
There are ruins, rural dereliction, and a sudden convulsion, shrieks of strange birds. An abandoned farmhouse, emptied landscapes, swirling mists, the sea horizon, this strange convulsing body. These are not quite images of folk-horror, but they certainly evoke a sense of the eerie. A landscape inhabited by unknown absences and presences, by actualities and vaporous imaginings. We are faced with disturbed and disturbing figures in this landscape, while our narrator becomes strangely silent for the last minutes of the film. Perhaps, finally, our narrator has managed to transpose himself into the film-image itself, perhaps this blood streaked female figure now works the camera, is now walking with us?
The eerie here works a strange magic. Mark Fisher suggests that our sense of the eerie, even if unsettling by nature, essentially creates within us a kind of serenity. It belongs to un-peopled landscapes and abandoned places. Fisher believed it to be “constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something”.3
As it is neither threatening nor truly frightening, so it appeals to us for “this release from the mundane, this escape from the confines of what is ordinarily taken for reality”. Eeriness opens our consciousness to an awareness of that which is both unseen and unknowable, yet is tangibly present. While INT. LANDSCAPES was made pre-Covid, its eeriness prefigures what for many of us has become the strange eeriness of everyday life in the Covid era. We go about our world, and it is full of unsettling vapours, un-peopled spaces, invisible fears, masks, veils, eerie absences, and occasionally, horrors.
I too once found myself hopelessly lost on a remote Scottish hillside, enveloped in a deepening mist. It was pleasantly atmospheric at first, but once I could no longer see beyond my own feet, the feeling morphed into minor terror: to be totally awake yet unmoored from the earth, darkness rapidly descending, a cloying void in which every kind of primordial fear grew in direct proportion to my visual and auditory disorientation. This is what mist can do. In responding to it, we may find ourselves oscillating between a sense of hallucinatory otherworldliness and abject fear.
Finally, the light breaks through, it saturates the screen, a kind of post-convulsive halo, a welcome dawn breaks. If INT. LANDSCAPES leaves us with a feeling of quiet serenity, it also leaves us unsettled. There are open questions – especially in relation to the figures – the blood streaked woman, the convulsing man, their place and meaning in relation to the narrator. Who has agency here and who does not? As such, this is filmmaking of the best kind – it demands the viewer’s participation, and we fill in the blanks with our own active imaginative engagement. In common with other work by the singular entity of Daniel & Clara, we feel a directness in their experience of being in a landscape, we are invited to share their sense of presence, inhabiting atmospheres, imagined histories, subjective worlds and fantasies. In its way, their filmmaking is of a deeply generous kind, personal and inclusive, for us as human witnesses, yet equally generous toward the non-human forms and landscapes they choose to inhabit.
Richard Ashrowan is a moving image artist and independent film curator. He was the founder and Creative Director of Alchemy Film & Arts in Scotland from 2010 to 2019 and was curator for Scotland + Venice at the Venice Art Biennale 2017.
1 BACHELARD, G. 2002. Earth and reveries of will : an essay on the imagination of matter, Dallas, Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (pp. 253-261). Bachelard describes several different accounts of oysters making pearls by rising to the surface of the sea at night, opening themselves to consume mist.
2 RUSKIN, J. 1856. Modern Painters, vol. 3, pt. 4 ‘Of Modern Landscape.’
3 FISHER, M. 2017. The Weird and the Eerie, Watkins Media. The whole book is relevant to this work, the quotes are from the chapters: Approaching the Eerie and Introduction – The Weird and the Eerie (Beyond the Unheimlich).