'Shambhavi Kaul: Planet': Film Review

Courtesy of Big Ears Festival
A beautiful but challenging selection.

The up-and-coming avant-gardist presents five of her short films.

Consumed with the differences between places as they exist in the physical world and what they become in our minds and fictional creations, the shorts composing Shambhavi Kaul's Planet are sensory pleasures whose philosophical implications might require some outside explication. Fortunately, Kaul provides just that in this program, addressing the viewer between chapters to teasingly point us toward her train of thought. Substantially more engaging in this format than they might be for the uninitiated otherwise, Planet would play well in one-off engagements at other experimentation-friendly art houses around the country.

A native of India who has worked in the American South, Kaul often obliquely addresses how the movies enable our (mis)understanding of exotic lands. Both her Mount Song and 21 Chitrakoot "glean" raw materials from film/TV produced in the '60s and '70s, slice-and-dicing the originals to remove human characters from the equation. These depeopled, often difficult to identify settings are hardly without action, though — storms blow through, mountains rise from and fall back into the sea, mushroom clouds billow quietly in the distance behind tiled rooftops. If Bollywood productions and wuxia fantasies look weird to Western eyes in their intact form, these collages are both weird and haunted by mysterious ghosts.

Night Noon generates similar (though much calmer) ambiguities using a single subject, the Sonoran Desert. Sandy peaks and crags that have passed in movies for locales around the globe become anonymous here, serving as the backdrop for strange encounters between a dog and a parrot. Then the scenes shift from color to a reversed black-and-white, introducing an unexplained alien presence. The dog, less entranced than we are, barks at the unidentified flying object.

Kaul is especially good with ambient sound and music, particularly in Place for Landing, which views her toddler as reflected in patina-distorted mirrors. If some of these altered images remind viewers of Stan Brakhage, the following short may make comparisons inevitable: Scene 32, after bouncing between many shots of the Indian salt desert where the filmmaker was born, offers a passage where crystals of salt appear to have been glued to the film itself, à la Brakhage's Mothlight. Seen as a whole, Kaul's filmography stands far outside the pioneering experimentalist's shadow. But as with his abstractions, it's clear these films are far more personal than their almost person-free frames would suggest.

Venue: Big Ears Festival
Director-producer-editor: Shambhavi Kaul

Not rated, 60 minutes

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