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The members of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Laboratory have made some of the most daring and fascinating documentaries of the past decade, using experimental cinema techniques to portray a variety of subjects ranging from a Queens junkyard (Foreign Parts) to Montana sheep farmers (Sweetgrass) to Maine fisherman braving the rough ocean waters (the masterful Leviathan). In each movie, they manipulate sight and sound in new ways, delivering an immersive viewing experience that isn’t as much about depicting something onscreen as it is about taking you deep inside of it.
In the latest Lab effort, somniloquies, which was directed by the duo of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, we are plunged into the madcap dreams of one Dion McGregor — a New York songwriter from the 1960s and 70s who was known as “the world’s most prolific sleep talker,” and whose nightly ramblings were recorded by his roommate (and released on an LP entitled “The Dream World of Dion McGregor”).
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor use McGregor’s dream talk as a delirious soundtrack to accompany distorted images of people in the throes of sleep. We can barely make out what we’re looking at, as if everything had been shot through a funhouse mirror bathed in warm light, twisting bodies into pure abstraction. Is that a nose or a penis? Is that someone’s leg or the back of their neck? Only at times does the camera pull back or focus so we can make out what we’re seeing, but for most of the film we slide into a netherworld where the contorted visuals echo the ravings of McGregor’s mind.
As ominous as that sounds, the dreams are so amusingly surreal that somniloquies winds up turning into a sort of avant-garde comedy. McGregor’s rants are like a cross between the somnambulist poems of Robert Desnos and the standup of Lenny Bruce, and you can see why his roommate wanted to record them: In one dream he describes a “midget city” in hilarious detail. In another he performs a surgical procedure on himself, removing his own spleen. And in several sitcom-esque sexcapades, he refers to the “platinum bush” of an older woman in a robe, a calendar whose days include “suck Monday” and “tit Tuesday,” and to a vehicle that he calls the “f— wagon.”
There’s something vaguely Lynchian about getting into a person’s head like that, and the array of abstract imagery recalls late Lynch movies like Inland Empire, as well as the films of Philippe Grandrieux (especially the recent Despite the Night) and the paintings of Francis Bacon. What we’re seeing and what we’re hearing never quite match, as the camera constantly roves over blurred bodies while McGregor says stuff like: “I don’t want to see your ass, Mrs. Dangerfield.” There’s enough dissonance that the dream world and real world of somniloquies forever remain separate realms, although the film ultimately goes very far — perhaps farther than most movies – to try and bridge the gap between the two.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Norte Productions, S.E.L. documenta14
Directors: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Producers: Valentina Novati, Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Directors of photography: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Editors: Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Sales: Norte Productions
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