I agree with Virginia Woolf who said that nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy. My favorite films waver between humor and sadness and take my imagination to surprising places. I recently discovered a gem of a small-budget indie film that met those criteria, the 2010 feature debut of writer/director Diane Bell. Obselidia has a quirkiness and strangeness about it, something of Oscar & Lucinda’s compulsion and restraint, chance and divination, and Angels & Insects’ lapse into Victorian Darwinism. It also has a bit of the Renaissance’s cabinet of curiosities.
The story centers on a reclusive librarian named George whose passion is his ongoing compilation of an encyclopedia of obsolete things. George interviews and films people who work in outmoded professions or with things that are destined for extinction. In idle moments, his thoughts run methodically through the alphabetical listing of the encyclopedia he read for fun as a kid. His apartment is filled with oddments and ephemera, a collection of vintage cameras, plants and colored glass bottles. He uses a manual typewriter and a landline telephone. His mode of transportation (in LA!) is a bicycle. George may be lonely but he is never bored. One of his interviews is with Sophie, an outgoing silent film projectionist who fights boredom and the terror of aging before she has really lived. Where George lives in the past, Sophie is always rushing into the future in search of some serendipitous distraction.
Although the film is set in LA in the present, it evokes a nonspecific past. Part of this is due to the dark settings, the timelessness and magic of books and museums and to the stark universality of deserts. Part is due to the soundtrack composed by Liam Howe. Howe used a stringless orchestra of nearly 20 obsolete instruments, including a kalimba, an African piano plucked with the thumbs; a programmable music box designed to accept strips of cards that can be punched to any composition; a mechanical santoor, an ancient Indian instrument that creates sonic texture; hand-held Tibetan bells; an ocarina, a Peruvian flute-like wind instrument played by finger; Indonesian gamelan instruments; and, providing a rhythmic beat throughout the film, a manual typewriter and a Kodak Carousel slide projector.
George says he is not only nostalgic for things that are obsolete but also for things in the present because he can see in them intimations of their demise. Sophie, who is clever with words (she coined the word obselidia), calls this nowstalgia. At Sophie’s urging, they take a road trip to Death Valley so that George can interview a maverick scientist, Lewis Fordham, who believes humanity, because of its excesses, is on a very short string. Fordham lives in a tiny trailer on a remote sand road bearing a wooden, hand-painted sign with the words Orbis Tertius, Latin for third world. Borges’ fans will recognize that from the title of one of his short stories. Fordham could have stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. He is a plain-spoken Western type given to brief but grim prognostications and with no need for companionship beyond the bees he keeps.
The film’s production company is named, aptly, Humble Films, and the actors are mostly unknown. George is played by Aussie Michael Piccirilli who bears a slight resemblance to Johnny Depp. Gaynor Howe, who plays Sophie is, like Bell, Scots and is married to composer Liam Howe. Frank Hoyt Taylor, who plays Fordham, may be the best known in the US. He’s a busy character actor who, over the last two decades, has appeared in dozens of popular television shows and movies including Big Fish, Junebug, and Dreamer with Dakota Fanning. Taylor is not that far removed from the Fordham character–he lives on a farm in Dungannon, Virginia, in a house he built himself. And he keeps bees.
The film made me want to go to all the places George and Sophie visit. I would love to see the miniature iridescent mosaics made with fragments of insect wings in the Museum of Jurassic Technology; go to the 70-year-old Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles; and see the ghost town Ballarat and the artifacts of its gold-mining past in the Ballarat General Store and Museum. I especially would like to attend a performance at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction by 89-year-old founder, actress and dancer, Marta Becket. Becket spent seven years hand-painting wall murals that depict elaborate scrolled balconies filled with theatre lovers in 18th century formality. Death Valley Junction has a population of less than twenty, but, now, even on the slowest nights, there is always an audience.
I think Bell must have an insatiably curious mind and that she made this film to dramatize some of the things, both light and dark, that captivate her–nature, art, literature, relationships, global climate change, religion, life, death. Her obvious literary inspirations are Borges, W.G. Sebald and Sir Thomas Browne. George quotes from Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica: “Time hath an art to make dust of all things,” a quote that takes on stark resonance in the desert. Woolf, who also loved Browne, advised turning to him “when the passing moment is a vanity and a weariness,” but I think if she had lived today she would also advise seeking out movies by directors like Bell who seem to have an innate ability to see magic in the mundane, movies that lift us out of our melancholy.