Experimental Reviews

North of Blue (2019) – 4.5 stars

Director: Joanna Priestly

Running time: 1hr

To a large extent, experimental cinema is still regarded with an air of suspicion by mainstream reviews. I can see why; it is an intensely personal – and therefore uncomfortable journey – where the lack of narrative guidance provided by filmmakers means any meaning we attribute an experimental film comes from us, so to write critically of it prompts an act of self-reflection which is almost at odds with being a critic. Nobody likes taking their own advice; it is much safer to reference the inadequacies of others than address your own.

As a result, a great many people are sadly willing to belittle the genre, snidely writing it off as little more than expensive Windows Media Player visualisations used to disguise a lack of imagination and vision. On the contrary, however, it is possibly the brand of cinema which requires the most imagination to do right; to be able to move beyond our knee-jerk perceptions of our surroundings to deliver something almost other-worldly.

If you can move beyond that defensive reflex then, the ability to provoke introspection is one of experimental cinema’s greatest assets. By breaking down conventional silhouettes, themes and values, experimental and avant-garde films empower our wandering minds to deconstruct the every-day assumptions we perceive as ‘reality’, stripping away meanings and associations to free us up for a journey to be savoured. North of Blue is one such voyage of discovery.

Joanna Priestly’s film admittedly takes some getting used to. In the age of the CGI-spectacle-driven, micro-managing Marvel spectacular, we are all too used to being spoon-fed bites of cinematic baby-food –because otherwise, how the hell would we keep up with the 300 computerised heroes and villains endlessly slamming together for our amusement? In that context, being suddenly told to bring your own meaning to a series of fluctuating and undulating amorphous blobs feels rather like the plumber thrust a wrench in your hands and said, “Best of luck with the boiler!”

Initially, then, it feels less like a film, and more like the heptapods from Arrival are trying to beam cryptic messages directly into your skull. Before long, though, the endless ebb-and-flow of its visuals and its perpetually humming audio North of Blue will have lulled the part of your brain constantly looking for direction into a cinematically induced coma. From then on, it’s just you and the musings of your unrestrained consciousness.

According to the Director’s statement, this film was inspired by the “chilling and mysterious winter landscapes of the Yukon.” To take that declaration at face-value would be doing North of Blue a colossal disservice however. There is so much more to see and ruminate on throughout this hour of exploration.

Having initially found ourselves floating in what seems to be the nebulous colours and shapes of a bubbling pot of primordial soup, suddenly we are stumbling through a half-remembered forest. Everything busts and shatters and boils back down to DNA and atomic particles, but then we find ourselves in the midst of a cackling gaggle of school children, we are sinking with zooplankton beyond the ocean’s photic zone; and we are in a cave filled with fireflies.

Meanwhile, Jamie Haggerty’s pulsating tech score leads you to forget where you are. The masterful murmurings of his soundscape are at times effervescent, and at others serene – and like the best work of Utopia’s Cristobal Tapia de Veer, despite being such a wonderfully viscous audio-bubble-gum, it is able to make you forget it is even there. It might as well be the atmosphere that the strange shapes and organisms we see are breathing in.

In this state, the continued evolution of the imagery seems to conjure up a brief history of everything and nothing simultaneously – as if your own dreaming mind is reaching for memories of a bygone age well beyond its grasp. Shapes morph into faces which, monstrous in their incompletion, transmute into freakish phantoms, before blending back into the ether.

Suddenly we are left wondering if we saw anything at all – and the rather unnerving answer is that we didn’t, rather our brains – evolutionarily conditioned to render sense from random static – assembled systems, ideas and forms which had no meaning besides the one we prescribed it. The lack of material significance of what we believed to be real is quite a chilling examination of how we often see ideological constructs as ‘natural’, when in actuality, entities like the nation-state, or the market are fabrications which we bow to, but that don’t physically exist.

Of course, like any form of hypnosis, Priestly’s trance-inducing animations will only work with a certain amount of willing participation on the side of the audience. There will always be a large number of people who are resistant to art like this – if not openly hostile. For those open to such an experience, though, I imagine that when played on a high-resolution screen in a silent, darkened auditorium, this meandering examination of our perceptions of life and the world would be utterly heavenly.

Much like venturing into a cave on Dagobah, the experience – pleasant or otherwise – contained in North of Blue is “only what you take with you.” Sadly, for some people, there are few things more horrific than that; but for audiences willing to think more abstractly on the universe, life’s impermanent existence within it, and their perceptions of both, Priestly’s ethereal animation will be ideal.

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