The way in which people interact with the archaic or outmoded is an ever-evolving proposition. Especially given the unbelievable pace of the 20th and 21st centuries, where innumerable technologies have been developed, widely used, and then abandoned for the next shiny thing, devices that once were widely taken for granted just a decade or so ago take on a different aura entirely, one almost akin to uncovering a buried, obscure treasure.
Jonathan Davies’s Topology of Sirens, one of the most assured and evocative feature debuts of the past few years, which premieres as part of the FIDMarseille International Competition, takes this paradox as one of its primary animating forces. It follows Cas (documentary filmmaker Courtney Stephens), a sound engineer who moves into her deceased aunt’s home in what appears to be an unnamed neighborhood of Los Angeles. As she reconnects with her friends within the local experimental music scene, she discovers within a locked closet of the house a rare hurdy-gurdy. Inside the outdated instrument are seven answering machine mini-cassette tapes, each labeled with a mysterious symbol and containing different varieties of soundscapes and audio effects. This cryptic find begins a loose series of wanderings across the greater LA area, as linkages and coincidences pile up without necessarily coalescing into a unifying purpose or meaning.
Much of what compels about Topology of Sirens stems from this approach to narrative and how it maps onto Davies’s contemplative style. The film feels very much of a piece with Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye from 2019: Taormina and Davies are part of a drone music duo, produced each other’s films, and both films are gorgeously lensed by Carson Lund (disclosure: all three are friends of this writer), but while that film adhered to a clear if powerful structural trajectory, no such net exists for Topology. Instead, the film feels refreshingly charged in its conviction that any situation, any encounter, can unlock another link in the chain toward comprehension, and that the strength of the revelation can be felt much more than it can be explicated. It is no accident that these pivot points can be so often located in abandoned technologies like the cassette tapes or the hurdy-gurdy; in particular, one scene set at a long-running amateur TV station features a character played by film preservationist Mark Toscano, who takes stock of the continual submission of home tapes, including the work of one man who taped pre-digital television static so that people would still be able to see analog snow well past its conventional usage. Davies doesn’t aim to tie all these obsolete items together with a neat bow, but he has a pronounced appreciation for them, and how they can blend with and be enhanced by new technologies; one of Cas’s final actions in the film is to create mixdowns of the tape recordings, blending the formerly discrete music to create something else entirely.
In an interview for FIDMarseille, Davies attributes the governing aesthetic and narrative principles to ‘90s PC point-and-click adventure games, but Topology of Sirens unfolds in ways that hew much closer and deeper to typically cinematic means. Shot mostly in master shots, which frequently move with gliding precision across rooms, the film’s quiet nature — there is relatively little dialogue in the film, charmingly credited as “featuring dialogue from the cast” — allows for both a bounty of interstitial moments of natural and suburban landmarks and a series of truly startling and magical ruptures. These moments, including a few live musical performances, are frequently signaled by a definite shift in perspectives, and stun in a way that somehow only furthers the mystical mood that Topology of Sirens consistently manages to weave. More than anything, Davies trusts in the sensorial import of his images, in the implications and pleasures of shifting lights and dissolves, and the effect is nothing short of transporting.
Published as part of FIDMarseilles 2021 — Dispatch 1.