Credit: Kino Lorber
Before We Vanish by Luke Gorham Featured Film

The Severing — Mark Pellington

April 7, 2023

Film boasts a rich history of dance. From the halcyon, mid-century years of studio musicals all the way to the early-aughts onslaught of middling, tween-demo’d disposables like Save the Last Dance, Honey, You Got Served, and Stomp the Yard, there’s been a(n ebb-and-flow) consistency to Hollywood’s fixation on the art of movement. These chronal poles, of course, don’t account for the subversions and inversions that have dotted the genre’s history: Saturday Night Fever remains a pulsive all-timer; Robert Altman made unfussy study of the profession’s grind and de-glammed backstage in the excellent The Company; the Jon Chu days of the Step Up franchise located the kinetic vitality missing from so many appropriative and culture-angled millennium dancecapades; and then there are works like Shirley Clarke’s Dance in the Sun, wherein an avant-garde approach to capturing the form was first subsumed into the film medium.

It’s into the lineage of this latter space that Mark Pellington’s The Severing forcefully, frustratingly tries to assert itself. The film’s logline reads: “A cathartic movement film expressing feelings and emotions through a ‘story of movement and text,’ rather than a plot. Capturing emotion and physicality on an experiential and non-linear narrative level.” Given that description, it shouldn’t surprise viewers that Pellington’s film superficially situates itself within an avant-garde tradition, the first 20 or so minutes passing with only the promised art of the move — courtesy of ace Climax choreographer Nina Mcneely — and a score that moves between Sigur Rós-esque post-rock ambience, droning electronica, and lightly classical crescendo. But it’s clear from the start that Pellington doesn’t trust the material (i.e., dance). Rather than reveling in Mcneely’s visceral, haunting choreo work, the director lacquers his film with all manner of unnecessary visual phantasmagoria, performers painted in bruise colors and stripped to undergarments, faces made up to look like haunted house employees, leaving them to look like a troupe of creepypasta players. Plus, the whole thing takes place in some dank, cement-block basement with drips of light leaking in through small windows or cracks in doors, shadows cast everywhere. The effect is an embellishment rather than celebration of motion, and Pellington’s overt applications rob the film’s dance of its potential for organic narrativity. What’s abstracted and primal in the performers’ work is suffocated under the weight of the film’s ostentatious and insistent aestheticizing. 

Another essential problem with The Severing can be found within its logline: “and text.” The film flirts with a certain a-g character in its early minutes, with the fascinating intimation that rather than documentary, it could rather be viewed as fictional text. But then Pellington makes the baffling decision to introduce voiceover and on-screen text, which not only persists across the film’s remaining runtime, but builds in saturation as we move forward. This formal layering frustrates both any explicit avant-garde or fictional reading, but could still work if executed with some poetic skill or intellectual impetus. Instead, it proves entirely fatal. Not only does it functionally prove to be a constant visual distraction that offers no value, but it entirely undermines any attempts at non-linguistic narrative. Both voiceover and text — the latter of which is hilariously flipped or rotated sometimes for no discernable reason — are even more self-conscious than Pellington’s ill-advised formal flourishes, introducing oblique babbling about the fourth dimension and decorating the screen with words that read like sub-ChatGPT attempts at philosophizing. It’s the kind of dimwitted gobbledygook that an Instapoet like Atticus might fart out after getting real metaphysical on an ayahuasca retreat, but woven together with excerpts from a #FeelDeep teen’s diary (“INVISIBLE. Forever”). “Hands up to your God,” an overlay reads at one point. Sure, totally.

There’s also the question of why this is being put to film at all. As a general rule, the medium needs to bring something to that which it captures, and here that means a reorientation or elevation of what viewers would experience from the foundational performance piece at The Severing’s core. Occasionally, this is accomplished via Evelin Rei’s cinematography, which snakes through the dancers’ spatial canvas and weaves around their bodies, and in the film’s best moments, helping to convey the spectrum of humanity their physicality seeks to articulate. But more often, the angle-ambivalent approach and setting-dictated reliance on closeups obscures more than it enhances, the full impression of each of the film’s “movements” lost to the out-of-frame ether. So we’re left only to answer the why of it all with Pellington’s intrusive contributions, which work merely to short circuit any of the film’s elemental power with conspicuous overindulgence and brainless gibberish cosplaying as poetry. This is particularly irksome for a work arriving in a dance film landscape where the narrative, the abstract, and the purely kinetic have been so successfully amalgamated recently in films like Damien Manivel’s Isadora’s Children or Gaspar Noé’s aforementioned Climax, as well as more a–g-tempered shorts like Michael Portnoy’s cheeky Progressive Touch. Even Jonathan Glazer’s divisive Strasbourg 1518 had the decency of restraint, which is something Pellington exhibits nothing of here. Instead, he can’t seem to stop putting hats on hats formally speaking, and the brutal, moving work at the core of The Severing is sadly stifled within such graceless excess.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14.