Credit: Tav Falco
Before We Vanish by Ryan Coleman Featured Film

The Urania Trilogy — Tav Falco

February 21, 2024

In the ongoing writing of the history of film, only a few summative propositions have ossified into matters of fact. The notion that the introduction of sound to the apparatus of cinema “changed everything” is one. But did it really? The influential Japanese film critic Shiguéhiko Hasumi has argued that “the medium of film has not yet truly incorporated sound as an essential component of its composition.” That, in other words, film remains primarily a medium of moving images, with sound recorded separately and collaged in as an element of the mise-en-scéne the same way actors, props, and sets are instrumentalized by the camera.

The latest feature film by the musician Tav Falco raises a fascinating and generative question along these lines. Not how film might transform were sound made a constituent particle of its atomic structure, but whether the largely abandoned aesthetics of silent cinema are the mere byproducts of their era’s technological limits or something distinct, the origin point for craft templates just as fertile for experimentation in 2024 as they were in 1914. The Urania Trilogy makes a compelling case that the aesthetic and even narrative forms pioneered by early masters like Louis Feuillade and D.W. Griffith remain ripe for exploration, remix, and reclamation. Consciously, that is, for as Hasumi contends, “all movies are but variants on the silent film” — whether they know it or not.

Falco is best known as the creative force behind Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, the prolific jazz-tango-Delta blues fusion group he founded with Big Star’s Alex Chilton in the late ‘70s. Over the course of his idiosyncratic career, Falco has apprenticed to the photographer William Eggleston, appeared in films alongside Winona Ryder, Kenneth Anger, and Marisa Paredes, shot some of the earliest surviving footage of legendary blues musician R.L. Burnside, and directed six short films now archived by the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Falco’s restlessly inventive spirit and distinct cluster of interests flare brightly throughout every one of Urania’s 140 minutes, even when repetition gums up the pacing, the melodramatic narrative works itself into an exhausted tangle, and the formal ingenuity occasionally curdles into treacly homage.

The Urania Trilogy first toured Europe and America from 2015-2017 as Urania Descending, a short feature about a woman named Gina Lee (Via Kali) who longs to escape her Arkansas backwater hometown, with its salt-encrusted flatness and lecherous brogues riding around in convertibles. Like the heroine of Carnival of Souls, another middle-American oddity whose influence is felt throughout Urania, Gina Lee departs from the narrow spectrum of opportunities afforded to girls like her toward somewhere strange, hopefully somewhere better. For Salt Lake City she trades Vienna, Falco’s adopted home for some years. There she becomes embroiled in a cock-eyed scheme to seduce the descendant of a Nazi flight plan designer out of the coordinates of some Hitler treasure, shot out of the sky by American fighter pilots in 1944 and now lost at the bottom of Lake Attersee. Meanwhile, poetic intertitles foretell the converging paths of Urania, muse of the heavens, descending to Earth as Gina Lee descends into a hell of schadenfreude and extortion.

Urania Descending ends climactically. The Nazi heir, Graf Karl Heinz von Riegl (Peter Reisegger), discovers Gina Lee’s deception and exacts his revenge in the form of some truly demented tickle torture. He then flees on a rowboat from the good guy (Diego Moritz, played by Falco himself) into the middle of Lake Attersee with a bound, gagged, and utterly vulnerable Gina Lee in her full incarnation of the archetypal silent damsel. The shaky, aqueous handheld sequence is one of the most riveting of the trilogy. Immobilizing close-ups of Gina Lee’s frightened eyes intercut with superimpositions of her now bucolic-seeming past and unstable pans of the afternoon sun burning a skein onto the lake. Urania Descending, now part one of The Urania Trilogy, concludes with von Riegl shoving Gina Lee into the water, followed by an intertitle solely bearing a teasing question mark.

The rest of The Urania Trilogy, screening for the first time in New York this Friday at Anthology Film Archives and across the country this month, never quite recaptures the narrative force marshaled in part one. Parts two clocks in at 67 minutes and slows to a near halt toward the middle, weighed down by the lumbering cognitive machinations (played out as narrative maneuvers) of a director determined to iron out the logic of a fundamentally illogical spy plot. Melodramatic narrative structures — the singularly dominant story form of the silent era — repel intelligibility. Melos (music) + drama — feeling which flows over form, drowns it, sweeping the viewer away on a raft of pure, unmediated identification with suffering.

The new material which completes The Urania Trilogy is guided by a hand which too often fails to understand when to let the reins go. Yet formally, visually, Falco is doing something interesting in virtually every scene. Falco is as tapped into his specific influences as he is tuned out of everyone else’s, resulting in a sensuous brocade of familiar references (Falco has repeatedly cited the influence of a titanic triumvirate of Austrian émigrés — Lang, von Sternberg, and von Stroheim, whose pulpy and exuberant Foolish Wives seems a direct progenitor), mysterious signifiers, and sui generis incursions into the form that propel it to exhilarating new heights.

Falco phases from voiceover to asynchronous sound to guttural, industrial soundscapes; subtitles drift away from sync with characters’ speech and drift across the frame. There’s split screen, slow motion, replays, overshot scenes that cut long after when would be natural. The hand-processed 16mm black-and-white reversal film stock is riddled with tender imperfections. The use of cellphones and talk of the iCloud within a Feuilladean frame immediately conjure Olivier Assayas, yet Falco is even more mischievous. “I can see myself in the mirror of your sequins,” a tango maestro whispers to Gina Lee during a ravishing dance sequence. It’s easy to compare The Urania Trilogy to everything, but among its contemporaries, it’s incomparable.

DIRECTOR: Tav Falco;  CAST: Via Kali, Peter Reisegger, Gustavo Falco;  IN THEATERS: February 15;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 20 min.