Film Scratches: Negotiations of the Bicameral Mind – Ward of the Feral Horses (2015)
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
Orit Ben-Shitrit’s absorbingly strange and powerful 20 minute film Ward of the Feral Horses begins with a young man (Maxwell Cosmo Cramer) staring out a window. The film’s action takes place on two floors of an old wooden building, which might be a converted stable. Downstairs is an older, shirtless man (Doug Barron), working diligently and producing sentences by hand printing them with pieces of movable type. The house is filled with outmoded writing technologies, but the soundtrack keeps popping up with the sound of vibrating phones and text alerts, and Cramer’s face is clearly lit by an unseen laptop.
Ben-Shitrit’s synopsis for the film refers to an economy of “cognitive capitalism,” and one can surmise that these two characters (and indeed the entire building) represent the inner landscape of a professional writer: Cramer as the ego in charge, demanding that the inner voice (Barron) continually produces more clever, pithy, insightful comments. Cramer brings food to the older man and demands “Where’s the product?” Barron responds with a quote originally by Gertrude Stein: “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Since the two characters are identified in the credits as L and R, they can be also be seen as the brain’s two hemispheres.
Cramer gradually begins removing all the vowel letters from his “products,” rendering them more and more incomprehensible. (This is eerily reminiscent of the tendency for words in text messages to lose their vowels.) Evidently it is a deliberate plan to drive Cramer crazy. Upstairs in his bedroom, a troupe of dancers in colorful patterned costumes jump out of the bedroom furniture. Their movement is sensual and anarchic, and they clearly represent the liberation of repressed intuitive bodily energies, but their rigid choreography and constrained, repetitive movements create an oddly repressive, inhibited form of freedom. The scene brings to mind the imaginative world of a child at play, whose toys help his escape from the dreariness of lessons with a kind of mechanized ritual.
Downstairs, Barron is suddenly bathed in brilliant light. Having tricked the brain into abandoning language and unleashing the intuitive forces of the body, he is suddenly illuminated and free to produce in a truly original voice. Donning high heel shoes, he becomes powerful by joining female energy to male. He abandons his print shop and starts playing music on percussion instruments, where he is soon joined in a jam session by the dancers. “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” as Walter Pater wrote. Upstairs, Cramer sits on the couch, which still emits the resonant sound of a piano. The film ends as he is seduced and sucked inside of it.
Ward of the Feral Houses explores the relationship between intuition, the body, language and intellect, a subject that is challenging to depict in film. Ben-Shitrit brilliantly constructs a strange performance field where dance, language and sound interact to dramatize this relationship in a way that should feel familiar to anyone engaged in creative production, but without reducing it to a dryly intellectual argument. The engagement of the performers is indeed feral, immediate and physical, and she effectively transforms physical space into psychic space. With a soundtrack full of sounds which make nuanced, subliminal comments on the action (such as a snorting horse), she constructs a complex, multi-layered world in which the psychic and spiritual struggle of a writer becomes a full-blown poetic fact before our eyes. The artistic success of the film is clear proof that she knows what she’s talking about.