Film Scratches: Ghosts in the Machines – Before She Leaves Her Body (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.
Before She Leaves Her Body, an ambitious and absorbing feature film by brothers Ryan and Tyler Betschart, begins with two allegorical stories. A young woman recalls a dream in which she falls off a ferris wheel, foreshadowing an accident which will soon happen to her. Her sister looks at the crescent moon, and notes that the rest of the moon is still visible when it is very faintly lit by the reflected light from earth. This image will soon seem like a metaphor for the feeling that your sister is still a part of you, even when she is no longer physically present. Since these sisters, Kimberly and Marilyn (Megan Rippey and Karissa Hahn), are best friends as well as artistic collaborators in their band, the characters themselves are a transparent stand-in for the filmmakers, who (like an amazingly long list of other filmmaking brothers) are also full time collaborators. Like the Betscharts, Kimberly and Marilyn reside in San Diego, and are a part of the punk DIY art scene there.
The film presents the story of the sisters’ death and journey through the afterlife, but it is only minimally concerned with spiritual ideas, or even with clearly telling the story. (Purgatory is represented as a snow-filled parking lot next to a highway; not exactly a vision out of Dante, although it might seem otherworldly to a Californian.) Instead, the film’s style continually reverts from a narrative film to a more abstract collage of imagery and effects, and quite a beautiful one. It is as if the Betscharts are using “the afterlife” as a metaphor to explore how their experiences, when recorded on video, take on a life of their own, continually metamorphosing in the digital realm.
To a degree, you can accuse them of using a ruse which several filmmakers interested in abstraction have resorted to: setting up a narrative film in order to attract an audience of people who wouldn’t necessarily watch an abstract art film, and then turning the film abstract midway, as a kind of bait and switch. If this was a part of their thinking in creating the film’s structure, I think it’s a legitimate tactic. An exciting film should expand the viewer’s notion of what a film can be, and if it is drawing a wider audience to artistic films at the same time, so much the better.
One point which the film shares with a number of recent works by other younger artists: a fetishistic embrace of recently outmoded technology, such as mini-cassette recorders, shortwave radios, and VHS video, which were not in use during most of their lifetimes. These technologies frequently pop up, as they do here, in ghost stories, where they are seen as magically holding the keys to the recently vanished past. One of the sisters’ friends is Kevin, a social misfit who believes he can control women by capturing their souls on cassette tapes. Eventually, Kimberly’s ghost turns into a shimmering VHS chimera.
The Betscharts themselves are radically agnostic about technology as well as about film style, and their film cheerfully mixes analog and HD video, glitch art, minimalist landscape film, abstract color studies, and a narrative film. The propulsive musical score is made from tracks by female punk bands such as Jungle Fever and Heller Keller, and at first anyone who likes this music may be frustrated that one never gets to hear a complete song. This will be rectified later, when a static shot of a winter sunset, representing the first stages of the afterlife, is accompanied by a long, energetic song, with lyrics which plaintively ask “please tell me why you left me here.” The Betscharts have clearly absorbed the lessons of the past fifty years of avant-garde film which they learned in school, and the shot refers to the landscape films of James Benning, but they update these traditions for a new generation. If this exhilarating combination of hardcore music with pristinely minimalist imagery reminds me of anything which I have previously seen, it is the Butoh dance performances of Poppo and the GoGo boys, who paired their austere performances with loud thrash bands in the New York club scene in the 1980s.
This is not a perfectly structured film; there are sections which are much less interesting, such as an interview with Chance McManus, the actor playing Kevin, who muses aimlessly on his lack of interest in the supernatural. (It takes considerable courage, when working with improvising actors, to learn to get rid of all the footage which is good but not excellent.) But the film’s awkward form may be a part of the point: to look inside of life’s “in between” moments, the kinds of moments which typically end up on the cutting room floor, and see the energy seething within. A case in point the is film’s ending, an exceedingly long sequence of VHS footage which follows Marilyn trudging through the snow. A beautiful sequence of video effects is gradually added to the shot, transforming the image into scintillating pixels of energy. This may not be what happens to us after death, but it is a pretty good image of what happens to analog video in the minds of digital artists.