Journey through the past (or something like it) with Melika Bass

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From Melika Basss Waking Things
  • From Melika Bass's Waking Things
Tomorrow nightTonight Doc Films continues its local-filmmakers series with two works made in 2011 by Melika Bass, Waking Things and Shoals. Both films appear to take place in the past, yet it's hard to say exactly when, or if, they take place in the past at all. Bass raises the possibility in each that her characters live in the present but in isolation from modern life. Waking, which recalls such movies about medieval life as Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring, unfolds in a dark wooden house where a family performs arcane rituals in preparation for a great feast. Shoals takes place around a rural sanitarium, apparently in the late-19th century, where three young women are monitored by an older man who may be a doctor or a religious cult leader. In both films, the big picture remains fuzzy while the details are always crystal clear. Shot in long takes and with exquisitely modulated lighting (fellow Chicago artist Lori Felker is the credited lighting director), Bass's films evoke living paintings—the textures are as inviting as the narratives are withholding.

In a sense, those textures are what the movies are all about. In a recent e-mail correspondence, Bass described these films as "play[s] on ideas of historical fiction and its nostalgia," adding how important it was "to get visual specifics right . . . [to] invoke other eras and mediums that help us imagine those histories: pictorialist photography [of the late 19th and early 20th centuries] in Shoals, Dutch still lifes in Waking Things." To achieve these effects, Bass shot the films on a 16-millimeter Bolex camera, then used a variety of digital tools to augment certain shadows and colors. The films' sound designs grew out of another layering process: Bass shot the movies silently, then constructed the soundtracks with homemade field recordings and Foley effects. The point, she wrote, was "to heighten the physicality of gestures and objects."

This would explain why many individual shots in Shoals and Waking have a dreamlike quality while the movies on the whole don't feel like dreams. A dream implies something buried in your consciousness, while Bass's films trade in archaic practices that few contemporary viewers are likely to have experienced. What do you call a dead person's memory? And would you know that's what it was if you saw it?

You can read more about Bass at her website, Tender Archive.

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