Originally published by Cultured Vultures, June 2019
Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais take us on a road trip through the unconscious.
Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais, collectively known as the Underground Film Studio, have been making experimental films since shortly after they met in London in 2010. It’s perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that their movies have been some of the most influential, interesting, and well-crafted films of the avant-garde era in which they and others have called the New Visionary Cinema, an international movement of filmmakers interested in the existential, the psychic, the unconscious, and the abstract.
With all that in mind, it’s not surprising that Notes From a Journey, which was at first intended to be a relatively straightforward documentary, ended up being an exploration of the unconscious, sensory experience, the reproduction of reality, and the existential meaning of the word “journey.” Because while this film documents two people travelling on holiday, it also documents the psychic journey of the characters — skewed versions of the filmmakers themselves.
We begin, appropriately, in movement. We’re looking outside the window on a train at pristine green countryside. Soon, however, this calm but frantic movement turns into a scene of no movement at all. The characters played by Daniel and Clara sit motionless in a darkened hotel room. The pair have used this technique in other films, most notably their surreal 2016 masterpiece The Kingdom of Shadows. They seem to delight in freezing characters in time using a medium that is all about the illusion of motion. Here, the characters are a bit like T.S. Eliot’s hollow men. They are strange doppelgangers missing something very important. Is “soul” the correct word? Well, for now we’ll go with that. After all, a journey into the unconscious is not going to yield any definitive answers.
Notes From a Journey is also about movement in a more literal sense. The end credits are very short, but they list Colchester, Edinburgh, and London among the many locations where the film was shot. Maybe it’s that I’m an American who’s never been to the UK, but the landscape seems kind of placeless and abstract. Locations mix organically into a single mythical place, a primordial countryside where the film’s characters are the only humans left alive, exploring their surroundings with a lonely, detached curiosity. At any rate, it probably goes without saying, but the scenery is gorgeous.
Sometimes, though, there is very little or no scenery at all. The picture on our screen is jolted almost violently from the natural world to a monochromatic red that fills the entire screen. This burst of color is accompanied by ambient sound. Sometimes the image appears at first to be monochromatic, but when you look close you can see the outline of an image slowly manifest.
I very much enjoy the exploration of the unconscious in this film. I’ve been interested in the blurring of “fact” and “fiction” in movies since I was in college studying documentary film about a thousand years ago. Documentaries are never total nonfiction. So many choices have to be made using a finite amount of footage. Scenes are stitched together out of order to get b-roll or cutaways. Then there’s the editing, which makes the film a hyper-subjective experience, guided by what the director wants you to see and how they want you to see it. In the same way, fiction films also document the actors acting, the scenery, etc. These definitions are not so clean when you’re talking about an artform that relies so heavily on images taken from the real world.
Notes from a Journey is very deliberately paced. It lingers on images and scenes, letting them play out without any real rush to get on to the next thing. It’s very meditative in that respect. People who dig the Slow Cinema movement will like this a lot. I don’t watch too many films with this kind of pacing, so it was a bit of a challenge for me. And I watch experimental films on a semi-regular basis. This kind of film can be difficult, especially in a mainstream film culture that, as a policy, doesn’t let a single shot last more than a few seconds before moving onto something else. You kind of have to deprogram yourself a bit for a film like this. I’ll admit to getting a bit antsy myself as the film closed in on 60 minutes. But, no matter, I was provided with plenty of brain food, and my patience was rewarded with beautiful imagery and an exploration of the unconscious that’s virtually unrivaled except by other films by Daniel and Clara.
Notes from a Journey is currently making the rounds at film festivals, but Daniel and Clara are quite diligent about releasing their stuff on region-free DVDs and digital on-demand platforms eventually. So hopefully this excellent film will be in wide release soon.