Last week I went to see Fallout, Wilhelm Sasnal's new film, at the Prince Charles, and it hasn't left my thoughts since. I need to see it again to be clearer in what I think of it, but instinctively i was drawn to the palette of both sound and colour, the rhythms and tones of this desolate, debris-ridden world, where those left live on in tension and in anger. The beginning of the film is beautiful. The camera tracks someone cautiously as they descend a hill, hesitant images of some kind of pylon or tower silhouetted against a slowly clearing pre-dawn sky, blue and intense, with crisp, strident sounds, industrial perhaps – I keep thinking of a factory, although I know there wasn't one. The person arrives on level ground. There are a few others seated on the ground, strewn with rubbish and dead-looking scrub, the landscape punctuated by obscure and perhaps obsolete towers, which reminded me of the sound-barrier pylons encircling the abandoned Dharma Initiative village (bringing up Lost when talking about Sasnal is potentially questionable... what can I say – I did watch the whole series in less than a month and that was bound to leave its mark).
Some terrible but unexplained catastrophe has taken place and these people survive in its wake, collecting, foraging, bartering, with abrasive mistrust and immense weariness colouring their every waking moment. They are ill. They are cold. They are hungry – but not starving. Their bodily presence is thick and heavy, as is their despair. They have no hope. There is an intense sequence of a man walking through the grounds of an estate, high-rises towering on every side. He has his hands cupped around his mouth, and shouts over and over the same call to action, amplified by the amphitheatre of the estate. The words (translated into English in the subtitles) don't make immediate sense, but they are mesmerising in their repetition. And while their meaning might evade you, their urgency is palpable. It brought to mind rallying angry shouts from 70s punk anthems or no-bullshit, no-RNB hiphop tracks – Black Flag's Rise Above, for example, or Dead Prez's Murda Box.
I first saw Sasnal's film work during a talk he gave at Bezalel art school in Tel Aviv last November. The film he showed there was of footage filmed during an extended road trip throughout the US, homing in with eyes wide open on those murky backwaters of the American way most often overlooked or ignored. The images that stuck in my mind most were of Texan ranchers branding and castrating their young bulls, and a group of predominantly black kids bored out of their minds in dusty urban squallor. Sasnal seemed to quietly be seeking out complexity. His film spoke of a bitty, foreign culture – a place we definitely don't know or understand and one that is far too layered and dense to frame.
There is something unflinching in the artist's take on his subject - whatever that may be. He does not shy away nor does he judge. This is raw, unapologetic, withering honesty – he records tiny details and great overviews with the same strength and determination. I keep thinking of how unbearably real Cormac McCarthy's tales become, a vividness which is, in great part, due to his unerring thoroughness. He only writes about places he himself has travelled to. So when he talks of the young boy's father taking apart a machine in The Road, you can feel the weight of each bit part, the cold, slimy touch of greased-up metal, the clockwork precision of the mecanism – he knows each thing, each action, each thought from the inside. Sasnal has that same exacting sleight of hand. Everything is measured and counted – the tenderness and the horror.
The main character in Fallout leaves his workshop and goes by bicycle back to his appartment. He eats directly from a tin can in a kitchen as bleak and empty as the sky outside, then walks through successive rooms to a bedroom. He stands in the doorway and watches a naked woman as she washes herself, standing up and leaning over in a small tin basin. The light is slight and cold, she is as raw as any other of the film's people, and yet it is a moment of unmistakable grace. The woman glances at him. They don't speak. You shiver in spite of yourself – these bare interior spaces can't be much warmer than the barren frozen outside. But she is beautiful in her exposed state, and as old and familiar an image as can be fashioned. The motif of the woman bathing is ancient and with those depths of time comes an intimation of life enduring. 'Borrowed time', perhaps, but time no less.
'He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.'
Cormac McCarthy, The Road