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March 31, 2023

The Severing

the severing.jpeg

Mark Pellington - 2022
Kino Lorber

While Mark Pellington has been credited as the director, The Severing probably is best understood as a collaborative work outside the scope of Pellington's narrative films. Describing this as a dance film does not quite fit. Perhaps calling this performance art on film comes a little closer. Although the concept of expressing grief and loss originated with the filmmaker, the performances are the work of choreographer Nina McNeely. While McNeely's name may not be familiar, cinephiles would be familiar with her work as the choreographer of that manic dance filmed in a single extended take in Gaspar Noe's Climax.

The dancers appear almost nude, bruised and bloody, as if dragged through coal dust. The dances, as such, are small vignettes with some superimposed texts or titles. The physical contortions are simultaneously amazing and almost painful to watch. On the soundtrack is a barely intelligible voice that resembles the squawk from a barely working drive thru system. The dances are abstract expressions of feelings. The film may have been shot on a set, but appears to have been done in an abandoned factory. Pellington has stated that he was inspired by the collaboration of Wim Wenders with choreographer Pina Bausch for the film Pina. Maybe it was quite unintended regarding artistic influences, but The Severing struck me as a work having its roots in The Living Theater's Paradise Now. The pioneering Living Theater created ensemble work that was an expression of political rebellion, with an ensemble that was nearly nude. This was well over fifty years ago - I saw them in their return to the United States tour in 1968. It is only because The Severing is on film that it is arguably less confrontational.

Returning back to the film as a collaborative work, this brings up questions on how one judges dance, or performance art, on film? A finer point - how does one film dance? I have had my own experience as a videographer documenting performances on behalf of several local choreographers. Since dance and performance usually involve the whole body, the act of filming dance can reshape and redirect that performance. Pellington cuts in to show the movement of a single hand, or shift the focus to a dancer in the background. Even the placement of the dancer within the frame can make a difference. Most of the performances are of one or two dancers. The illumination of the dancers with what appeared to be available light emphasizes mood over performance.

The Severing has its antecedents albeit not all widely known. I would still give Mark Pellington credit for trying something that may well have been artistically outside of his own comfort zone as well as that of the audience.

The Severing is currently available in select screenings at specialized venues.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 31, 2023 05:01 AM