Evoking Kerouac: Dumbsaint's Cinematic Opus 'Panorama, in Ten Pieces'
Guided by Kerouac's philosophy of life, Australian post-metal band Dumbsaint's film conveys a residential underbelly present in David Lynch's films.
In 1958, Jack Kerouac listed 30 guidelines for executing better prose, providing valuable insight as to how the celebrated writer approached his craft. A proponent of Allen Ginsberg’s "first thought, best thought" philosophy, Kerouac championed unedited writing as one way of accessing the subconscious, and his often raw prose shows it. Kerouac was also a fan of creating words, as in his sixth instruction: Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind. To understand what this means, consider some of his other guidelines. From the outset, Kerouac instructs us to become submissive to everything, open, listening and to strive for an in tranced fixation dreaming upon [the] object before you, and finally to struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind. From this constellation of directives, a dumbsaint studies unconscious thoughts to explore what lurks in the psyche -- whether gems or detritus.
Australian post-metal band Dumbsaint named themselves after Kerouac's sixth tenet. Since 2012, Dumbsaint has repeatedly explored their sonic limits across three instrumental albums juxtaposing expansive, thrashing choruses with quietly menacing passages in the vein of Sunn O))), Russian Circles and Pelican. Their efforts have paid off; their second album Panorama, in Ten Pieces, landed them on the long list for the 11th Australian Music Prize.
Dumbsaint thought their darkly energetic music, lacking metal's intrusive, animalistic death-growl vocals, would make an ideal film soundtrack. Of course, most bands create music videos to promote their singles, but only a handful of bands attempt longer pieces. The band's reverence for cinema is clear; they've produced several ambitious projects incorporating their music, including the three-part 38-minute film Disappearance in a Minor Role, featuring intertitles that appear like a screenplay format. Disappearance set the stage for the more ambitious, nearly hour-long film accompanying Panorama,. As with all their efforts, the band shared writing, funding, filming, and editing duties.
David Lynch is the most obvious visual reference for the band, but also presents a working model for how Dumbsaint's music informs their visuals. Lynch's multiple collaborations with composer Angelo Badalamenti are unconventional in that they deliberate upon the soundtrack well before principal photography commences, flipping the order of many productions considering music an afterthought in post-production. In Lynch's case, the visuals become subservient to the music. Dumbsaint works similarly by developing visual ideas around the album as the predetermined musical framework. The choice to silence every actor and rely on subtitled dialogue is a nod to silent and foreign cinema, yet also highlights the music as the primary attraction.
Panorama's titular vignettes revolve around a dizzying cast of characters lurking in a purgatorial neighborhood. The plot resonates with the chilling residential underbelly present in Lynch's films, scenes functioning as elongations of Edward Hopper's dreary paintings shot through Gregory Crewdson's unsettling lens.The band members as filmmakers showcase an adeptness for mise en scène, production value, cinematic technique, and post-production polish, coaxing out tense scenes and aligning high action sequences with appropriate music.
Panorama’s world contains absurdities and unexplained phenomena, like abandoned briefcases, characters who see themselves on television, and rock musicians who inexplicably accompany a couple’s dinner. But it also contains more sinister elements, like women who are abducted and auctioned for the amusement of a wealthy couple. Many of the storylines are left unresolved, leaving the viewer with a sense that the neighborhood’s internal logic cannot be deduced, and by extension, that it offers no redemption. Though there are consequences, there is no rule of law; when justice is meted out, it seems accidental or unmotivated.
This claustrophobia is personified by the film’s female cast, most of whom are “women in trouble” tropes in a noir world they cannot escape. Consider an early scene where the two abducted women wait in a bedroom. One is frightened, while the other wears a detached, almost vicious expression, but assuring the other that everything will be fine. Though the viewer doesn't yet understand their circumstances, our dread only increases in the next scene’s bidding war, a bizarre, ritualistic scene whose internal logic is overturned when one woman turns the tables on her captors. The film requires this about-face to avoid complete exploitation, yet in the next scene, the woman in the couple laughs off the incident to a friend as if it were the most normal thing in the world, deflating the sense of danger felt just moments before.
Though these narrative elements are troubling, the film has moments of inspiration. The stylized color palette approaches a tinted monotone near the emotional climax, where a woman breaks the fourth wall to recite a poem in close-up to the camera. One of the scenes is an impressionistic landscape montage, providing a quiet second-act release before the final crescendo. But overall, simplifying the enormous cast – or combining several roles – would have cohered the story (and made for easier shooting). Perhaps this would have led to more resolved plotlines, yet the scope also works in building the world of the abnormal neighborhood.
Dumbsaint drummer Nick Andrews is quick to be critical of his film. "We certainly tied ourselves in a few knots trying to put the film together. A linear narrative broken up over so many tracks, over such an amount of time, without dialogue, is really hard to accomplish. In trying to tell a story from a collection of shots or moments, you try to find ways to combine loose ideas into something cohesive. It was a bit of a head-scratcher trying to put it all together."
The film's scale required the band to shoot across nine months. "We filmed two-thirds of the film when the record had come out, so it was very much an ongoing project." Andrews doesn't recommend the workflow for any band or filmmaker, though it was necessary based on time. "We all worked on planning and deliberating ideas, workflow and editing, exhausting ourselves by going to work in the morning and shooting in the evening."
Surprisingly, Panorama’s vignettes weren't initially associated with each other. "The stories were quite sporadic. They came together by linking ideas fitting into the scope of the suburban neighborhood where I was living that were achievable within our timeframe."
For an independent metal band, putting so many resources into the film was a big risk. Putting the video behind an exclusive Vimeo paywall was another, though the film has also screened during some live performances. Andrews says releasing a feature film was polarizing for traditional music reviewers, who weren't sure how to react. "It still comes across as a novelty. To commit anyone to watch something this long is a big ask. When someone says, 'Hey, watch this 50-minute film made by this band,' they're not exactly going to say, 'Holy shit. Get out of my way.'"
While the film separates itself from other band efforts if only by its sheer scope, it also required great effort for a small payoff. "It was never going to have the effect we would've liked. We wanted it to carry the album and the profile of the band further, based on how far we went. Because we put so much effort and importance into it, we expected that from the audience. The people who get it, get it, but moving forward, the effort needs to be balanced."
Andrews and his bandmates realized this when measuring reception during live shows that alternately played with or without a live film screening. Both received similar crowd reactions, which didn't dramatically affect how the band performed. Now, any visual support will be an attractive bonus coming second to musical priorities. In other words, film won't be something the band will kill themselves over.
Despite the difficulties in realizing the project, Panorama has still been the best received Dumbsaint record, and not many records can claim to enjoy a second life as a film. "It's still drawing curious people in," Andrews says. "I love that we've been able to cut through with something different."
In lieu of producing another film, Dumbsaint is gearing up for a European tour this year. There are also several pieces of music the band wrote last spring they'd like to release this year. "There may be some small A-side/B-side kind of releases coming out in a similar vein to the Auteur EP in terms of scale, and they'll definitely be more self-contained. We'll have more freedom to execute them. We're looking for something a bit more stress-free this year. We're playing music live in order to still be creative and put something out without the pressures of lining up a whole album cycle and locking ourselves away for six months to write a record. Being free and malleable is the way forward and definitely the throughline for everything we've done. This mindset will lead to some cool things in the future." Kerouac would surely agree.
Watch Panorama, in Ten Pieces on Vimeo and catch the band live in Europe:
May 26 - Dunk!festival Zottegem, Belgium
May 29 - Leipzig, Germany
May 30 - Warsaw, Poland
June 1 - Budapest, Hungary
June 2 - Cluj-Napoca, Romania
June 3 - Bucharest, Romania
June 5 - Timisoara, Romania
June 9 - Rimini, Italy
Tristan Kneschke has contributed to Hyperallergic, Decoder Magazine, The Wild Honey Pie, Echoes and Dust, No Film School, and others. He’s the former Managing Editor for Subrewind and enjoys traveling to places his mother warns him about.