Open City Documentary Festival

Navigating Faith, the Paranormal and the Psychedelic: an essay by Lamorna Ash

We invited five writers to reflect on films of their choosing from this year’s festival programme. In this essay, Lamorna Ash examines Surviving You, Always; Zero Length Spring; and Triforium.

Some years back, I spent two months living with a middle-aged couple who loved the British Soap Coronation Street. We watched it every night. I don’t remember any of the plotlines, characters. But one scene has stayed with me. A recent widow is prostrate on the sofa, watching television, when the lights starts to flicker. It goes dim, the only illumination from the television, which is freaking out, zigzag lines driving across its screen. Out of its fuzz and blur, a face materialises. The woman leaps back; it’s none other than her dead husband, tuning in from whatever life beyond he has found himself. They speak for a while, I can’t remember about what. And then, the woman jerks awake, still lying on the sofa, the colours on the screen shifting abstractedly, without form or figure.

I couldn’t get over that sequence. I thought it was incredible. Whenever the supernatural, the inexplicable requires expression through art (TV soaps included), the question arises of how to depict it in a way that best suits the form. The writers of Corrie got it exactly right. Of course, the afterlife has to be mediated through another television screen. How else could you render the invisible visible to an audience themselves watching on a small box in some living room somewhere?

In ‘Visual Images of the Supernatural’, historian Gerhard Jaritz explores the challenges of representing the supernatural in painting during the medieval period. The problem was not that supernatural occurrences were, as now, widely considered unbelievable or hoaxes. In the sixteenth century, miraculous visitations from angels and devils were recorded all the time. The actual tension in images of the supernatural from this period was that they had to be made comprehensible to the audience, while at the same time retaining the supernatural quality of the message. As Jaritz expresses it, they had to hold “explicability and inexplicability” in a single frame.

To explore how inexplicability and explicability might be held in tension, Jaritz focuses on a single panel from the Large Miracle Altar of Mariazell (c. 1520). The image depicts the moment at which a heavy cradle containing a baby falls onto another child, killing them both. After the grieving mother prayed to the Virgin Mary, both children were brought back to life. In order for the panel to demonstrate the message most clearly – the awesome power of divinity – the image is supplemented by a textual account of the narrative. In this way, the image suggests the miracle’s inexplicability (how could infants, caught in the moment of death, be brought back to life?) while the text makes it explicable.

Both moving image artists Ross Meckfessel and Morgan Quaintance use a combination of text, audio and image to explore inexplicable themes. For Meckfessel, this is paranormal, occult activities. Quaintance’s subject is LSD, drug-induced delusions. While the braiding of several mediums was used in the Mariazell miracle altar to enrich the message, for Meckfessel and Quaintance, multiple narrative devices are used to question the validity and potency of supposedly mystical experiences.

British artist and curator Morgan Quaintance’s Surviving You, Always is a black and white film about Quaintance and his friends’ regular, recreational use of LSD in their early adolescence. Shots of teenagers outside school and hanging about school corridors are interspliced with five stills from Quaintance’s youth – an image of his fourteenth birthday, his secondary school in Lambeth’s entrance sign, covered in graffiti, the back entrance to the estate where he lived at that time.

Supporting the film are two simultaneous narrative accounts. The first is presented through lines of text across the image. The voice is that of Quaintance, describing how LSD affected him and his friends. “Emotionally it wrung us all out”, he declares. “It made us paranoid, detached and anxious.” Overlaid with this is an audio track from the sixties of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, two clinical psychologists and early advocates for the usage of LSD, discussing the drug’s religious and supernatural potential. For these men, LSD itself functioned like a kind of miracle altar, in that it might show people the divine beyond the natural world – even more successfully than any art form could. As they suggest, “There are a lot of words and all of these words aren’t what it is.” The only way you could access this state of “nirvana”, they believed, was through the trip itself.

The contrast between Quaintance’s negative recollections of the drug’s impact and Leary and Dass’s glorification of its effects is charged and pronounced. Though using two concurrent narrative modes creates a certain ambiguity, the mind moving unconsciously between voice and text, Quaintance’s writing style is so clear, so absolute that you soon tune out most of the clinical researchers’ florid descriptions, the ear picking up the odd, now hackneyed, phrase – “veil of illusion”, “the pull of the one”, “harmonising with energies.”

Quaintance and his friends took LSD and butane gas as fourteen-year-olds because it was the cheapest way to get wasted. Yes, they saw fairies, aliens rise from the carpet, but, Quaintance tells the viewer, “it was all shit.” Their consciousnesses were not expanded, “There was no fourth dimension./ There was only the world and everything in it.” The lines are beautifully precise throughout, a silent rage driving through each phrase. Meanwhile, Leary speaks from the Castalia Foundation, a 64-room mansion given to them in the mid-sixties by some millionaires to continue their research into LSD and its apparent relationship with the divine. It was “a serene and beautiful place inhabited by serene and serious-minded people,” we hear. Immediately after this, Quaintance provides a still of the backdoor to his estate. The contrast is stark. He would slip through this door in the early hours, the text informs us, after being up all night on LSD, his mind still “twitching”, so that, “every surface would look like the skin of a reptile”. The film holds on the still so long, we start to project onto it what Quaintance saw, the brickwork rendered scaly, its texture shifting, rippling, as if the power of Quaintance’s storytelling were stronger and more affecting than the mind-altering substance itself.

At one point, the psychedelic researchers announce, “Once you have become somebody, you are ready for the journey to become nobody.” Much of LSD’s appeal for these wealthy, high-status individuals at the Foundation was the possibility of an ego-death, to briefly rid themselves of their considerable identities. This is juxtaposed with footage of fireworks streaming up into the sky, the camera angled high enough that we do not see the earth from which they’ve come. Only in this scene does Quaintance uses another audio track. This time, young men are urgently discussing ways they are misperceived by society. We are not low-lives, they say, we’re not tramps. “We have an ambition.” As ever, the comparison Quaintance makes is both subtle and utterly incontrovertible. The young people Quaintance was taking drugs with in South London are already seen as “nobody” by society; it is somebody that they want to become.

Ross Meckfessel’s Zero Length Spring (a term in physics for a kind of spring designed such that, if it had zero length, it would exert zero force) draws upon paranormal, occult and modern faith healing practices. It opens with a sequence of grainy, sculptural 16mm shots – glinting train tracks; translucent wire tied around fabric so that its shape vaguely resembles a human head; a cow, its strange, black eyes staring right into the camera. Then, a person, hidden behind a smooth white mask, elliptical slits for eyes, nostrils, mouth. Over the top, Meckfessel adds a tropey horror-esque score, a recurring motif throughout the film.

The next section pushes the theme further. The film shows a series of found photographs – dark corridors, bedrooms, forests – each with a pale ring around a particular area of the image. As the painter of the Miracle Altar uses text to draw attention to the miraculous significance of the image, so too does the ring draw the viewer’s eye to the region inside it. The eye searches the blurry, ringed area, expecting to find there something strange, a glowing light or spectre. But there is nothing obvious there; Meckfessel uses the rings to hint at the powers of persuasion at the heart of much paranormal material. These photographs are soundtracked with a story by American writer Brian Torrey Scott. Its ideas are puzzled, abstract. We are asked to picture human survival as a distant tower, then a cave, receding infinitely into “Miles and miles of terminal darkness” as the voice repeats over and over. As with Surviving You, Always, the bricolage of voice and image is hard to concentrate on simultaneously, but Meckfessel’s desired effect is less about privileging the truth of one narrative strand over another, but to reproduce the confusion and sensory overload associated with his choice of subject.

The film ends with a lightbulb, swinging back and forth across a black screen. Each time the lightbulb passes back, a new line of text is revealed. “Our story begins with a woman”, it reads. “You can find her at the farmer’s market”. All around her, we are told, there are “sage bundles”, “Essential Oils”, “tie dye shirts”, as well as more absurdist flourishes “several thousand tonnes of sugar”, “kids saying ‘ow ow ow’”. The woman tells the “you” of the story to repeat these phrases: “I make time for myself”, “I can learn new things”, “I accept my nature as a physical form.” As with psychedelia jargon, we instantly recognise this as the language appropriated by the wellness industry. Where Quaintance uses text as the most sincere, serious mode of narrative in his film, Meckfessel’s application of text within the film acts as a playful comment on the ridiculousness of New Age spiritualism.

In most ways, British artist and filmmaker Jayne Parker’s Triforium is distinct from the other two films under consideration here. She includes no text or voice, no human presence in the film, but for a single shot of a petal held lightly in a hand. The musical accompaniment is contemporary classical music, composed by Laurence Crane. It is in colour, half the length of the other films and, on the surface, simpler in terms of imagery – choosing only two subjects to move between. And yet, there is a thematic coherence with the others worth exploring. Like Meckfessel and Quaintance, Parker’s theme gestures towards the supernatural, the divine, that which is transient and elusive to capture in film.

In 2015, Parker, who trained as a sculptor, was one of few individuals given access to Westminster Abbey’s 13th century triforium, a narrow space running below the clerestory, 16 metres above the nave floor. The triforium had not been seen by the public for centuries and, just after Parker’s visit, the space would be transformed into public galleries celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee. As such, her film preserves this fleeting, untouched period before it was refurnished. Shots of the triforium are interwoven with images of magnolia flowers at various stages in their brief blossoming each year. Every shot is explicitly beautiful, the two textures – the musty, cluttered interior of the triforium, all wood, marble, plastic sheets and stained glass, and the delicate white flowers – complementing one another perfectly.

If flowers were once a symbol of the magnificence of God’s creation, then the church was the space in which one might feel closest to Him. In this respect, while the other two films use text, audio and visual images to probe at inexplicable themes, Parker’s subjects themselves act as metonyms for the divine, the holy, that which might only be seen through partial glimpses.

But such an idea is expressed quietly, tentatively. At first, the features of the triforium are presented to us in fragments – a few panels of stained glass, the jointed knees of a carved wooden figure atop a box, a tracery rose window half-concealed by architectural beams. Most remarkable in the film is the way Parker refuses the audience a view of the vast, opulent nave of Westminster Abbey that we know is just metres beneath.

While Parker chooses sublime, beautiful imagery to represent what is divine or extra-lingual, Quaintance and Meckfessel apply a range of filmic techniques to reproduce the feeling of being on psychedelics or witnessing paranormal activity. Outside of the textual descriptions, both filmmakers fall back on more stereotypically “trippy” imagery – ghostly, waving trees, long corridors, juddering, vertigo-inducing shots. But, since Quaintance’s position that there is “only the world and everything in it” is so significant to the film, these shots are rendered subdued in contrast to the more stylistic use of negatives and double-exposure in Zero Length Spring. In the penultimate sequence, Meckfessel changes the texture of the film via a new mode through which to visualise the inexplicable: blisters and bubbles of light rise up through the black leader of the film itself, the sound crackling like lightning. Here, Meckfessel shows how the materiality of film itself, that extraordinary, miraculous process involving light exposure, might nod to what is beyond explication.

Parker and Meckfessl remain with their chosen subjects throughout the films. Quaintance does something quite different. Surviving You, Always gradually transcends its initial theme of probing psychedelic experience. The last two stills in the film show a young girl, long brown hair, her eyes averted in both. “I loved you before we met”, the text says, over the first. The teenage Quaintance stayed up all night with her the first time they met, watching the fireworks. But then she goes to prison for three years and “loneliness was my prison,” Quaintance writes. After she gets out, they spend one more night together, before going their separate ways. It is not psychedelics that have altered their beings, only time: “We had become different people.”

Lamorna Ash is a literary journalist and the author of Dark, Salt, Clear, published by Bloomsbury in 2020. She was a winner of the Somerset Maugham Prize in 2021.

Surviving You, Always screens alongside other works by Morgan Quaintance and moving image artist Luke Fowler as part of In Dialogue: Luke Fowler & Morgan Quaintance on Sunday 12 September at 20.00, at Genesis Cinema. Tickets for the screening are available here.

Zero Length Spring and Triforium screens as part of Combined Programme 3 on Saturday 11 September at 18.05, at Genesis Cinema. Tickets for the screening are available here.