State of emergency: Antero Alli’s The Alchemy of Sulphur

Strange as it may seem, given the inward nature of writing, films on the theme of the literary life constitute a popular genre. Classics include Barton Fink (1991) by the Coen Brothers, The Pillow Book (1996) by Peter Greenaway, Stranger Than Fiction (2006) by Marc Forster, and they keep coming, as writers, whose ranks far exceed those of attentive readers, lap up dramatisations of their compulsion. And now Portland-based underground auteur Antero Alli has given us The Alchemy of Sulphur.

Hope (Helia Rasti) is a narcissist: she takes those she knows for granted, lacks curiosity in others, and yet can’t help but seek attention. A writer spellbound by her own projections, she’s working on a short story, spurred by a deadline. But distraction hovers in the background. Hope’s lover Ben (Benjamin Ervin) is codependent: he strives in vain to change her. An Uber driver whose weak sense of self dovetails with Hope’s sense of specialness, he mirrors her emotional immaturity.

In contrast, Phineas (Douglas Allen) is a wise fictional character – a manifestation of Hope’s animus? (Archetypes often steal the limelight in Alli’s psychological films.) Hope writes herself into the story as Helen, a birder and mythologist who hopes to captivate Phineas, who remains, despite his interest, as sphinxlike as the real people who find Hope intriguing. A dendrologist, he studies trees. No humans intrude on Helen’s courtship with this thoughtful recluse, whose name in Hebrew means ‘oracle’. However, as Hope sits and writes in a forest, two passing witches, Calliope (Cynthia Schwell) and Callista (Sylvi Alli), feel drawn to make contact.

The Alchemy of Sulphur is Alli’s first feature created under pandemic conditions. After cancellation of the theatrical premiere of his last, The Vanishing Field (2020), he released it, and the rest of his diverse oeuvre, on YouTube. A move his cult following no doubt applauded, it seems to have renewed Alli. While his unique new film distils his strengths as a visionary, he’s curbed distracting stylistic habits.

How has the Covid factor affected Alli’s process? It hasn’t, at first glance; his defining concerns persist: the fluid relationship between waking and dreaming or conscious and unconscious states; the transformative power of sacred (as distinct from secular) ritual; the cyclic play of archetypes within human and broader nature, such as the muse, the sage, the trickster, the shaman and so on… In fact, if not for a few unobtrusive devices, Hope could be writing her story in the 1980s or ’90s (it’s far-fetched that any elite NY journal today would publish romantic fiction dense with arcane jargon and archaic diction yet light on irony). Has Alli retreated from a grim outer world to the realms of fantasy like another quirky auteur, Wes Anderson? But no: the oaks that preoccupy Phineas are dying.

Shooting a feature film on a shoestring during a pandemic no doubt takes more than usual resolve and resourcefulness. Realism. Yet Alli’s style tends towards the surreal; even, in some previous work, psychedelia. Still, 28 years of filmmaking may have mellowed him. His introspective romance benefits from a new restraint. Its more fantastic elements concern the central character, Hope. Never mind that she’s writing for the prestigious ArtLit, which magically transcends the atheistic identity politics deemed de rigueur in leading literary journals; what really strains credibility is her response to the dreaded ‘What do you do?’ Callista, bless her, doesn’t pursue the standard line of questioning. But the viewer is left to wonder how Hope earns money. Short stories today are more common than fallen leaves in a forest, while their authors outnumber sustainably grown plantation pines, and the fees paid for the fruits of their arduous labours make an Amazon warehouse worker’s wage look desirable.

So how does Hope survive? Arts grant? Crowdfunding? Investments? Inheritance? Codependent or not, Uber driver Ben can’t afford to support her. But Hope doesn’t need to be believable. No mere stereotype, she’s an archetype: Tortured Genius. Despite her self-unknowing, inspiration flows through her (while she tortures Ben). Historically, it’s an archetype more often associated with men, hence the stereotypically female muse (Dante’s Beatrice, Alice Liddell, Zelda Fitzgerald etc.). Alli shrewdly reverses the genders. The muse who sweeps Hope off her feet is unorthodox performer Keith (Douglas Allen), familiar from Alli’s last film. And there’s another reversal: the character, not the muse, appears first. Keith is familiar to Hope, too: Phineas sans beard. (Kudos to Alli for maximising his brilliance.)

Archetypes are scarce in mainstream scholarship today. While Freud, like Darwin and Marx, remains a founding father of modern thought, his far subtler successor, Jung, has been shelved in history’s storeroom. Mainstream psychology takes its cues from the DSM-5 (psychiatry’s bible). So narcissism, cut loose from myth, is now a mere ‘personality disorder’, even if it afflicts the West on a scale that overshadows Covid. Yet Alli’s outwardly innocent tale of a toxic relationship, paralleled by an allegory of treatment, proposes a cure for a scourge direr than any virus. Sulphur, the principle of alchemical fire, can be applied with lime to a blighted oak, or invoked to heal a sick psyche, to rekindle love and intimacy.

It’s ironic – when the film’s main character is a writer, for whom words presumably make or remake the world – that the most affecting scenes contain no dialogue. Yet Alli has flirted with writing fiction. ‘I don’t know what this book is,’ The Akashic Record Player (Falcon Press, 1988) begins. ‘It’s not a novel or an autobiography nor is it a self-help, how-to manual.’ A postmodern fusion of old/new-age myth, home-grown philosophy, fictionalised memoir, instructions for initiatory rites and a bonus interview with Harmonic Convergence catalyst José Argüelles, it’s naïve, clunky and corny at times, and yet much current literature seems uptight alongside it. In short, it’s not so different to, if less effective than, Alli’s films, where music and gesture bypass the rational mind. Could impatience with the limits of written language account for Hope’s fancying a dancer, and her deference to Calliope, whose forte is chanting?

For a director not just of film but the paratheatrical stage, and hence no stranger to improvisation, Alli can exhibit a paradoxical need to overexplain. He entrusts part of the job to Hope’s wordy third-person narrator: ‘What started as trifling flirtations now blossoms into her new identity as soror mystica, esoteric partner, and the great alchemical opus for healing the Tree of Life.’ Such solemnity sounds incongruous from the same mouth that utters ‘What? Done what? You’re annoying me again’ and ‘Wow. Just wow’ and ‘Fuck you, Ben! Get the fuck out of here!’ Nor does the didacticism stop there. Sometimes another voiceover accompanies Hope’s story: ‘After the royal merging of opposites, comes the nigredo, the black bile, the carbon blackening of the materia prima. What was once united must now be separated.’ Will viewers who miss Alli’s overt alchemical symbolism dig such cryptic exposition? While the occult arts employ formulas, the creative arts stagnate without risk. A self-taught filmmaker, Alli defied rules from the start. Could surrender to his growing edge offset his debt to mystic tradition?

The transformative processes with which alchemy is concerned are universal and eternal. But its medieval lingo survives mainly in libraries, depth psychology texts, the rarefied discourse of the consulting room and analytic training programs in Zurich. Why not let the magic of the moving image speak for itself? At the formal level, Alli makes good use of reversals. A duller director might shoot the present or waking life in colour and memories/dreams/fantasies in monochrome, yet Alli gives Hope’s fiction heightened hues, while her day-to-day plays out in black and white (switching this schema for a brief yet key sequence near the end). Given his ample visual vocabulary, why would fans need his themes spelled out? Is it akin to a freemason’s handshake – a nod to the initiated? Do the Muses want Alli’s films to remain exclusive, or are we seeing the intervention of an ego identity?

No artist can produce a piece of work – painting, film, short story, novella – that isn’t self-revealing; it’s really only a matter of degree. Externally imposed constraints (like genre conventions) or exercises in mimicry (pastiche, parody, mash-up etc.) can help to cover one’s tracks, ditto most forms of collaboration. But, in general, the more unique the approach and, therefore, the more inventive the artist, the more power their art has to expose them. Having now seen all of Alli’s features to date, an impressive variety spanning the political/personal spectrum, I’d rate The Alchemy of Sulphur as one of his more subjective. Which, by the way, isn’t a criticism.

Wary or tired of probing analyses and critiques, let alone typically dumb assumptions, writers are known for hiding self-disclosure behind a gender or generation other than their own. Is Alli, an offbeat Jungian boomer, projecting his anima onto Hope (like, say, Woody Allen with the star of Annie Hall) or is Hope instead his female stand-in? No bona fide Jungian could give a definitive answer; as with a dream, each character in a film – including an oak grove, a pathogen or a painting of thirteen moons – symbolises an aspect of its creator’s psyche. But that’s the stuff of analysis. If all artists understood their motivation, some of the world’s greatest masterpieces would have been abandoned unfinished, or never even attempted. Alli thrives on the romance, the enchantment, of the creative process.

A novelist and short-story writer subject to wild flights of passion, DH Lawrence once wrote in a sober moment: ‘The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.’ His meaning emerges on reading the better-known line that precedes it: ‘Never trust the artist, trust the tale.’ Lawrence saw the two as opposed. Yet if a muse inspires the tale, isn’t art an act of translation? Some translators, for better or worse, leave more of a personal stamp on their work – such as Alli’s interpretive voiceover: ‘This alchemy of sulphur, this transformation by fire, brings to life what it does not destroy.’ The fact that he’s right and this wisdom could benefit forestry, love etc. doesn’t leave viewers much room to make their own meaning.

Working as a film and TV extra in my twenties, I got to observe a range of directors, casts and crews on set. Typically, the bigger the production (and its budget), the less cohesion and chemistry I saw. Filming on a smaller scale supported improvisation, perhaps because it fostered deeper intimacy and trust. Which seems to go for Alli and co. His repeat involvement with some of the same performers and technicians suggests a shared vision. As always, Sylvi Alli’s versatile genius entrances; Alli’s films tend to showcase a range of underrated talents. If at times a track’s duration induces the sensation of watching a feature-length music video, leaving the narrative hanging, it’s clear he understands the psychoactive power of sound.

Yet while small, close-knit groups favour unity, they can lack objectivity (take cults). And for artists prone to magical thinking, negative feedback too early in a creative journey can derail the alchemical opus. The conflicting interests or values that plague large groups can enhance perspective. At times, I wanted Hope’s allies (the whole cast) to resist her. The only critical voice she hears is the whining of her boyfriend, the sub in their relationship. As conflicts go, it’s pretty tame and Hope continues to get her own way. Even when another man declines her advances, it’s nothing personal; she makes a new friend. And hey, she can always fall back on Ben. In fact, all of Alli’s characters seem too evolved to be representative. (Are they meant to set an example? Even his extras look deep.) Hope might be self-obsessed but she’s benign. I’m reminded of being at parties where most of the guests are therapists.

Granted, Covid has helped to sort people into camps, whether due to lockdown or a primal fear of otherness or opportunistic government propaganda etc. Yet conflict is integral to harmony. Not to downplay inspiration, but exemplary wisdom gains meaning from the folly that surrounds or precedes it. The hero of Alli’s last film, The Vanishing Field, yearns to escape and return to the Earth plane under more ideal conditions. Self-indulgent drivel? But, after meeting his mom, who wouldn’t forgive him? In contrast, Hope’s character lacks a background. Why does she write? Self-expression? Therapy? Craving approval? Saving the planet?

Healing for Hope – who, like all writers, dwells overly in her head – means coming down to earth, having finished her story on time, to encounter creation at its most primal. And yet the film’s climax occurs beyond the scope of Hope’s consciousness when the figures of Phineas and Keith merge. A scene where Alli applies special effects with uncommon success, it gains more power from wordlessness. And so the lyrics in the song that follows feel redundant. Alli often seems challenged with regard to striking a balance between action (such as it is) and music. And yet artistic and technical struggles play an integral part in the creation of anything truly new; and maybe this rawness, in our slickly medial world, has real potential to touch viewers.

Despite Alli’s illustrious influences, his project was always destined for the obscurity of the fringe. Since releasing his first feature, The Oracle, in 1993, he’s been documenting a subculture that (unlike, say, transness, which speaks to an obsession with identity) counters our culture’s trajectory. As recently as the ’90s, though by then it was already too late, the new-age movement clung to visions of an enlightened future. How many of its prophets foresaw the rise of corporate tyranny, the suppression of dissent across the global network on which we depend?

And yet the rarefied world of Alli’s characters points to a more substantial reality than the empty-image limbo the masses inhabit. Only those who’ve lost touch with or never developed an inner life (call it what you like: spirit, soul or the psyche) can be coerced into trading their birthrights for a fantasy of entitlement. Alli’s vision typically reaches beyond materiality to a timeless, unrestricted zone forever on hand to inspire those of us out of step with, or awake to more than, the zeitgeist.

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