Indie auteur Antero Alli makes films like no other. Each new offering can be counted on to surprise, emerging from his radical process with welcome frequency thanks to a tireless creative drive. And the singular vision he’s pursued for nearly three decades, impressively unswayed by cultural trends, has earned him a devoted alternative fan base. Understandably. Because where can a viewer averse to the dominant narrative turn in a world of increasingly shallow and derivative flicks, with even formulaic pleasures rapidly being debased as story development succumbs to a profit imperative intensified by entertainment media consolidation?
But first, let’s get the disclaimer out of the way. This is not a review, because I’m not a film reviewer – I rarely write about films because, in our culture of the spectacle, the film medium gets all the coverage it needs. So what am I? A writer and artist who happens to be a critical thinker too. So I’m not an all-out Alli fan – my demands as a viewer are too exacting. Truly great art, in my honest opinion, takes infinite patience and technical rigour, so a prolific output is bound to be hit and miss. Yet Alli’s work is so intriguing, never mind unique, that to do it justice calls for a considered critique.
A friend to whom I’ve recommended a few of Alli’s features has been underwhelmed in the past. Not so, with the last: ‘I found [The Alchemy of Sulphur] powerful. It took me sometime to understand what I was watching. When I understood it as a ritual and not a “film”, a documenting of inner world process and not entertainment, I got hooked. I would watch 20 minutes or so and let it work on me. I didn’t think about it like I do a film, it worked on me rather than me analysing it.’ I daresay Alli might enjoy this response. Isn’t that, deep down, beneath the ego, what all artists want? Isn’t our artistry really just a form of seduction, a means to the end of eliciting audience surrender? Because viewers come to a film with habitual defences – even ardent fans, if less so than most.
But let’s cut to the chase. We first meet the tracer of the title (Douglas Allen) as he pops a new designer drug. Enhancing remote viewing, C-9 reveals his target’s dreams. So this psychic mafia hit man spends much of his onscreen time confined to a Portland hotel room, lying on a bed while his carefully gauged dose takes effect or gazing wackily at his moustachioed reflection. Allen, the brilliant dancer in Alli’s last two films, here displays a comic bent and keeps us guessing. Why does he have a bad back? Is his mangled Russian accent intended?
Alli’s films seldom, if ever, conform to genre expectations – with, perhaps, the exception of the hybrid genre he’s created over the course of a highly inventive filmmaking career. Yet he bills Tracer as ‘noir suspense’. And noir applies, given that Tracer probes the dark side of the psyche. Leo (Rick Wilding), whose journey provides the narrative arc, hides a secret of which his son, returned backpacker Erik (Benjamin Ervin), knows nothing. Not so, his wife and Erik’s mother, Corinna (Ellen Pinney). The women in Tracer hold the wisdom, share old trauma, bear witness – a recurring theme through Alli’s work – while the men seem irresponsible, self-unaware, blind to consequences. Conscious of the outer world, asleep to the inner, they depend on drugs to enter altered states, whether for settling scores, like the tracer, soul-searching in Leo’s case, or, for aimless Erik, recreation.
Yet, though noir sums up the plot and mood, Alli employs trippy special effects that undercut the suspense his soundtrack generates. And Allen’s zany portrayal of the tracer doesn’t help. But conventional suspense seldom factors in Alli’s storytelling. He often evokes its opposite, using images and music to induce a trance in the viewer, a meditative state. Instead of holding my breath, I find it slowing and deepening. Forget the cheap thrills of the visceral.
And besides, another kind of suspense, less reliant on editing, derives from planting unanswered questions in the viewer’s mind. Why is the hitman pursuing Trumpist Leo? What unfinished business causes Leo’s recurring dream of trying to bury a dead man then fleeing? Apparently Leo – ‘Moondog’ – once led a secret life. What fateful mistakes did he make? And on a more minor scale, why cover a corpse with fallen leaves that the smallest puff of wind will blow away? If the idea here is that, hard as we may try to hide our shameful behaviour, forces beyond our control can expose us, it beats the overt symbolism Alli often favours. Subtle or ambiguous imagery seems better designed to impact the mind of the viewer subliminally.
Alli has a knack for eliciting deeply felt and compelling performances from gifted non-actors: the female lead in The Book of Jane and the male lead in The Vanishing Field are just two whose characters still resonate. But the standout performer in Tracer, Kasia Caravello, brings talent, riveting onscreen presence and method training together. In her role as Polly, Erik’s ex, she’d still impress if the other performances weren’t uneven. Luckily, Alli’s bit players add value. Michael Streeter as Ivan, a Russian mafioso, does a better accent than Allen, while telling him: ‘Your American is better than mine.’ Unwitting irony? And Sage Reilly as the 8-Circuit Man, local distributor of C-9, with dazzle makeup and voice distortion to mask his identity, exudes more menace online than Allen’s antics can generate. West Ramsey as Deadman is underutilised too; his droll gesturing oozes professionalism.
Reprising his role from The Alchemy of Sulphur as clueless at relationships, Ervin as Erik convinces least; he often seems more conscious of the camera than of the other actors. His emotional range wavers between wonder and bewilderment, yet he says of his seven years overseas, ‘I felt like I became a different person in every country I visited.’ I didn’t believe him. If Alli works with Ervin again, which seems likely, it would be good to see him cast against type. Of the other leads, Wilding mostly succeeds; when he doesn’t, the awkwardness seems tied to wooden dialogue, while Pinney delivers a mixed performance, either moving and mesmerising or with the flat affect that antipsychotics can cause – ironic, when her backstory involves time in a psych ward, a world she’s long since left behind.
Psychiatric labels recur in Tracer. Both its female characters, Erik’s ex and mom, have at different times been misdiagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Rather, both are psychic: Polly channels a Polish ancestor while Corinna gives free clairvoyant readings, each having found meaning outside the repressive, medicalised Establishment. It’s rare that Alli tackles politics head-on, and Polly’s anti-patriarchal rants sound quaintly dated. Which doesn’t make his support for her cause any less genuine.
Having seen all of Alli’s features now (including, by chance, the premiere of his first), I wouldn’t say his MO varies hugely. Yet each new release informs his total vision – a spur to reinvent my approach to his work. Outsider art, aka art brut, might seem an odd comparison. Created beyond the margins of the dominant culture, and unknown until a century ago, it inspired the Surrealists (who inspired some of Alli’s icons). Typically self-taught, outsiders work apart from the mainstream. Yet Alli, while self-taught, is well acquainted, even intimate, with classic visionary cinema. And unlike psych patients who work in the dark, he’s geared for self-marketing. A number of his films even contain educational content. This one lists some chemical correspondences – MDMA, LSD, DMT, toad venom etc. – for the eight-circuit model of consciousness first devised by Timothy Leary, then subsequently elaborated by Robert Anton Wilson… and Alli, whose treatise on it is being read by the tracer in bed (cue close-up) just before he pops his highest dose to date of C-9 (Circuit 9).
At times, the symbolism can be heavy-handed, literally. A woman’s hand, presumably Corinna’s, lays out a tarot spread featuring the Devil, Death, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool, then gravitates back to Death. At other times, though, the overstated symbolism works a treat. Subtitled scenes – that’s how the dead speak – clearly don’t take themselves seriously, and we get sublime surrealism. Classic Alli.
‘It was a real reality hack,’ Leo says after trying C-9, when his son asks him what it was like, ‘a real wake-up call.’ Another response to Alli’s conspicuous symbolism might be to read the tarot arcana, the eight-circuit model etc., as clues to the underlying source code of reality – ergo, devices for hacking it. A theme running through most, if not all, of his films is the omnipresence of a meta-level reality that characters either access inadvertently, as with dreaming, or on purpose, through psychoactive substances and/or ritual. You too can try this at home, his films sometimes seem to be saying – one reason they deserve to be seen. (Another is the music, so integral to his vision, of various artists including the divine Sylvi Alli and himself, all worthy of far wider recognition.) As Alli writes in his vision statement: ‘Like many others, I have been concerned by the ubiquitous surveillance culture across the USA and beyond…’ And Big Tech isn’t just tracking us but hacking us, our consciousness, as more and more of life moves online. Easy enough to feel concern; harder to take action. Yet Alli is collaboratively offering an alternative: escape into reality vs. the way out paved by most screen entertainment.
But to come back to outsider art, what Alli shares with those original marginal visionaries – the real deal, not their clones showcased at international art fairs or in glossy coffee-table quarterlies – is rawness of expression, psychic immediacy. (For a stronger dose, see his more experimental shorts and most of his paratheatre video documents.) Tracer may not be vintage Alli, and yet, spanning such sensitive themes as family baggage and inheritance, it tells an engaging story. Which made me wonder about the more than usually open ending. Is this where viewers get to let their hair down, imaginatively speaking, after having had so much spelled out… or is Alli contemplating a sequel? The answer to that presumably hangs on the whims of the Muses.