As a post-script to my recent review of Idaho’s You were a dick, I’d recommend devoting a few minutes of your time to the short film, ‘The Serpent and the Shadow,’ which comes with it, and which is now available on the internet. It’s written and directed by Idaho’s Jeff Martin, with beautiful cinematography by Kristina Schulte-Eversum. I’ve returned to it a dozen times since first watching it last week. There’s something very unsettling about the combination of the sparse soundscape and enigmatic narrative. It’s strangely compelling.
Martin and his collaborators seem to have been reading some interesting things (perhaps Carl Jung, or the Tibetan book of the Dead?) because the story is littered with symbolism about possessions, technology, burden, and the duality of the self. The film opens as a man (played by Martin himself) drives a vintage Alfa Romeo around Los Angeles. His purpose and destination are unknown, but he is accompanied by some literal and figurative baggage on the passenger seat. He stops at a coffee shop, staring at the bag across the table. Schulte-Eversum gives us two uncanny glimpses of the bag – which may or may not move, its hard to discern. The effect is created, I think, by the eliding of the top of the bag with the back of a customer’s head. This sounds banal, but the effect is rather creepy.
Martin returns to the car – passing another man clutching an identical bag – and begins to drive once more around the city. It is now infused with golden light, and beginning to look eerily de-populated. The car radio signal fizzles out, the way ahead is a blocked by a series of dead-ends, and then the car itself appears to die. Martin departs on foot, paper bag clutched tightly. Though a montage of shots we see Martin traversing the cityscape, looking increasingly uncertain of his purpose. Soon the bag droops in his grasp.
Events take over. Martin is hit by a van, and helped aboard by the driver. As he recovers his senses, he realises that the driver has appropriated his watch. A struggle for the bag ensues. The outcome is unclear: the van heads into darkness; there is an argument, a moment of stillness – and then Martin’s character emerges from a tunnel, into early evening light. The bag appears to have gone. Martin looks at the camera and Schulte-Eversum provides the closest thing to a visual ‘twist’ that I’ve ever seen in such an impressionistic, elusive film. It takes the form of a fleeting shot of an ambiguous grin. The image is cut to blackness, right on the cusp of its taking shape. The indeterminate smile is the source of the film’s compelling qualities: has he been robbed? Is he relieved and unburdened? Or has he just pulled an elaborate trick on the van driver? Back to the start, and the snake is eating its own tail …