In collaboration with the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Melika Bass' Creature Companion (2018) is showing exclusively on MUBI from July 2 - August 1, 2018 as part of the series Competing at Oberhausen.
Humans inhabit containers. Most intimately, our bodies are containers. Our daily jobs, and our mornings and nights are mostly spent inside boxes. When we leave those spots, we travel inside and into different containers—other houses, rooms, offices, cars, trains. My new experimental fiction film, Creature Companion, is a container too—a cinematic snow globe, bubbling on simmer. Like a lot of movies, it shows the exteriors of bodies and rooms and objects. It is also asking: what do these images and surfaces contain inside, what remains unknown, concealed underneath? How can cinema get at the interior of humans, when the whole apparatus is about capturing surfaces?
The two women featured in Creature Companion navigate their bodies, domestic spaces, and the world outside through maintenance, and a kind of training. What are they training for?
The approach to fiction in Creature Companion is anthropological and speculative, to slowly discover and construct a world with its own codes and habits. In the film, these human behaviors are familiar and strange, tasks that organize daily life. Some of my other films (Shoals, Waking Things, and the upcoming feature film The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast) approach narrative like this, not through plot but situation—cinematic worlds made from a collection of parts, inviting you to consider and float a multitude of possibilities, the basic story questions of who, what, when, where, why? Fiction in this dreamy zone embraces enigma and what-if, and summons the active viewer.
What are these women doing? Why are they seemingly obsessed with correctives? Why these allegiances with objects and spaces and clothing, trying on new and old routines, to reach a balance or satisfaction? What is it to try to move energy around inside the body or to shift it in space?
The three of us made Creature Companion, in a derived fashion—myself with Croatian performer Selma Banich and American performer Penelope Hearne. The expansive research lasted months, and then on-site rehearsing and shooting was fast, instinctual, and rigorously personal. As director-cinematographer, I worked intimately with the two extraordinary performers and a small crew. Behind the Super 16mm film camera, I performed the off-screen role as the ‘expert’ image-taker, gazing at human action, hunting for and framing figures in the mise en scène. This is an inevitable part of filmmaking’s power play, and a nod to the film’s early research into medical-social experiments.
Creature Companion began as an adventurous invitation from playwright/screenwriter David E. Tolchinsky to make a film inspired by a controversial historical figure, radical Austrian psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich, a troubled visionary who coined the term ‘orgone,’ referring to a volatile sexual or life-energy moving, and at-times blocked, inside all living things. Reich’s profound influence on what today might be called the Wellness and mind-body movements, as well as the cultural value of his radical social positions for the time (pro-contraception, pro-choice and pro-divorce rights in Europe in the 1930s, for starters) can’t be denied. But, like most patriarchal, historical cult-like figures, it didn’t take much research to gauge how Reich’s utopian ideals didn’t ethically jive with the manipulations of his methods and experiments.
Cinematically, there is already at least one great film about Reich—Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a wild and sprawling, elephantine masterpiece about W.R. Reich’s philosophies, interwoven with scenes from the political youth revolution in the former Yugoslavia.
Creature Companion wanted to be its own beast of a film, so we turned away from Reich as a direct subject, and instead used his ideas as a jumping-off point. Beyond the codes of pathology and language, we slowly encircled something more visceral and private, and carved out a femme-feminist response.
For this project, I took my cinephiliac cues from a vast and wonderful tradition of female filmmakers making movies about entrapment and freedom in private and public spaces. Just a few of many: Chick Strand, Chantal Ackerman, Maya Deren, Rachel Athina Tsangari, and Lucrecia Martel; plus one great poet, Alice Notley, whose voice centers the film into a shifting prism of longing and laboring.
Dave Tolchinsky and Dan Silverstein co-produced the project, Hannah Simon Kim co-edited it, Casey Puccini co-shot it, Mathew Paul Jinks recorded the woozy summer soundscape, Lou Mallozzi mixed the sound, Colin Brant loaded and cleaned all the S16mm film magazines with an exciting and deliberate rotation of multiple Kodak film stocks (for a pulsing shifting energy-palette of grain and color), and Warren Cockerham held everything together with his glowy orgone lighting and assistant direction.
Creature Companion had its World Premiere at the 64th Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen in May 2018, where it garnered a Special Mention from the International Jury. The jury’s statement about the film gets at its spirit:
"Domestic space, both its intimacy and its violence, has become one of the pressing political subject-matters of our times...This film combines aesthetics and politics by way of a choreography of indiscipline and insubordination.”