For every Gus Van Sant, Kelly Reichardt and Todd Haynes, each of them residing in Portland, there’s several dozens of other virtually unknown filmmakers working around the fringes in Oregon. It’s a state with a strong, if still burgeoning, independent film scene. This writer, still relatively fresh to the area (not quite two years an inhabitant), has yet to see a locally produced narrative film (not including any from the aforementioned names of course) that’s stood out from a relatively crowded pack. Most tend to follow the modern indie format of 20 or 30-something malaise or “Portlandia”-esque hipster satire, to varying degrees of success.
With “How the Fire Fell,” an abstract, minimalist portrait of the true events surrounding the Brides of Christ religious cult, director Edward P. Davee has debuted with a strong first effort that’s a breath of fresh air. The film shows promise for Davee, who also edited and wrote the film. To say he marches to the beat of his own drum doesn’t beign to explain it; Davee appears to have thrown out the drumsticks. Perhaps we’re overvaluing a film that’s simply different from the pack, but we implore any of the film’s viewers, whether you live in Oregon or not, to deny there’s a strong vision on screen.
The film is based on true events, taking place between 1903 and 1906 in Corvallis, Oregon, when O.V. Hurt (played with quiet reserve and stoicism by David Poland) is already apprehensive about his family’s loyalty to a fervent new preacher in town. Known as Edmund Creffield, and played by Joe Haege, he is a coiled-up ball of religious over-zealotry, constantly sermonizing and gathering the flock and generally getting all fire-and-brimstone on anyone who’ll listen. His teachings stress the importance of complete spiritual devotion and perfection. He also insists on total separation from non-believers, which leads to the creation of a cult, and the slandering of O.V. as an unholy man who is then cast out by his family.
It is Haege’s performance that left us wanting more here. We never got much of a sense of charisma from the man, which makes it hard to understand why people were so willing to follow him. The relatively new actor (of the awesome Portland indie rock band Menomena, as well as Tu Fawning and 31 Knots), with only one other film credit to his name thus far (“Field Guide to November Days”), can certainly bring the fury, but where’s the charm? The seduction to this lifestyle and its leader was captured more successfully and made clearer, for instance, in another recent film that examines cult experiences, the excellent and unfairly Oscar-snubbed “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
But it’s Davee and DP Scott Ballard who are the stars of “How the Fire Fell,” and the reason it’s worth seeking if and when it receives some sort of proper distribution. That’s not to leave out the excellent work by Haege who does double duty as composer, often conjuring elements of the creepy string sections of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The look of the film, with its austere high contrast black and white photography and tunnel vision lens effects, could be the cinematographic love child of “The White Ribbon” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” if you’re able to imagine such a thing. The camera is constantly trying to keep Haege in frame, implying nothing could box in such a passionate man. Even if it occasionally seems as though the cameraman has drifted off to sleep, this tactic works well.
The visuals, lack of dialogue (it’s damn near a silent film for most of the running time), and score evoke a distinct mood and atmosphere. This is dark sensualist filmmaking, relying on drawn out scenes in slow motion, often obscured behind a window or other barriers. The avant-garde storytelling is actually not unlike Steve McQueen’s excellent “Hunger.” The films are quite different, but what they share is a knack for evoking a specific time and place, mostly through atmosphere and visuals. You won’t learn a lot about these people or this time, but you will feel transported into a sort of tone poem dreamlike ambience.
“How the Fire Fell” is a film that can suck in the viewer. We are asked to not sympathize with Creffield, but at least understand him. Did he deserve his fate? Given the evidence presented in the film, it’s more complicated than a simple yes or no vote, regardless of your beliefs or lack thereof. Even with his mostly cold approach to his subject Davee manages to pull off some emotional heft, especially in the final twenty minutes, where the film really hits its stride. When we finally hear Poland get a chance to speak in the film’s heartbreaking final scene, he says “I beg of you to consider every angle of this unfortunate series of events.” It’s a fitting piece of advice. [B]