***/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
directed by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp
by Sydney Wegner Earth is so full of tiny things, an infinite variety of life. You might step on fifty species you've never heard of on your walk to work, and most of us will spend our lives in ignorance of these obscure wonders. But for every known organism, one can safely assume there is a fan club somewhere devoted to studying it. The Creeping Garden wants to share that devotion with the world while attempting to answer the all-important question: Who are these fanatics, and why do they care? Says co-director Tim Grabham on the Blu-ray's commentary track, "What is a slime mould?...It depends on who you are and what you're looking for," an offhand musing that could have been the film's tagline. Above all, this is a documentary about looking.
Though there is a vague air of desperation around this laser-focused dedication, a yearning to connect with and pin down the inexplicable world around us, there is always a childlike awe at its centre. The Creeping Garden is as interested in the drive of obsession and the human mind as it is in its stated subject: the slime mould, an organism that isn't quite a fungus and isn't quite a mould, but a sort of plant amoeba whose classification among the rest of Earth's creatures remains under debate. It's easy to see why it's captured the interest of so many people, because when footage of its movements are sped up, it seems to breathe and slither as it expands to search for food. It's difficult not to try applying some kind of connection to us, as there is an animal-like quality that implies feeling or intelligence, the same way sinister motives seem to exude from carnivorous plants.
The film begins with an old black-and-white news clip in which the anchor reports that a strange blob has been discovered in several Texas backyards. Between the eerie music and our first glimpse of the gloopy organism, I expected a dingy drive-in movie vibe that would treat the slime with detached curiosity. What I got instead was a hypnotic and sensitive ambient work. Although Jim O'Rourke's sci-fi inspired score can be unsettling, the cast of talking heads, with their calm voices and gentle nerdy presence, is so peaceful that even in their excitement they seem serene. It appears that they have all found bliss in their work, that this little blob has brought them a purpose nothing else could satisfy. Through these science and art geeks, the significance of the organism is explored, with The Creeping Garden's front half focused mainly on the organic and its back half on the mechanical.
The early interviewees are an amateur enthusiast, an artist, and an expert on fungi. Mark Pragnell, the enthusiast, embodies the spirit of discovery. He wanders the forest, intently searching under leaves and logs for moulds to photograph, perfectly content to hunch over his flashlight and stare at the ground. Introducing us to him right at the start was an inspired move. Instead of opening with a stuffy expert, the film welcomes the audience with an idea that will be revisited over and over again: scientists, amateurs in particular, work out of pure love. And so, all you need to be a scientist is to be in love. Heather Barnett has employed slime mould in her art, using oats (their favourite food) to encourage them to grow through mazes so she can create animations. Barnett loves her mould, and is committed to reaching out and getting others involved (a chunk of screentime is dedicated to her gallery exhibit and crowd-participation performance art). She mentions that she's taken petri dishes with her on vacations to feed and care for them, and like the others we meet, she displays a fondness not unlike what one would have for a pet. Interviewed in her studio, she also shows off a few older pieces that revolve around the human body.
If there is any question as to how she jumped from her body to mould, the filmmakers have filled in the gap. Throughout The Creeping Garden there are close ups of hands turning book pages, shots of people's eyes as they speak or peer through microscopes, their pupils dilated. The subjects are photographed with a rich sense of their environment, with details like a laptop on a desk surrounded by other papers and objects lending a homey context. It's striking how often these settings mimic the topic; a man walks through a warehouse full of boxes like mould wandering a maze, and the colours green and yellow appear frequently in both organic and inorganic materials. (As stated in the directors' commentary, this echoing was a happy coincidence.) Strands of mould are juxtaposed with the veins in a human eye, and there are frequent appearances of insects crawling through the nature photography.
Everything is happily coexisting, and it is this idea of symbiosis that convinces the viewer not only that this creepy growth has value, but also that humans are truly a part of the earth. In a segment about the "Fungarium," a fungi specimen storage facility in London's Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, our guide, fungal expert Bryn Dentinger, shows us a box of drawers in which a kind patron has classified and preserved many mould specimens. Dentinger says that he didn't even know the box was there until he was contacted by the documentarians. As he opens drawers of tiny boxes containing tiny, dried-up moulds and tiny, perfect handwritten labels, one senses that a main attraction of this little creature is in discovering it. It's as if the person who finds it bestows upon himself an immortality of sorts: I noticed this; I have shown you that it exists; therefore I exist.
Act two is all about experimentation and application. An interview with author Tim Boon, an authority in the history of how science and cinema have intersected, will be of particular interest to film nerds. He demonstrates a Victorian-era projector and talks about time-lapse pioneer Percy Smith, paving the way for the transition into a focus on technology and the practical possibilities of slime. Andy Adamatzky, a professor who has studied slime moulds extensively, has used them to simulate roadways and building-escape routes, and even put together a musical contraption that apparently implies these things may actually have feelings. Furthering the shift into a more left-brained aesthetic is a Skype interview with researcher Jeff Jones, the lo-res graphics of his computer-simulated slime mould activity mirroring nicely with his pixellated face. Glitchy distortion was artificially added here to enhance the effect.
But though there is beauty in this eerie virtual sci-fi segment, my concentration started to wane. The film appears to want to convince us of why it's interesting, to provide a logical reason for being infatuated with something so seemingly inconsequential--but they've already proven their point with the previous half, as the line running through the whole of The Creeping Garden is how humans connect to nature in different ways. It's all fascinating stuff, yet in trying to justify itself, the movie begins to veer into the ridiculous--can't an organism be worth study just for being what it is? When it's applied to something like, say, music, the result is interesting but dangerously close to pretentious. While there is as much beauty in the computer mechanisms as there is in the art, it's hard to fully invest in these exercises without wondering if these folks simply have too much time on their hands. The views of experiment set-ups lack the power of the footage of mould growing free and wild, whether pouring over surfaces or bubbling up from within a tree. Confined to a plastic box, it's almost sad, and it was upon realizing this that I became halfway convinced these things really did have little personalities.
After winding off on its biocomputing tangents, the film comes back around to nature, with artist Barnett exploring the woods and gently lifting samples from a tree. It then closes with a continuation of the same old news footage from the beginning. The anchor has a follow-up report, in which the mysterious gunk is revealed as a simple fungus, merely one of God's bizarre creatures and not something that crawled out of a fallen asteroid. It's a clever way to wrap things up, because the anchor seems a tad disappointed that it's just another weird thing you'd find under any old rock. Clearly, that's exactly the point. Look under enough rocks, respect all of nature's inhabitants, and you, too, could find some goo that can play the piano and give your life purpose.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Arrow Academy's 2.35:1, 1080p transfer of The Creeping Garden is really beautiful, for the most part. The time-lapse sequences stand out for their vivid colours and supernatural clarity; I would have gladly watched 90 minutes of this footage set to music with no further embellishment. The lighting of the more standard interview stuff is soft and pleasant, though sometimes it's been digitally altered so that it looks as though it's passed through an Instagram filter. Additionally there are some odd choices with regards to blurring and focusing, some of which looks artificial, but these are not the fault of the transfer. The uncompressed stereo audio track is similarly good, doing the eerie power of Jim O'Rourke's work justice. The Limited Edition release comes with a CD of the score, two 17-minute tracks of dreamy ambient music mixed with bizarre bubbling and twanging sound effects. Divorced from context, the care put into layering these creepy noises and making music out of them is impressive. I can't imagine it being too appealing for non-music nerds, as it's not the type of thing you just throw on at a party or in your car. In fact, the only appropriate time to listen to it might be while lying on your floor spaced-out with headphones on to scare the hell out of yourself. Still, I appreciate that they went the extra mile to highlight Jim O'Rourke's contribution to the film.
Comprising the special features are a few featurettes, a photo gallery, The Creeping Garden's trailer, and a commentary track with directors Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp. Two short documentaries focus on Eduardo Reck Miranda, one of the interviewees from the film. "Biocomputer Music" (6 mins., HD) is an expansion of his experiments with slime mould and music, as well as a non-slime-related project (a system of computers and electrodes that reads the brainwaves of people with severe motor impairments and allows them to compose music). Another two HD shorts--"Return to the Fungarium" and "Feeding Habits of Physarum"--consist of extra interview material that didn't make it into the finished film. Each runs around 2-3 minutes and both are compelling enough to make me wish there was more. "Angela Mele's Animated Slime Moulds" (3 mins., HD) presents a sequence of illustrations that were used for the end credits without text, a nice addition. Finally, there's "cinema iloobia short films" from co-director Grabham, three pieces of macro photography that show the director's inclination towards nature as horror. Two are boring and one is pretty gross, but, hey, no hard feelings.
Grabham and Sharp's commentary track is lively and enjoyable. There is no background sound from the movie, so it's a bit like listening to a podcast accompanied by nice scenery. (Seeing the film this way added a lot to my appreciation of certain visual choices.) The discussion is evenly balanced between the themes they were attempting to address (including but not limited to: how to communicate abstract scientific ideas through art, the difference between art and science, and their personal relationships with the organisms), as well as filming techniques and behind-the-scenes stories. You can also feel, through the movie itself and their stories about it, their own slow descent into slime fanaticism. If nothing else, their clear enthusiasm for the project reinforces the sense of joy in shared obsession. An insert booklet comes with the "first pressing" of the disc but wasn't supplied with our review copy.