Mark Pellington’s Song of Grief and Loss

Grief and loss sever us from ourselves, others, and the external world which amplifies trauma, transforms it into chaos void of core coherence and meaning. As we all sooner or later learn, meaning is absent from the outside, and if any at all can be found, we must confront and explore the private universe of emotionally charged consciousness.

Emptiness shuts out flesh, but the flesh does not shut out emptiness.

Director Mark Pellington’s Prologue hovers over a primal male (Ryan Spencer) reaching into darkness bordered by a bare wall:

All of us move,
Invisible to each other,
And our selves . . .
We move like lemmings
We show off, we pose, we preen
We hide,
Inside our
Own self.


The light

The place where the abstract meets the visceral is the floor; the down place . . . the only thing you can count on. The dead immensity of Earth. The dancers’ each move is expressive to the finest degree, frequently edited into stuttering apprehension and unease over the potential union — or severing — of forms. Of repetition. The muscularity of female and male belies a common reality: inside, we’re equals in suffering. No exemptions.

The Severing isn’t a passive viewing experience — that’s impossible, and crucial to the 70-minute feature’s nearly overwhelming affect, and Courtney Scarr’s face, beseeching, or yearning, filling the screen as if about to emerge. Clamping a hand over her gaping mouth — as if to stifle a scream, or a sob, or fragment of impotent language. Perhaps an outburst slicing empty air but targeting an old wound. I wasn’t merely watching a performance, but surging with emotion as raw and bleak as the industrial space itself, captured brilliantly by Dutch cinematographer Evelin van Rei: concrete block, floor flaking red, black, and pale, suggestive of blood, bone and, perhaps, ultimate biological decay. An enclosure lighted sparsely via bunker-like rectangular slots, vacated only later by the two dancers retreating into another room, and hall, terminating in a door.

The inescapable organic fragility owes much to body painter Blake Armstrong, streaks and blotches like bruising, mirroring those of the floor and walls. The Severing isn’t so much describable as either film or mere entertainment as it is active experience — you’re living it, feeling instead of thinking. In fact, the piece is an antidote to thinking and stressful abstraction . . . you will be moved, you will cry.

Enhancing Nina McNeely’s stunning choreography is music by Gas, Tomandandy, Big Black Delta, and John Avarese, fusing gentle, bubbling murmurs with — at times — an undertow of grinding, droning electronica that manages both to soothe and disturb. Opening into a warm rush of oceanic ambience.

Infrequent titles and text hover like visual whispers: Isolation . . . when someone is talking about love . . . Isolation and love . . . Yes? . . . Talking to the souls in the floor . . . An online argument . . . dissonance and retreat . . . .

Sometimes, we seem not at all related to our thoughts . . . but instead physical manifestations of their profound turmoil and force.

Through dealing with loss and grief, Mark Pellington finds his greatest strength, envisions and creates his profoundly human, healing and redemptive art.

I’m grateful to director Mark Pellington, and Annie Jeeves — Founder and Publicist at Cinematic Red PR — for offering me this experience.

The Severing will be premiering at Slamdance January 28, 2022

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