A piece of work like The Severing, from eclectic filmmaker Mark Pellington, defies critical review, but it’s very much open to—and invites—thoughtful interpretation. A 70-minute cathartic movement exploration that serves as an experimental form of dance as a nearly perverse ballet, it’s like nothing most people will have likely seen before, or will perhaps see again.
Born from intensely personal corners of the creators’ imaginations, and filled with images that induce a sense of dread and paranoia, the film is a study of bodies in turmoil, and how an artist then filters grief and loss through their artistic spectrum. “I’d been making independent films in Hollywood for 20 years, and traditional narrative cinema was not the right vessel to share this particular story of loss I’d experienced and needed to express,” says Pellington.
Inspired by Wim Wenders’ 3D dance opus Pina, Pellington was interested in conveying feelings through “a story of movement and text, rather than plot, capturing emotion and physicality on an experiential, non-linear, entirely visceral level. There’s an abstract story at work, found in the movements of bodies and souls,” he says.
Which is a natural fit for the visually expressive storyteller, who came to prominence in the 1980’s and 1990’s as an influential and very stylish music video director; he’s worked with Pearl Jam, U2, Alice in Chains, Nine Inch Nails, Bruce Springsteen, Demi Lovato, and many others. “I had always been interested in exploring the worlds of movement and dance, through music videos and other pieces in the past. I had previous experiences in working with dancers, but not in a traditional ballet manner, more in a primal way. I did a Damian Marley video in Miami recently which showed the physicality of what dance brings about, and I’ve done some research into how the body holds and processes trauma, and how that’s related to a person’s inner voice,” says Pellington.
Jumping into features seemed a natural fit for the gifted filmmaker, and he made an immediate impression with his American Graffiti-esque debut, the 1997 indie Going All the Way, before finding mainstream success with a pair of well-reviewed, financially successful, and influential genre thrillers: 1999’s Arlington Road and 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies.
And then, life took a different turn—the unexpected loss of his wife, Jennifer Barrett Pellington, in 2004, an event that has clearly influenced his work ever since.
Grief, single parenting, and the act of not being asked to helm super-expensive superhero films can change a filmmaker’s course. Over the last 15 years, Pellington has remained fiercely independent and has sought to make very specific and personal pieces of cinema, including 2008’s Henry Poole is Here, 2011’s I Melt With You, 2017’s The Last Word, and 2018’s Nostalgia, which is the one film that bears the closest resemblance to The Severing.
But the similarities are only in theme, and not presentation. And it’s become very clear that Pellington is an artist who’s interested in working in any format, and in showing how people experience loss through vivid cinematic tableaux.
The Severing started initially as a music video, but then took on much larger dimensions as the creative process started to flex its considerable muscles. “I was doing a speed metal video for a band called Sacred Reich, and I told them I would do some videos for them, if they’d let me do something with one of their songs. That particular song wasn’t on the top of their list to do a video for, so I told them, let me do these other things for you, but let me have this one song, because I have this idea for something special,” says Pellington.
The band’s song, and how it inspired Pellington as an artist, cemented his need to express himself in a very unique way, and when the filmmaker determined that there was something even larger that was possible, he knew that the journey would likely be rewarding in unexpected ways.
So, Pellington sought out two collaborators he felt were essential to the project. Working with world-renowned choreographer Nina McNeely (Climax) and Dutch cinematographer Evelin van Rei, Pellington crafted something frightening and hallucinatory, showcasing a visual and sonic flow that works to put the viewer in a spell. “When I saw the Gaspar Noe film, Climax, and saw the incredible choreography and movement in that, which was less J-Lo and Busby Berkeley, and more uniquely the engineered expression of assaultive, physical movement, I knew I needed to do something in that vein. Sometimes, the more intellectually-based narrative expression of loss, which I’d done in music videos and did backhandedly in some films like Nostalgia, is there to be explored, but this was a different way of seeing it,” says Pellington.
Right away, McNeely and van Rei responded with interest. “I reached out to Nina, and surprisingly, she was a fan of my work, and we agreed that we had to do something together. I told her my story about loss and grief, and I gave her the song. And I said—here’s my idea. Sometimes, it’s very hard to re-connect to the world when you’ve experienced tragedy. I was very honest with her—I never re-married—and sometimes when you’re grieving, you feel disconcerted from yourself. You’re going through a very traumatic thing, and she totally got it, and she understood what the feeling was for me that I wanted to achieve,” says Pellington.
McNeely put together a group of dancers, and brought in Blake Armstrong, a well-respected body painter and make-up artist. “I wanted the performers to feel like paintings or wild animals, and Blake just went from there, and gave them flesh colored stockings, and painted them and we let them do their thing.”
Van Reis, an up-and-coming lenser with a striking sense of composition, was someone that Pellington discovered on Instagram, taking an immediate liking to her style and sensibilities. “I just fell in love with her work. She’d done some shorts and videos and commercials, so I reached out to her, and we connected, and I asked her to do this no-budget project. She had visa issues, and couldn’t get paid, but asked to be put up in a nice hotel room. So, of course, we did that. We brought her out to Los Angeles, and we shot down on a stage in south central L.A. No major lights—one hand-held light and one bulb—I knew it was her style and vibe when it came to photography,” says Pellington, who adds that “almost everything was natural light.”
Shooting the bizarre and haunting sequences for the film required the crew to move about in the environment, using different performers in certain spots, so as to create a sense of rhythm and flow for the piece as a whole. “We went from one room to the next, and Nina would bring in the appropriate dancers, for singles and group work, and I gave them some very brief, mostly physical-related direction—‘go to that corner or that corner of the room’—and we just shot it with a crew of five or six people. No dollies, no trucks. We played the metal song and then just let them do their thing. Nina gave them a little bit of creative direction, but the dancers really interpreted the material in their own way, from within themselves, their souls, which was part of the intention,” says Pellington.
But then, something funny happened on the way to the forum. After putting together the video, there was still a desire to craft something of even more substance and importance. “I had all this footage, and my brilliant editor, Sergio Pinheiro and I, we really started to admire all of the little things that the dancers did to bring out their performances. The way someone would tilt their head in one shot, or move their arms or legs in the next—it was startling to see all of the pieces in the shape of their dances, the elements that made up each image,” says Pellington. So, a longer cut was crafted, with a much different approach to the musical landscape taken, resulting in a dreamy and hypnotic viewing experience that also has the power to unnerve the audience in subversive ways.
The 70-minute version features an ambient, near-humming-esque musical accompaniment, which was created by Gas, Tomandandy, Big Black Delta, and John Avarese. And because the various dancers were so in tune with what they were doing during filming, their staccato movements, in conjunction with the moody and shadowy photography, helps to create a sense of unease, with quiet menace lurking around the corner.
“Courtney Scarr, who was our primary dancer, her character is really going through this intense sense of struggle, and I wanted the entire piece to feel very free-form in its environment and atmosphere. After doing the short-form video for it, I realized that it could be turned into something larger and possibly more profound for the audience. I laid it all out with Sergio and then presented some ideas and thoughts to him on text cards. At one point, I even thought about a whole other narrative strand to tie into the images, but it didn’t feel natural. It’s really something that’s experimental and avant garde, and I didn’t want to impose any sense of normal rules onto something that’s clearly quite different from the norm,” says Pellington.
Once finished, the next step was to get people to see the endeavor. “I submitted it to SXSW, and they loved it, but didn’t know how to program it, and that was the same response the film got from a few other places,” says Pellington. And, to be fair, it is a challenging piece of cinema that Pellington and his team have come up with; it’s something that directly defies any sense of the traditional while asking the viewer to immerse themselves in imagery that some might feel will be "too much" or too intense for their personal headspace. In many respects, it feels like the ultimate art installation video program; it deserves to find a home where it can play on a loop for appreciative viewers.
But the team at the Slamdance Film Festival, an organization that’s always been dedicated to championing brave and boundary pushing efforts, took an immediate liking to the film, and have programmed it as a special Spotlight screening at their upcoming virtual festival, in late January.
“Peter Baxter, Paul Rachman, and the team at Slamdance totally understood what we were doing with this project, and I’m excited to have it premiere at this year’s event. It’s all about bringing some real momentum to the project, as we want to find a distributor who is in this space. We’ve also worked with some folks about turning the project into a VR piece or an immersive experience, with dance, audience participation, live music and text, but with COVID, for obvious reasons, something like this isn’t a current reality,” says Pellington, who does add that “we are still developing The Severing experience for a post-COVID world.”
The Severing is a bold piece of work, a film that was only created because the people involved absolutely had to make it, for both personal and creative reasons, and it’s the type of uncompromised vision where the audience can interpret it in many ways, and where there’s no “correct” or “wrong” way of reading into its expressive themes.
Pellington is ready for the next chapter of his career, wherever it takes him, as long as he can continue to create, and tell the stories he feels a burning desire to tell, whatever form it might be: video, dance, novel, theater, film. He understands mortality, and as such, his work reflects that sentiment. “We made this for nothing on a total shoe-string but with a strong sense of artistic purity about what we were making. I love to push the form, and over the years, I’ve become, like many of my peers, frustrated with the machinations of getting a film made in Hollywood. All throughout my career, I’ve been interested in shifting gears, and in this latter stage, exploring stories and images and ideas that deal with grief, identity, memory, and loss has been an exhausting yet satisfying stage. I’m only interested in work that speaks to me on a very personal and intimate level.’’
*Feature Photo: The Severing (2022)