In film, racking focus isn’t just left to the cinematographer. The viewer undergoes a similar process of recognition. Each film begins in that fruitful gap of unknowing where characters and elements are as raw as a passerby on the street, their drama completely alien. Opening today at Anthology Film Archives in New York, The Anchorage, from filmmakers C.W. Winter and Anders Edström, never really leaves this zone. It relishes it, and formulates a clever illusion based partly on the value placed on sight.
Edström, who lives and works as a photographer in Tokyo, is originally from Sweden; Winter is a writer and filmmaker from Southern California. The two met by chance in a Berlin bar and decided later to collaborate on short films. The Anchorage is their first full-length feature and won the Golden Leopard Award at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival. The idea for The Anchorage came about when the two were making a short documentary on lichen at Edström’s mother’s home on an island off the Baltic. In their off-time, she told a compelling story about feeling insecure in her house when an unknown hunter was on the island.
The elements that comprise The Anchorage are simple: It was filmed with a skeleton crew; shot on 16mm; the protagonist, Ulla, is played by Edström’s mother; the total cast is only four and there is barely any dialogue. Ulla is introduced stalking the woods of an isolated Swedish Baltic island at daybreak in a pale pink bathrobe and hiking boots. You begin to make her out as the sun rises and as the trees give way to the fast land of the shore. Off with the robe and into the frigid water and Ulla is quickly baptized for another day. Over the course of several days, the viewer makes this early morning constitutional with Ulla, and similarly, much of the narrative comprises her habits in and around her forest-enveloped cabin. Her chores include daily activities and seasonal tasks like waste conservation for the oncoming winter months.
As they’re accomplished, one notices how these actions with different timelines mingle. Layers emerge in Ulla’s strident circuit of activity. Both Winter and Edström mentioned via an email interview that varying rhythmic structures of music were discussed during much of the script’s conception, from minimalist composer La Monte Young to Willie Nelson. This loose structure led to the formation of the film’s laconic yet concentrated cadence. “We’re interested in highlighting situations in which people find themselves limited in or deprived of their ability to take action,” they said. “So it made sense to us to make films in which action itself is minimized. This de-emphasis of dramatic content led us into thinking about other aspects of cinema — the passage of time, listening, watching, and mapping.”
Although there is no soundtrack, sound is crucial. Nearly all of the sound is diegetic, aside from several brief voiceovers. Most of it comes courtesy by the violent rasps of trees in heavy Baltic winds. If one closed their eyes, it would sound like waves of television static, but then you would miss the extended shots of splendidly agitated vegetation. And inside Ulla’s house, she sleeps under the auspices of appliance humming — a strangely comforting noise. Sound is so central to Ulla and her surroundings, almost cocooning her like the minimalist film equivalent of how blinking eyed animals coo over Snow White, that it becomes almost horrifying when someone else appears without noise at all. Although steely Ulla yearns for winter, the season brings a hunter to her island – a cipher moving about the island in a shock of neon yellow. He clearly sees Ulla, and she him. But, for Ulla, its possible that memory confuses her alarm.
At times it seems as if the surrounding landscape has swallowed her up, but there are choice formal moments in the cinematography where both Ulla and her natural surroundings are brought intensely to the fore, such as when she emerges from the water the first morning, returns to the comfort of her pink robe and stands vertically opposed to the icy blue stratifications of the flat, flat skyline. It clearly resembles the photographic compositions of Edström’s ethereal street portraits, landscapes and minimalist fashion stories for Maison Martin Margiela since the 1990s. But both Winter and Edström are quick to respond via an email interview that discrete images were not the focus of the film’s composition. “The aim here is that no individual image should be strong enough to stand on its own; it should need its adjacent images to stand.” Of course, this means of perception is endemic to cinema, they say, but it also becomes fluent after one spends extended time in the woods. If you’ve ever been backpacking in the wilderness, visual input becomes enriched and all moves are made with purpose. When these two adjustments are made, a deep meditation ensues. Survival is more than just being, and similarly, so is watching a film.