Reviews

The Norse Discovery of America

Tony Stone

USA, 2007

Credits

Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 29 May 2008

Source 35mm print

Categories The 2008 Independent Film Festival of Boston

Severed Ways is a patient two hours, and it is shot in authentic, rural landscapes in Newfoundland and Vermont. Its sparse examples of dialogue are in subtitled Greenlandic and emerge after several minutes of observance. Some of them read oddly: “This fish is killer,” says a Viking, having caught and prepared a bountiful meal—the words read like they shouldn’t be coming from his mouth. Your response to this is laughter – not because it’s funny, precisely, but because the words don’t expectedly serve the images – and I imagine the intent is to disjoint the context some, analogizing your response of confusion with that of the principal characters.

These dialogical details are subtle, but this aspect of disjointedness remains, and it is due to two variables Tony Stone installs in his film: it is shot in hi-res digital video—it literally looks like a pair of guys dressed up like Vikings (and in a later instance, monks) berserking about in rural Newfoundland and Vermont. The image is often stuttered, especially when the action is abrupt and violent. The film looks curiously authentic, and I, for one, was thoroughly entranced by the scenario it aims cheaply to evoke: 1007 AD, an America unadorned by the urban pillaging of the Eastern World. Severed Ways is also scored largely in black metal, but the result is not one of ironic juxtaposition; like the cinematography, it has an air of authenticity. In an early episode, even, one of the Vikings – having completed a makeshift cabin in the woods – stands atop his construct and headbangs for close to a full minute. Certainly, this is an image hilarious for its improbability to some; I found it appropriately celebratory.

The soundtrack is more varied than I’ve described and includes Queens of the Stone Age, Judas Priest, and even Popul Vuh, the latter verifying the film’s principal cue in Werner Herzog’s Peruvian epics Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Severed Ways is almost as immersive as the former, consisting almost entirely of brazenly natural locations and hand-held camerawork. Popul Vuh’s cues (used twice in the film, if I’m remembering correctly) have precisely the same utility as they do in Herzog’s films, to evoke meditation and transcendence from images in which these elements are obscured. They complete the image, in other words, and although the score is recycled, it remains potent and effective.

As a complement to the use of black metal, Severed Ways has a primal brutality to it. There is some axeplay, although it is shot so stutteredly it’s barely distinguishable. But in one instance a pair of live chickens is killed, one of which is subsequently eaten, its killer palming the raw flesh and chewing it (he does this after he has pillaged and set a makeshift church afire). There’s another shot in which one of the Vikings enjoys a rather voluminous bowel movement. These instances are both difficult to watch, but they enhance the brutality that I find essential to the film’s feigned authenticity.

The subtitle notes that this film concerns the discovery of America, or more particularly, a discovery of America. It doesn’t concern mobilization or even the order necessary in establishing a country. Rather, the America in this film remains an unfamiliar marvel, and this is one of the film’s great strengths. It reveals beauty (the snow-drift epilogue in particular), but also horror, and despite the hyper-masculine posturing, the setting remains the most volatile, brutal element in the film. The Vikings seek safety, not domination, and there’s a particularly compromising sequence in which one of them is raped by an Indian woman. They haven’t invaded a country, they’ve become trapped in one with little, if any chance of survival. It’s by this measure that Herzog has found a kindred spirit in Tony Stone, and this is probably the only film I can immediately think of in which the great German director’s cinematic sensibility has been sustained and not merely homaged.

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