The hook here is the investigation when Courtney Stephens (Terra Femme) finds mysterious recordings in her aunt’s house. But the movie is less about the mystery than about soaking in a certain vibe (a recent cliche, but with all the sound vibrations here, it’s fitting). She’s in a California town without any “normal” residents around to smirk at the weirdness on display – instead everyone here is into avant-garde music, history, and sound recording technology. Between that and the measured pace and all the plants and gardens on display, it’s a calming movie which reminded me at times of Jacques Rivette, Alvin Lucier, and Peter Strickland (but in a good way).

The mystery begins with a hurdygurdy full of microcassettes found in a locked closet, and well before the Sirens arrive the movie lets us know it’s not too concerned with realism when Courtney sees a TV ad for an “always open” hurdygurdy store where she might learn more, trading her extremely rare but nonfunctioning hurdy for a centuries-old working instrument. She visits a local TV station because their jingle is the only recognizable sound on the tapes, and starts flashing the tapes’ handwritten symbols around to shopkeepers, unlocking new secrets.

interesting patterns, given I watched Symphonie diagonale the same day:

I’m mad that I didn’t realize The Love Witch was one of the Sirens. I could’ve seen either of Courtney’s musician friends Whitney Johnson or Sarah Davachi at Big Ears (but did not). No surprise that Davies is a sound and music guy on other films (including the recent Ham on Rye, which shares significant crew members with this).

doesn’t work as a still, but this is one of the finest shots of the year:

Jordan Cronk in Mubi:

As a musician himself, Davies is unsurprisingly fascinated by analog technologies and the way sound can tell stories and transform reality—here, literally so, as Cas’ existential quest eventually summons a breach in which characters slip away, identities split, and storylines fold into a space where the familiar is rendered strange and intoxicating. Forgoing garden variety narrative markers in favor of a more meditative form of storytelling, Topology of Sirens opens up avenues for thought and reflection that precious few films afford.

Been a while since I’ve seen a good essay doc. Stephens is fast becoming a fave after The American Sector and Perfect Fifths – though I have concerns about her longevity (she doesn’t expand much on her brain-cloud diagnosis in the voiceover). This is archive footage shot mainly by women on travels, in which the narrator tries to locate the feminine gaze. Chapter headings, and sections devoted to each traveler instead of mixing ’em together. Bonus points for including a sloth and a toucan.

Ida Western Exile (2015)

A little bit of Georgia O’Keeffe painting mountains, but the soundtrack of a woman making calls to companies to prep for a potentially dangerous solo trip takes over the movie – and ties it to the feature about women traveling.

I got a (cheap!) Metrograph subscription to watch this, with accompanying shorts and a live Q&A, already paying dividends. Velez & Stephens traveled and filmed in 16mm whenever they had time over the past five years, aiming to shoot all the sections of the Berlin Wall on display in the USA. Clearly a lot of thought went into editing and sound design, and instead of a rigorous Benning approach, they take each wall location on its own terms and include chance encounters with locals, forming a kind of meditative Profit Motive road movie / snapshot of America in a breezy 70 minute package.

This guy in Suwanee seems cool:

Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt (2017, Pacho Velez & Yoni Brook)

A pleasing top-down angle on the subway turnstiles, where among the general bustle an extremely minor drama unfolds when a yellow sweatshirted fellow’s card won’t let him through. Can’t decide whether to root for Mr. Sweatshirt or be mad at him for holding up traffic.

Perfect Fifths (2020, Courtney Stephens)

“All stability is temporary.” Narrator named JJJJJerome, unseen except his hands, is a philosophical piano tuner. Focus on piano, with pictureboxed (interlaced) cutaways to construction scenes, soft piano soundtrack. I don’t know if the beach scenes were supposed to be visual analogies for the talk about time intervals, but it really worked for me, mad bonus points for the inclusion of pelicans.

Mating Games (2017, Courtney Stephens & KJ Relth)

I’ve been using tags to quietly keep track of movies that feature cat tossing or bird tossing, but it’s apparently time for a girl tossing category. Slow-mo home movies of bodybuilders and gymnasts showing off at Los Angeles beaches in the 1950’s/60’s, set to music.

Muscle Beach seems like an intimidating place – reading online that Danny Trejo used to hang out there, while downstairs my dad is watching Grindhouse. Seeing all the girl tossing through the lens of this movie’s title makes human existence seem head-spinning.

The Starting Line (2017, Pacho Velez & Nicole Salazar)

Official USA/Mexican border crossing and surrounding area on the day Obama’s presidency ended – vague talk on the TV news, but normal daily life on the ground.