Sydney, Australia’s Dumbsaint has raised more than a few eyebrows since their first appearance on the scene back in 2012, and a low rumble has become a considerable buzz since the release of their newest album, “Panorama, in ten pieces” in August of last year. What makes the approach to their particular brand of artistry so exciting and important is the way in which it simultaneously subverts and expands upon audience expectations for modern post-rock. The dedication to the visual components accompanying their music results in a unique, atmospherics-drenched sound that never falls victim to the usual tropes of either post-rock or post-metal. Rather, on “Panorama,” they might most resemble what Italy’s prog-rock/horror soundtrack legends Goblin may have sounded like had they come of age in modern times as opposed to the 1970’s. At the same time, the very idea of self-producing a film to pair with each album represents the type of artistic boldness and flair that basically puts the “post” firmly in “post-rock.” Not satisfied with simply offering a sonic landscape, Dumbsaint expands the scope of their canvas, and in doing so give listeners the opportunity to experience the band’s vision in a fuller capacity. For a complete look at the album “Panorama, in ten pieces,” have a look at Evan Lurie’s piece here. Since we have tread that ground previously at Arctic Drones, I will be focusing solely on the film.
When it was announced that “Panorama, in ten pieces” was to be a horror film, the prospect of covering it felt like something perfectly scripted for me. While music is a strong passion of mine, horror is my expertise – something that I studied as both an undergrad and a graduate student, and wrote 260 pages of thesis material about. Having watched the film multiple times, however, I think that it is more accurate to refer to it as a dark suburban drama told through a series of segments that are part music video, part vignette. Think David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” delivered through a structure somewhat akin to the anthology films of studios like AIP and Amicus, and you will be on the right path.
Whatever evil may be present in “Panorama”’s numerous layers and characters is of a wholly human derivation. We are witness to home invasion, bizarre sex trade, bursts of confused violence and other vague, but undoubtedly nefarious dealings which unfold by the hand of a shadowy group whose activities function as much like an initial domino as they do a directly malicious force. The first two vignettes introduce a number of characters, a motif of screens (TV’s, laptops) as windows, as well as the shadowy group that seems to be the fulcrum of the darkness that has settled on the neighborhood in which the action unfolds. As the segments continue, characters begin to cross over into each other’s stories, and a sense of impending doom closes in tighter and tighter. The results sometimes echo reality-anchored suburban nightmare films such as George A. Romero’s “Season of the Witch” and “Martin,” as well as the aforementioned “Blue Velvet.” However, do not expect to find neighborhood terror in the vein of “Halloween” or “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” as those films center on the more traditional horror concept of the villainous “other.” In “Panorama,” the threat is represented by “us,” and not in a metaphoric sense, as with Romero’s zombie films.
As the walls are crumbling around the various characters later in the film, a young woman named Hannah recites a poem which proclaims that there are people living in “two worlds, the lost and the remembered. They sleep twice. Once for the one who is gone, once for themselves. They dream thickly, dream double, they wake from a dream into another one. They walk the short streets calling out names. And then they answer.” These words echo themes from the film, as many of the characters appear to be become trapped in dual-lives that grow increasingly nightmarish. While some are overwhelmed by their dreams and what they infer about their true selves, others find themselves sucked into dangerous webs spun by their desire to merge fantasy and reality. The scariest part about the scenarios presented throughout the film is that, despite the harm that results from characters’ attempts to balance dual lives, the choice to do so seems to grow out of a rebellion against the banality of routine. In truth, it is a threat that lurks in the shadows of almost everyone’s daily lives.
It is important to view “Panorama, in ten pieces” as much like a music video as you do a film, and to check your expectations for narrative clarity at the door, at least to some extent. The open-ended nature of the film is intentional on Dumbsaint’s behalf, and is in fact a major part of their statement of purpose. Though they are allowing a window into their vision, a part of them still holds tight to the post-rock aesthetic relating to allowing listeners (or in this case, viewers) to draw their own conclusions. As such, it may be best to allow the band themselves to elaborate on some of the particulars of their process. I prompted Nicholas Andrews to offer some insights, and this is what he had to say:
Arctic Drones: Can you explain the process of determining what the film was going to be about, and how you wanted to have the story unfold?
Nicholas Andrews: We could relate to a neighborhood theme as the album was written primarily in bedrooms and living rooms over 18 months. We liked the idea of the mystery that exists with people living in close proximity to each other, but always concealed behind closed doors. You never really know what is happening around you. There is a lot of fuel for interesting narratives there – light and dark.
We wanted it to be episodic, but interlocked with recurring characters and motifs. This also made sense logistically as we were filming only in the evenings for a few hours at a time. It needed to be achievable on such a low budget.
AD: Can you talk a bit about some of the visual motifs? There is a heavy focus put on the Elvis statue during the middle third of the film, and also there seems to be a theme of screens acting as windows, whether they be television or computer screens.
NA: Elvis was a happy accident that allowed us to fuse a few scenes and characters together. That particular prop has a different meaning to the characters in those stories, and it was nice to explore the influence it had on their lives. We were keen on simple ways to create bonds between people without them knowing it. At a distance, everyone is quietly influencing each other.
As for screens, I guess there is a voyeuristic element to living in a neighborhood: looking through windows as you walk past, peering through fences, listening in to arguments or conversations, etc. I think our built-in curiosity invites us to casually indulge in the unknown of what is happening around us. Most of the time it is banal, but sometimes you hear or see things that can intrigue.
AD: Can you tell me a bit about the two poems recited by Hannah and how they speak to the overarching themes of the film? There seems to be a theme of duality, and of separate lives within the same mind. Was this the idea?
NA: Those poems fascinated me, especially with how they interacted with the visual content chosen to accompany it. They’re nice snapshots of existence. With “Panorama,” the idea that a person is truly themselves when at home fascinated me, and as soon as they step outside, their life and interactions are slightly different. It was more a decision based on ‘feeling’ as to why we included the poems. The moods of the music and words were appropriate, especially with how little breathing there is on the rest of the tracks. It felt right, and instinct is a big factor in deciding what we do.
AD: Can you speak a bit about Esther? She is definitely a dark presence, but also a perplexing one, as her purpose is left vague.
NA: Like Elvis, Esther was a device for the other characters, and a way to fuse several tangents together. Every street has an obscure or crazy neighbor, so she was a perfect vehicle to explore how completely separate lives can coalesce. We wanted absurd elements in the film too, as every idea didn’t have the song/narrative duration for us to really go deep. Keeping things ambiguous and sometimes light was a way to keep it fun without tying ourselves in too many knots.
In terms of assessment, there are two ways to approach “Panorama, in ten pieces.” Evaluating it solely as a cinematic work, one may find that it overpopulates its world with characters, and struggles occasionally to tie them all into a coherent storyline. Budgetary restraints force the film to focus on character studies rather than set pieces, with the results being sometimes compelling, but not without elements of frustration. On the other hand, viewing this as supplemental visual material for a post-rock album, it stands out as a quite an accomplishment. Adding a cinematic layer is a bold step forward in terms of how music can be presented to an audience, especially on an independent level. In this light, “Panorama, in ten pieces” is a triumphant achievement that clearly sets Dumbsaint apart from many of their contemporaries, and helps to set a fresh bar in terms of artistic ambition.