Have you ever found yourself lost in the world that is utterly absurd? Suddenly you fail to recognise anything familiar to orient yourself. In a mirror the reflection of a stranger blankly stares you back. You become dissociated from your physical sensations. You lose the ability to think of what might become of you: you cannot be bothered except when you are gripped with blood-curdling panic from obscure anxiety. Then, in a brief moment of clarity, you wonder: How it comes to this?
Amber Sealey’s third feature film, No Light And No Land Anywhere, follows the cascading descent of a British woman called Lexi (Gemma Brockis) who finds herself adrift in the flat, sunlit senselessness of Southern California. Following her mother’s death, Lexi flees from her deteriorating relationship and boards a flight to LA. According to Lexi, this is a trip she has planned to make: all her life, she has longed to meet her estranged father who abandoned her and her mother when she was a three-year-old. She knows that her father moved to LA and started a new family, only to abandon it and disappear again. He still lives and works for odd jobs in LA. She knows that she has a half sister (Jennifer LaFleur), and she too has not heard from him. She remembers the fateful moment with the tragic attention of a young child: one ordinary afternoon, after making himself a chicken sandwich and eating it, her father steps out of the house as if he was going to have a smoke, and vanishes. As she embarks on the journey to see him face to face, ironically, she is following his example. Judging from a string of angry text messages from her ‘ex’, the departure was at once unexpected and unannounced: like her father, Lexi walks out of her life in London with little or no warning to her friends and her partner. To make matters worse, Lexi does not know what to do with herself except following a thin thread that might lead to her long-lost father. Whatever comes of her quest, it is the only excuse Lexi has of her existence now.
No Light And No Land Anywhere is an intensely engaging indy cinema directed by Sealey and co-written by Miranda July. Intriguingly, it is rife with clichés yet not being plagued by it. Understanding the reasons why it is so should help us grasp what sets this relatively short feature apart from countless films about a woman on the razor’s edge. The film begins by showing Lexi following a standard reaction to a break-up and a mid-life crisis. She is a sleepwalker who runs away, eats junk, and gets herself laid. Yet, as careless and desperate as these actions are, they do not tell us anything about who she is. Lexi, in her confusion and dissociation, does what everyone is permitted to do in her situation. In this sense, the argument must be made with the Form of Life that is founded upon the principle of instant and compulsive gratification of desire regardless of its origin, its nature and the implications of its appeasement. Quite fittingly, Lexi’s story unfolds in the sun drenched LA, which is devoid of the intense urgency of West Berlin, or the poignant contrast of light and shadow that characterises the street of Manhattan. Not dissimilar to Jarmusch’s Florida, Sealey’s LA is a flat giant screen filled with white noise of eternal sunshine that turns every living soul into a ghost who randomly appears to and dissolves into the surface of our already compromised consciousness without a trace.
One might consider that such an observation of LA too is a cliché. It cannot be denied that LA, and America for that matter, has been characterised as a modern wasteland on many occasions. Then how this 70 minute miniature leaves us with a lasting, and deeply satisfying, affective experience? Firstly, what makes this feature different from others comes down to Sealy’s unflinching commitment to the protagonist, Lexi, whose journey traverses LA in its most mundane light. This directorial decision is quite justified, for Lexi is a forty-something who fled from her life with little or no possession and hanging by a bare thread of hope to find someone who dealt her and her mother a cruel blow with a grotesque nonchalance. Our protagonist is neither a celebrity, an heiress, nor a fugitive: the only thing she can call her own is an emotional burden forced upon her at the tender age of three. The austerity of Lexi’s story prohibits the director from staging an artificial suspense and/or a prosaic melodrama: Sealey and Brockis’ commitment to the story is such that they show no regard to how Lexi comes across to the audience. Sealey demonstrates steely soberness that depicts everything as it is. Even the scenes involving sexuality, though graphical, is incredibly realistic in that it represents this animalistic activity in the most unflattering light. Neither Sealey nor Brockis attempt to make an excuse for what Lexi does in this regard: it is utterly daft, distasteful, and unnecessary, and Lexi knows it. Human sexuality represented here has a look and a taste of cake made up of cancer agents mixed with cigarette ash. Admiringly, Sealey resists the temptation to make a pointed theoretical statement by this scene: whilst Sealey does not forget to contextualise the story by aptly situating it in one of the most dysfunctional metropolises, the director makes starkly clear that it is Lexi who initiate these actions. It is this brutal honesty that sets this cinema apart from the rest despite all the clichés. By not treating Lexi as a mere product of our Zeitgeist, Searley was able to cut deeper into Lexi’s separatedness.
No Light And No Land Anywhere also benefits from Sealey’s directorial vision: this is a cinema of process, not of plot. Whilst a ‘standard treatment’ of this story would be to turn it into a comedy, be it a feature film or a TV show, by inventing countless sub-plots and foul-mouthed sub-characters to keep the audience ‘engaged’, Searley has none of it. As one critic noted, the plot is indeed ‘thin’. The problem with this assessment is: it is completely missing the point. As a cinema of process, the plot must be as simple as possible. Artificial twists of plot would merely distract the audience from what is most important: to be fully present with our protagonist in every moment of her journey. No Light And No Land Anywhere thus features a few central characters. To this approach to work, Sealey needed a lead actor who could sustain this aesthetic austerity not by doing but by being, and a cinematographer who could make every object breathe. In this regard, No Light And No Land Anywhere has found a perfect solution. Gemma Brockis is a true revelation. She was tasked with a very difficult role whose presence sustains the entire project. There is not much Brockis can do with the script in itself, yet she manages to inject subtle and silent, yet nevertheless explosive emotional urgency to every scene. And it is Brockis’ presence and performance that reminds me of a certain cinematic triumph, namely, Steve McQueen’s Shame [link]. Whilst Lexi is far and away from the human vortex wherein Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sisi (Carey Mulligan) inhabit, Brockis brings some of the urgency and ‘nakedness’ that made McQueen’s contemporary classic so devastating. Whilst the dramaturges of these two features are not comparable, they come from the same darkness and Brockis was able to show it with the help of an excellent cinematography by Catherine Goldschmidt. Whilst Goldschmidt’s aesthetics here is not devoid of poetry, what she produces here is opposite Peter Flinkenberg of Woodshock [link]: No Light And No Land Anywhere, despite named after Rumi’s poetry, is distinctly more Anne Sexton than Sylvia Plath as it should be. As Flinkenberg elevates every shot with such a rare infusion of terror, beauty and vulnerability that speaks so much of Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), Goldschmidt presents the white-out condition that is at once LA in its realistic light and LA as Lexi’s mirror. No Light And No Land Anywhere does not allow Traklian flight of images found in Woodshock or a mesmerisingly complex composition of raw, bleeding, and incredibly rich contrasts that make Shame a singular accomplishment. Hence Goldschmidt’s ability to find poetry in the mundane by breathing life into every detail of a shot proves to be indispensable for the film’s success.
Yet, perhaps the most important feature of No Light And No Land Anywhere is that, despite being a cinema of process, and that process being quite barren and washed-out, Sealey, Brockis and Goldschmidt were fully capable of shifting into a completely different mode, however briefly, when such a move is required. There are moments when Lexi makes real connections with people she encounters. And, more importantly, despite Sealey’s refusal to make a pointed social statement through this cinema, there is an important lesson to be learnt, that is: women need not to punish one another on account of the men who failed them. Despite everything, Lexi shines in these precious moments of enlightenment. And, on such unforgettable occasions, No Light And No Land Anywhere is most compelling.