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Photo: ‘The Blazing World’/Sundance
‘The Blazing World’–A Cult Classic Mixtape
Carlson Young, the writer, director, and star of the new film ‘The Blazing World’ did not go small for her feature debut. ‘The Blazing World’, which is based on a 2018 short film also directed by Young, is a bizarre phantasmagoria of a film, reminiscent of the work of David Lynch, Tarsem Singh, and Nicholas Winding Refn. It starts out as a mental illness horror story briefly detours into a Linklater-esque hangout film, and then goes full-on Pan’s Labyrinth (or David Bowie Labyrinth, your choice). It’s got a touch of narrative attention deficit disorder, feeling at times more like a music video stretched to feature-length than a cohesive story (Young directed the music video for the song ‘Catch & Release’ by the band Peel; the song features prominently on this film’s soundtrack). Depression makes it hard to focus though, so this is relatable.
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There’s something endearing, even inspiring, about Young’s ‘throw everything in and see what sticks’ approach to storytelling. There’s a sense of artistry to the film that begins with the opening credits, which announce the film’s title in an arcane geometric typeface as a score of strings and horns blares intensely. The film begins with a mystical sequence of twin girls in white dresses chasing sparkling lights and putting them into a jar. Again, it feels very much like a music video. The father is a bit of a drunk and the mom anxiously chops vegetables at the cutting board–seriously, nothing makes me more uncomfortable than watching someone chop vegetables in a movie like this. Suddenly, tragedy strikes and one of the twin girls has died. Cut to twenty-odd years later.
Margaret, the surviving twin (played in adulthood by Young herself), is still dealing with her trauma as an adult. Margaret’s approach to mental health seems a bit like Young’s approach to filmmaking–she’s trying a bit of everything. She’s living in the city, she’s scoring Ambien that she’s sharing with her mom, she may or may not be eating her roommate’s cake. She’s taking baths with her clothes on and she’s getting really into an astral projection expert on TV (Liz Mikel, who deserves a spinoff). Margaret isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she’s just manic. The main reason Margaret can’t move on is that she keeps having dreams that her twin sister is trapped in an alternate dimension. To make matters worse, these dreams prominently feature go-to creepy German actor Udo Kier, who speaks with the odd vocabulary and stilted cadence of a ‘Twin Peaks’ character.
As Margaret attempts to solve the riddle of these visions, the film feels a bit like ‘Donnie Darko’, which also blended music, hanging out, mental illness, and the supernatural. ‘The Blazing World’ is also full of idiosyncratic dialogue. It may not be instantly quotable enough to make it an immediate cult classic, although lines like ‘I am the emperor! I am the darkest tree in the forest of light!’ delivered by Kier with the hammy deliciousness of Tommy Wiseau put it in the running.
Psychedelic Scream Queen
Margaret’s journey brings her back to her childhood home, the same home where her sister died. Her parents are preparing to sell the place (what took them so long?) and Margaret has been summoned back to sift through the relics of the past. There’s a sort of lived-in banality to her interactions with her parents; her mother (Vinessa Shaw) chatters on nervously and fusses over her as she munches a slice of pizza, while dad (Dermot Mulroney) has become even more comfortably alcoholic and chases New Wave glory days in his home recording studio. Of course, it isn’t long before things start feeling haunted. Young’s biggest splash in front of the camera was in MTV’s ‘Scream: The TV Series’, and there’s definitely a fluent vocabulary of teen-friendly jump scares and creep out moments on display here. Young’s willingness to throw in some terminology from alternate dimensions keeps things interesting.
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As a last-ditch effort before the spookiness begins in earnest, Margaret takes a couple more swings as self-therapy: she calls her ex, she hits up her psychedelic friends, and she heads down to the local chillwave hang zone where the bartender looks like the one from ‘The Shining’. Musician/actress Soko gives her a tarot reading and performs a karaoke rendition of her hit song ‘Oh, To Be A Rainbow!’. This portion of the film feels a bit like a pretense to get the audience to jukebox the music Carlson Young is into, but I’m not complaining, she has good taste. At closing time, another friend announces, “Time doesn’t exist!” and, apropos of nothing, “We don’t have pure bloodlines.”
This extended hangout session lets the film breathe, and it may be the most enjoyable chapter of the story. Young cannily recruited cinematographer Shane F. Kelly, production designer Rodney Becker, art director Aaron Statler, and casting director Vicky Boone from Richard Linklater’s rolodex, and everything flows like clockwork when the cast is just chilling and talking about doing drugs. Soko slips Margaret acid, begging the question of whether the film’s final chapter through the looking glass could just be an elaborate drug trip.
Acid Trip Haunted House
Eventually, the film arrives at the promised ‘blazing world’, where the insect-eating, riddle-loving Udo Kier reigns supreme. As it turns out, it’s an alternate reality version of her childhood home, full of surrealist set decoration like glowing orbs and puddles in the ceiling. Here, the film takes on a storybook sensibility, with Margaret tasked with the rather straightforward mission of retrieving three keys from the various rooms of the house in order to rescue her lost sister. She encounters freaky funhouse mirror versions of her parents, who menace her a bit like the button-eyed folks from ‘Coraline’.
There are some clear metaphors for Margaret’s trauma as inflicted by her parents, like the mother who literally digs into her daughter’s brain in search of a memory and the father who helplessly scratches his own face bloody while claiming, “I’m a man, it doesn’t hurt me.” There are also some less obviously parsable moments, like a bed that turns out to be full of squirming insects, or a door that leads to a desert wasteland, recalling ‘Beetlejuice’. It’s charmingly creative, and for the horror-squeamish, it’s worth noting that it’s more eerie than terrifying. Does Margaret find all the keys and rescue her sister? You’ll have to tune in to ‘The Blazing World’ to find out!
‘The Blazing World’ debuted as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
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