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Still from Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984)

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Engram of Returning ★★★★½


My capsule review from my TIFF Wavelengths coverage for MUBI:

Occasionally there are films whose impact on me is so visceral that, despite my attempts to maintain some form of critical distance, to keep a working vocabulary in order to articulate the precise effects the filmmaker has produced, I spend most of the running time with my eyes twitching and my nerves on high alert, wondering exactly how I reverted to the age of five and why I stuck my mother's bobby pin in that wall socket. I sat down with Engram of Returning well aware that I was probably in for something skillful and provocative. Saïto's 2009 film Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis, was one of the finest film-objects I'd seen that year and have seen since. In it, Saïto collaborated with violinist Malcolm Goldstein to produce a jabbing, skittering alternation between darkness, vertical trunks, and the expansive horizontality of billowing leaves, all with colors that hovered between the painterly and the aggressively sun-scratched.

Here, with Engram, Saïto works with experimental saxophonist Jason Sharp to produce a thundering warble, minimal only in its pitch variance. The sound envelops, as if bird and bee sounds became one cacophonous din injected directly into your skull. (Who knew the sax could sound so much like a string instrument? Such breath control! Circular breathing, plus electronics, plus a respirator?) Even more than with Trees of Syntax, Saïto meets this aural challenge with a film that is more darkness than image. His visions flash out of the inky nothingness like punches to the closed eyes—fiery reds, bile yellows, hypothermic blues, swirling together with the controlled order of traffic, but punctuated by the black, as if to prevent any threat of organic harmony. Once any pattern emerges, Saïto and Sharp thwart it, never letting us relax.

Are we looking at seascapes? Pure emulsion, with dyes painted on the filmstrip? Occasionally we see trees in the wind, or shifting coastline, even land moving laterally through a window. Is this tsunami footage, or just leisurely vacation footage run through the wringer of Saïto's staccato editorial punishment? I have no idea. This film is truly terrifying, and exhilarating, not to be missed under any circumstances.

(A propos of nothing: in Scientology, "engrams" are the name given by L. Ron Hubbard to sticky images of the past that prohibit us from moving forward into higher levels of enlightenment. For the rest of us, of course, they are simply memories, the experiences that shape our personalities. The question of whether emgrams are good or bad is ultimately a philosophical one, depending on whether we believe we are supposed to learn from the past, or be perpetually born anew.)