What do hallucinogenic experiences and travel movies have in common? Ben Russell’s Trypps series asks this strange but simple question. These seven short films bring together the seemingly unrelated concepts of psychedelia and ethnography, shifting stylistic modes as often as they switch locations. Russell is an artistic chameleon whose films are equally at home at galleries or movie theaters. The Trypps series provides a fitting entré to one of the major up-and-coming experimental filmmakers today, one whose films absorb us even as they stare back.
The first two installments, Black and White Trypps I and II, veer close to a materialist structuralist art. Trypps I, a piece of black and white animation, starts with moments of black punctuated by white specks of celluloid detritus. Soon the film takes on a frenetic, pulsating rhythm, as the screen flashes with hypnotic patterns, like zooming through a field of stars. Trypps II takes this same premise and runs with it, this time using the ghostlike image of a tree branch and moving into spectral manipulations of image and rhythm for a truly out of this world experience.
Watch a clip from Black and White Trypps I (login to watch the whole film)
With Black and White Trypps III – which is actually shot in color – the series shifts into a different gear entirely. Documenting a concert by the band Lightning Bolt, Russell applies his ethnographic film approach to the noise-rock community he knows well. At first, Russell’s camera harmlessly captures the ebb-and-flow of a sweaty mass of concertgoers as they lurch in and out of frame The film takes on a new dimension as it slips into a hallucinogenic drone rhythm by way of a single, almost imperceptible cut. The experience has to be seen to be believed, as Russell achieves through film what many seek out in the sweaty confines of a concert: being transported into a trance-like ecstasy.
Watch a clip from Black and White Trypps III (login to watch the whole film)
Black and White Trypps IV employs found footage of Richard Pryor and an off-color joke to return to the techniques of the first two films. The film plays as a commentary on the concept for the series, ending abruptly with this bald provocation from Pryor: “What are you taking my picture for?”
Trypps V (Dubai) uses silent, unearthly rhythms to suggest a place and its weird sense of dislocation. In this instance, a static shot of a flickering neon sign grounds the film in its eponymous locale (the financial epicenter of the Middle East), while evoking a phantasmagoria of global capitalism and how it both announces and elicits a manic consumer appetite.
Watch a clip from Trypps V (Dubai) (login to watch the whole film)
Arguably the crowing achievement of the series comes with Trypps VI (Malobi). The short is actually a repurposed shot from Russell’s magnificent first feature Let Each One Go Where They May, shot in the village of Malobi, Suriname, with one small addition- a cameo appearance by Russell himself. Recalling the ethnographic mode of Trypps III, the film takes up Jean Rouch’s conception of ethno-fiction as Russell’s subjects don dimestore Halloween masks and perform for the camera, blurring the line between ritual, mockery, and collaboration. Through carefully staged and crafted down to the slightest movement, Russell’s film monumentalizes his subjects with its graceful Steadicam work and richly textured use of 16mm, presenting a convincing stare-down to the conventions of ethnographic film.
Watch a clip from Trypps VI (Malobi) (login to watch the whole film)
Russell wraps up the series (as it currently stands) with an enigma in the form of Trypps VII (Badlands). The film opens with a shot of a young woman who has taken LSD staring directly at the camera. Here Russell turns moviemaking into a kind of limit-experience: how can his camera capture the reality of the unseen: the psychedelic experience of the woman in view? A bell chimes at odd intervals evoking both the distorted perception of his subject and the beginning of her trip. However, things are not what they appear, as who is staring at whom begins to breakdown and the film shifts unexpectedly into the perceptual mode that weaves itself throughout the series.
Watch a clip from Trypps VII (Badlands) (login to watch the whole film)
Russell’s sensibility is at heart a playful one. Though singular and coherent in their own right, each installment works in a ricochet effect with one another, creating a fascinating echo-chamber. As a whole the series -a marvelous sixty-five minute program- makes for a multifaceted interrogation of the possibilities and limits of cinema. Conjuring formal techniques from film history, Russell invites us to form an active relationship with cinema. In doing so, the Trypps series explores cinema’s greatest conceit and most fundamental ruse: that the only way to show that which cannot be represented is through constant illusion.
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