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FEATURING: Sussan Deyhim, Tara Khozein, John Flax, Apollo Garcia Orellana, Brian Bellot, mystery celebrity guest
PLOT: Curtains open on a glowing, chanting golden tree woman, then children watch a couple with wicker cages around their heads wander through incidents of apocalypse, technology, and wonder.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Simultaneously ancient and hyper-modern, Once Within a Time is as an apocalyptic dispatch from the far reaches of reality. A bold and foolish (in the complimentary sense) work of cinematic art, dense with imagery and symbolism, this is octogenarian ‘s first narritivesque film—his vision of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century, teetering on the brink of cataclysm, but balanced by wonder and creative possibility.
COMMENTS: Godfrey Reggio announces Once Within a Time as a “bardic fairy tale”; an imposing description, but one that the film lives up to. Set to a new score by Philip Glass—with snatches of other music floating through the mix—it’s a carnival of free-flowing imagery and ideas, a techno-gnostic hymn about cataclysms and the birth of new worlds. After the red curtains pull back, we are launched into scenes of an Earth goddess singing from her glowing heart, and innocent children spinning on a merry-go-round. Then, Adam and Eve appear, only to have their equanimity quickly destroyed by a digitized Apple. Cell phones recur as dire artifacts: as cages, as monoliths, as bricks on a road that leads to an audience of faceless puppets. We watch a dance of harlequin emojis. Entertainers and demagogues speak gibberish. UFOs zoom into dreamspaces and blast giant robots with their ray guns. Monkeys experiment with virtual reality goggles. There’s a reference to 2001 that will probably draw laughs, and maybe cheers, from savvy live audiences. There is even a special celebrity guest whose appearance I don’t want to spoil, who speaks in John Coltrane solos and acts as a pied piper. And throughout it all, reaction shots of children, bemused, delighted, taking in the helter-skelter as best they can, their little minds gathering fuel… hope for the future.
The visual aesthetic is faded yet bright, digital but evocative of finely aged film stock. The style and imagery brings to mind experimental films of the 1950s-1970s, specifically Lucifer Rising, the whole thing seasoned with occult premonitions of a New Age Dawning. There are fleeting scenes of destruction, decay, despotism, mushroom clouds: but the imagery returns, unfailingly, to dwell on innocent children at play, and themes of creation and re-creation. It ends on a Botticelli tableau, with children as angels and Venus yet to emerge from her throbbing egg sac.: the wicker baskets around the lead adult’s heads like the birdcages of the Pleasure Dome, the UFOs possibly on loan from
A new Philip Glass score is, of course, something to celebrate. The soundtrack here is more of a suite of short pieces than a large scale composition, moving through numerous flavors to illustrate the Reggio’s many different settings. Glass’ hypnotic minimalism may not get the chance to do its accumulation-by-repetition thing here, but he makes up for with a wider palette of colors: unfamiliar elements like chanting, accordions, and even African percussion offer the composer new settings for his ideas. The contributions of Iranian singer Susan Deyhim (who also plays the tree) are most welcome.
The runtime is listed as 51 minutes, but the credits take up the final 8, so the film itself is a manageable 45-minute experience. Watching this on a big screen with an appreciative audience would be magnificent; it makes perfect sense that it debuted at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. It is uncommercial, personal, specialized, and fated to be underseen, but Once Within a Time is a major cinema event in 2023. Make it a point to track it down when you can.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…this strange new experiment — less scripted than staged — revisits early cinema with the same doom-laden playfulness that [Reggio’s] previous work used to push the medium forward. “–David Ehrlich, IndieWire (contemporaneous)