The Morbid Forest is the 3rd production in the 18-part series of films, animations and prints collectively titled Colour Me Dead. All the productions in this project are based on research which is forming the basis for the in-development book Colour Me Dead: Art, Sex & Psychos.
The Morbid Forest is a widescreen HD film devised from using a sequence of Romantic landscape paintings (and some selected Surrealist and Modern variations) as a 'prototype-storyboard' for a film narrative. The resulting film makes manifest the latent darkness of the original artworks, to posit how the darkly evergreen figure of the body left in a shallow grave in less a cinematic trope and more a symbolic device from Romantic painting – well before movies paraded psychos in backwoods.
Elisabeth: Simon Lau
Johann: Johann Rashid
Casper: Neil Foley
Davide: George Stajsic
Faeries: Megan Arrowsmith, Shakira Brendan Dickson, Cheyanne Chittleborough, Eboney Jackson, Lily McLeish, Carly Parrant, Jacinta Young
Ophelia: Emma-Jean Gilmour
Maidens: Erin Dixon, Kate Harvey, Leanne McClean
Friedrich: Chris Gooch
Autumn: Edie Rees Green
Nymphoma: Miriam Fathalla
Elloire: Hanna Sandgren
Marina: Amber Sajben
Autumnelle: Hanna Sandgren
Anya: Ernestine Harrison
Alicia: Sianna Lee
Cinematography: Michael Williams
Camera Assistant: Diego Ramirez
Production Assistants: Peter Murphy, Rebecca Manger
Script, Direction, Editing, Sound Design: Philip Brophy
Special thanks: Vera Brophy, Dawn Lennon, Isobel Knowles, Karra Rees & Adam Green, Sianna Lee & Nick Harrison, Louise Brophy & Peter Murphy, Tim Catlin & Michael Quinlan (RMIT), Phil Tripp (NMIT), Peter Wilshire (Darebin Parklands), Bala Starr (Ian Potter Museum of Art), The Vizard Foundation
Commissioned for the Vizard Foundation Contemporary Art Project
Colour Me Dead, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne (Curated by Bala Starr)The Morbid Forest - Scene 12 © 2013
If the scales of museums around the world are weighted by artworks exemplifying idealized correlations between truth, beauty and nature, is it any wonder modernism sought so forcefully to bring down the fortifications of such unquestioned associations. As the slow arc between naturalism and decadence reflected the ruffling of classicist aspirations striving to guide the enlightened in the modern era, the subject of nature itself—represented through landscape painting—accordingly came under scrutiny. As nature became a specious and suspicious notion, landscape painting absorbed this spreading doubt: the spooky forest became a new and chilling stage for the nude. For as nature became acknowledged as culture, then the most natural of environments was apt in symbolizing the most elemental of man. Romantic landscape painting is typified more by its unseen malevolence than its reveal of natural abundance.
The Morbid Forest marks the shift in consciousness toward this realm—one of shallow graves, missing persons, and all manner of sexual ravages executed in the privacy of uninhabitable places. Considered this way, a stream of paintings depicting forest spirits, fern elves, babes in the woods, fairies in the mist and spring maidens collectively suggests this populace to be ghosts of victims left to roam their unmarked tombs. From fairy tale admonitions to existential landscapes to idyllic sites for fauns and satyrs, nature is shown not to be beautiful, but to be an unfortunate effect of reality.The Morbid Forest - Scene 18 © 2013
The Morbid Forest script was developed from sequencing a range of Romantic landscape paintings and using them as a storyboard for an imaginary film. The guiding principle was to choose paintings that exuded a sense of dread, foreboding, and latent or imminent danger. The paintings of German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Freiderick were crucial in this exercise. In particular, the script results from contemplating the single and dual figures which often populate his brooding landscapes: who are these men? what are they doing out in the forest alone? what is it they see and know that we cannot? Thus the script is less a narrative mobilised by people's actions, and more a perspective on the world and its environs within which actions can be perpetrated on people. In this sense, The Morbid Forest reimagines Romantic landscape painting as prototype storyboards for roving predatory sex crimes and serial murders which occur not in dark alleyways of crowded cities, but in plain morning light in nature's splendor. With the Romantic landscapes as the sediment to this approach, select artworks which bear this lineage (from Hans Arp to Max Ernst to Marcel Duchamp to Anne Geddes to Paul McCarthy) were incorporated to follow the implied darkness of nature into artworks from the modern era.
Having settled on the painting sequence for the storyboard and drafted the script (choosing 22 key images from over 80 influential paintings), considerable time was spent location scouting and hunting. While many of the paintings depicted European and English landscapes, a range of Australian locales served as domains for transplanting the dark actions implied by the continental environs. Australia indeed has its bounty of indigenous flora and terrain, but it is equally marked by Colonial incursion. The psychological geography of modern Australia fortuitously signposted how the rest of the film's production should progress: instead of fastidiously recreating the aesthetic aura of the original paintings, the film simply looks outside the current window to see how the latent darkness of the paintings could exist in the immediate outside. Thus the The Morbid Forest often looks banal and uninvitingly familiar (an approach to production design used equally in Northern Void and Body Melt) because it is less interested in aesthetic allusions and more in how the most abjectly plain scenography can resonate with the most unlikely symbolism.
Casting, costuming and prop securement followed once all the locations had been found. Camera tests were conducted on all locations, working out sun positions and lens choice for framing so as to best reference the original paintings. No camera movement was employed; most of the scenes are single shots; some scenes incorporate 2 or 3 shots to extemporize the narrative situation from the painting. Mostly this involved revealing who holds the point-of-view of the paintings: rather than 'the artist', the predatory characters of Casper and Davide are posited as the 'character threads' for the evolving story.
The shoot took place in piecemeal fashion over one and a half months, using a small crew, available light, and a Red camera. Some time was spent on grading the footage. The editing was mostly a case of putting the shots in order, as the location shooting of the actors and action was careful to time things to match the contemplative 'landscape portraiture' which was integral to the film's pacing.
The sound design was constructed completely from stereo field recordings (mostly from Darebin Parklands at dawn). These were edited and mixed into a 3-channel 'front field' mix. The idea was not to create an immersive space for the sound by using the rear speakers to 'lift the sound out from the screen', but to keep a wide-screen spatialization attached solely to the screen - almost as if the paintings have come to sonic life. Minimal processing was employed - mostly extreme graphic equalization to induce selected frequency distortion. The sounds are intended to be recognisable yet unfamiliar – just like nature when it becomes uncanny.The Morbid Forest - Scene 16 © 2013
2 teenagers – Elisabeth and Johann – straggle toward an old deserted petrol station. It is marked with graffiti; the pumps have been removed; the buildings are in disrepair. Elisabeth carries a small clutch of flowers. She places them next to one of the disused pump banks. Johann is quiet. He observes Elisabeth closely as she squats down in front of the flowers. Casper and Davide spy on the scene from afar. The teenagers finish their task and remain there staring at the flowers.
Seen from a rise: a new housing estate spreading outwards in the distance below. Some houses are still being constructed. The compound looks new but desolate. Casper and Davide take their position upon the rise and scan the houses below. They observe the scene in silence.
Casper and Davide walk together across an open area of parkland. They pause in the centre and engage in conversation. Perceived from afar, their dialogue remains inaudible. They point in various directions, hatching some unknown plan. Shortly thereafter, they split, each heading in their own direction.
A group of fairies are gathered in another section of the parkland. They are late-teenage girls, all dressed in white. They dance in a braided circular pattern, smiling and gently engaged in their ritual. Casper stands at the periphery of the open area where the fairies are dancing, and observes them unseen. They continue, unaware of his presence.
Ophelia stands amongst trees in a remote parkland to Casper, gathering flowers. She senses something, and stops to look back. She can sense Casper watching the fairies. Ophelia tensely clutches the flowers to her chest.
Placed across an open field are 3 groups of Maidens. One group are dancing and giggling in a circle. Another are ensconced in gossip. The third are playing with sprays of flowers, holding them to frame their heads. Casper enters and strolls across the open field at a measured pace, never noticing the Maidens. They are playfully conscious of his presence, yet continue their games without distraction.When Casper reaches the end of the open field, he turns and stares at the gathered Maidens. A stand-off ensues, each staring intently at the other. Casper silently scowls. The Maidens fade into nothing, like morning apparitions. Casper’s face grows cold.
Amidst light bush scrub, Friedrich sits on a gentle slope. His back is facing us. He throws down his walking stick and starts sobbing quietly. Casper moves through a thicker area of the bush and comes to the clearing where Friedrich rests. Casper stands in silence, staring down at the boy. Friedrich continues crying, oblivious to Casper’s presence. The bush grows darker as the last rays of setting sun are extinguished.
Autumn – a young girl around 3 years old – sits underneath a tree, dressed in her favourite fairy outfit. Flowers, twigs, branches and garlands are scattered around her. She is in her own world, playing with her doll. She looks out from her activity at something unseen.
Ophelia lies on the grass, asleep. Spread around her are sprays of flowers she has been gathering. She wakens, but keeps her eyes closed. She moves her hands around and clutches some of the flowers. Still with eyes shut, she pulls them toward her face and inhales their fragrance. She slowly opens her eyes and looks up at the sky. Dark clouds gather overhead.
Wind blows through the trees. Clouds coast by slowly.The Morbid Forest - Scene 19 © 2013
Davide sits ensconced in a clutch of reeds beside a lightly running creek. He sips from a can of Red Bull, peering out through the reeds. After a while he puts down the can and plucks a small whistle from his pocket. He blows it briefly – then peers through the reeds checking for something. He does this a few times, and continues staring out through the reeds.
Elloire’s lifeless body lies half-covered by branches and blue plastic drop-sheets. Nearby, the river waters gently lap at the dark banks.
Upon a slab of rock in a bubbling creek, Nymphoma lies straggled naked, face-down upon a spread of white sheets. Her long white dress is strewn on the creek bank. Her long hair is spread outward. She heaves heavily but remains prone. Davide stands nearby, impassively looking down at Nymphoma’s body. He spits into the creek, then saunters away. Nymphoma remains still. After a while, she slowly moves her left arm forward. Shivering, she clutches at a water weed, grabbing it tightly in her hand. Her hand relaxes; the weed falls from her grip.
Casper squats upon a hill-top scattered with boulders. He scans the horizon, stopping at something he spies. Dressed in a leopard skin bikini, Marina has settled herself upon a towel laid on the grass in a clearing. She applies sunscreen and rubs it in. She dons a pair of dark sunglasses and lays back on the towel with her eyes shut. From the hill-top, Casper studies her intently.
Marina is spread-eagled on a patch of rough scrub. Her bikini top has been pulled down, as has her bikini bottom. Grassy clumps obscure vision of her face. Her right arm is similarly obscured. Her left arm is visible; she clutches a tube of sun-screen. Her body is completely lifeless. Clouds slowly move across the bright sky.
Davide lies kneeling with his head lying sideways on the ground, his arms outstretched. His pants are gathered around his ankles, exposing his buttocks. His eyes glaze over as he focuses on the grass near his face. From some distance, Casper approaches. He sees Davide in his prone position. Casper stealthily approaches Davide unseen and takes up position behind a tree not too far from Davide. There he waits silently. Davide remains unaware of Casper’s presence, and stays focused on the grass near his face. Casper presses his face into the tree he stands behind. He shuts his eyes, then lowers his trousers. They fall around his ankles, exposing his buttocks. He slowly presses himself against the tree, gradually spreading his arms around the trunk. Casper stays pressed against the tree and closes his eyes.
Casper and Davide are transformed into clumps of rubbish strewn in the bush.
Autumnelle appears walking at the edge of a shallow water hole. Trees line the perimeter, creating an amphitheatre for her presence. Diaphanous sheets billow around her body.
A sole dying tree with gnarled trunk and groping branches sits in the centre of an open field. Nine maidens approach it, dancing and skipping in a line holding each other’s hands. They weave their way toward it, encircle the tree, then curve round behind it. They continue their skipping and dancing, moving far away into the distance.
Anya is ensconced in a vegetable patch, surrounded by large leaves and bright red balls. She digs at the ground, absorbed in her task.
Alicia stands in a forest clearing. She is draped in layers of dark see-through fabric. She holds a toy doll. She clutches it to her bosom and looks down at it lovingly. As the dark of night overcomes the scene, Alicia looks towards the stars above and shuts her eyes.
A full moon illuminates the silhouette of craggy trees. Silence abounds.The Morbid Forest - Scene 2 © 2013