Tuesday 20 April 2021

Watching the wildlife: "Black Pond"

Jessica Sarah Rinland is an emergent Argentine-British documentarist whose interests dovetail with other areas of scientific inquiry. The subject of her 2019 feature Those That, At A Distance, Resemble Another, currently streaming on MUBI, was restoration: it watched flints, tusks and fossils being made exhibition-ready in the backrooms of prominent London museums. In her mid-length 2018 endeavour Black Pond - not to be confused with the cult Simon Amstell comedy of 2011, although it probably will be at some point - the focus is on conservation and preservation: here, we're out in the wider countryside of the Home Counties - somewhere in the vicinity of Esher, if the onscreen maps are anything to go by - observing a small group of nature buffs who've made it their business to measure and index the wildlife they come across. For just over forty minutes, Rinland sets us down in the company of folk (predominantly men) who know their woolly bear caterpillars from their garden tiger caterpillars, who recognise candlesnuff and cockchafers by sight alone, and who could not only tell you why the fungus known as blushing bracket is called blushing bracket, but also what the most common bracket fungus is. If you could tear these guys away from the real ale list, they'd be outstanding additions to any pub quiz outfit.

Nothing escapes their eye or attention: not mighty oak nor miniscule bug, neither the birds on branches, nor the mushrooms sprouting beneath their feet. Nothing escapes this camera's eye, either. Adhering to one naturalist's maxim of "If you want to see something, hold it close", Rinland shoots close up in tight square frames on flaring Kodachrome-like stock that both meshes with occasional still photographs - inserted to point up the bucolic timelessness of this particular landscape - and coaxes out the full range of colours on a moth's torso. That microscopic focus only makes it easier for us to discern and marvel at the peculiar textures of an extended bat's wing, at once rubbery and translucent, or the odd clicking noise these creatures make to determine their flightpaths, here recorded, cross-checked and then run through your speakers in 21st century surround sound. (Suffice to say, the bat-hunting expedition forms a notable highlight.) Every now and again, though, Rinland is content to pull back a little and simply bathe in the countryside, to have a distant figure poke around amid some vast green expanse, while chirruping birds and crickets pick up any slack on the soundtrack. It's an oddly soothing, nourishing watch - a foreshadow of the reconnection with nature many of us have experienced during lockdown - and as Rinland leads us ever deeper into this arcane arcadia, you realise she pretty much has this field to herself. Black Pond disappears over the horizon with an audio extract from Kevin Brownlow's itself fairly sui generis Winstanley (and a Winstanley quote), but the only things remotely comparable to it in recent British filmmaking would be Tim Pope's Talk Talk videos, or those sporadic cutaways in early Peter Greenaway movies.

Black Pond is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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