Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch (2024)

Delicate Arch world première at Dances With Films, 28 Jun 2024

Delicate Arch opens with two apparently simple images, and then a more complicated prologue. The first image is an old cheesy TV ident for ‘KUTVNews Tonight at Ten’ on ‘NewsWatch2’, to remind us that we are viewers, that the reality we are watching comes in mediated form (with a hint that several other mediated forms might be possible and available), and to lend what follows a retrospective, ‘vintage’ feel – although, as the film’s most grounded character Cody (Kevin Bohleber) will later say about vintage, “What isn’t?”. The second image is a configuration (in fact recurring at various points in the film) of three rectangles –  one longer vertically, one longer horizontally, and a square – which, together with the larger rectangle delineating the outer edges of the screen, represent the four aspect ratios (or “ass-prick ratios”, as the character Wilda, played by Kelley Mack, will later insist on calling them) which serve as the multiple, portal-like frames through which this film is presented to us via various cameras, both extra- and intra- diegetic. 

Delicate Arch
“Ass-prick ratios”

The prologue that follows these images immediately makes it clear that the normal boundaries between what is inside, and what lies beyond, a story are here being broken down. For not only does a narrator (voiced by Katie Self) comment on the desert scene that the camera is taking in, but as a man (Pat Collins) staggers exhausted into frame, not only does she edit her account of who he is and what he does, revising and changing the details on the fly, but he, horrified, appears to hear what she is saying, to be aware that he is being watched (and filmed), even as he vainly struggles, like a self-conscious character in a movie, to avoid the identity and fate that are being scripted for him. These may be no more fixed than his name or his profession (which the narrator alters ‘live’ in her story), but for all their arbitrary nature, they are out of his control, and being directed by someone outside of the frame. As he douses himself in petrol and takes out a lighter, the blazing self-immolation that ensues is an existential act of simultaneous surrender and resistance to a prescribed inevitability – like closing your eyes as a movie keeps running, just to exercise your last remaining power of self-control, however predetermined what happens on screen may be.

Cut to the principal narrative, and our film student Grant Beverly (William Leon) is cast not just as an amateur director, but as a viewer and voyeur, secretly observing – and filming on his grandparents’ old camcorder – the furtive interactions between his ex-girlfriend Wilda and his friend Cody. The more literal masks that, when outside, these three initially (and reluctantly) wear might resonate with our recent times of Covid contagion, but in fact they are protecting themselves from an ecological occurrence – an ‘Inversion’ – which periodically brings poisonous air and even snow to Salt Lake City. For Delicate Arch is set in an alternative universe, similar to our own, but not quite the same, where the effects of climate change have considerably accelerated. Indeed it will be suggested that every film offers an alternative universe, connected to (but also separated from) both one another and our reality (here itself presented like a film) through an intervening screen that is all at once a window on the world while restricting our vision and comprehension of it. Later Grant will say of film narrative, “If it’s not motivated and it’s not in the frame, then it doesn’t exist”, in words that come close to Derrida’s assertion that “there is no outside-text”.

Fleeing the insalubrious  conditions of the city, the three head off into the desert of Southern Utah, along the way picking up Wilda’s trans cousin, the theosophy student – and psychonaut – Ferg (Rene Leech). Grant hopes to shoot a short film, environmental studies major Cody wants to collect some rock samples, Ferg hopes to explore his theories of ‘Phase Perception’ in nature (and in narcotics), and Wilda is looking for a good time while seeking ideas on how to become an influencer on a vlog whose topic is “wellness – but like spooky”. Yet as Grant has weird blackouts and experiential glitches – and all that even before he hits the hallucinogens – he will ask aloud what the viewer has long been thinking: “What if we’re actually in a horror movie? Four annoying college kids, alone in the desert, just waiting to get picked off, one by one. Don’t you think it’s a little convenient that we’re the only ones out here?” Indeed, the set-up is not only generically familiar, but also specifically evokes Robbie Banfitch’s found-footage freakout The Outwaters (2022) – to which Cody alludes in his explicit suggestion that the twist will involve Grant cutting off his three friends’ heads.

Delicate Arch
Desert trip

Wes Craven’s Scream franchise popularised a postmodern, reflexive brand of horror that he first essayed in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), but writer-director Matthew Warren is doing something rather different with his feature debut’s more metacinematic aspects. For Delicate Arch, named after the rock structure to which the four hike while high on mushrooms in the Arches National Park, is not so much deconstructing horror as using the genre’s many hackneyed scenarios to question the fluid, fractal, movie-like and malleable nature of reality itself – a mode of ontological and theological enquiry that Grant will later term “metaphysical bullshit”. As these four characters go in search of an author, their every experience will be filtered through their own messy interpersonal history, through psychedelics, rôle play and mental illness, and through their media savvy and of course several lenses (some with their own crazy filters). 

Grant’s camcorder may film in squared-off Academy ratio, and everyone’s smartphones may be used in portrait mode, but sometimes the characters are shot in these supposedly intradiegetic aspect ratios when none of them is actually behind the lens, creating a labyrinthine layering of paranoid perspectives where someone always seems to be watching and toying with those on screen, as though to suggest that these characters’ autonomy is an illusion, that their freedom is merely being framed for someone else’s enlightenment or entertainment, and that perhaps we might all be playthings in another person’s improvised, ever-changing movie. Even when these characters are asleep or try to look away, their mind’s eye continues to see, if not quite to understand, within the fixed parameters of the framing. There can be no escape from their precarious instantiation in the shifting here and now.

Accordingly, Delicate Arch is akin to Iván Zulueta’s Arrebato (1979), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution (2012), Andrés Goteira’s Dhogs (2017), television’s (duly namechecked) Black Mirror, and perhaps most of all its own executive producer  Rodney Ascher’s mind-bending documentary A Glitch In The Matrix (2021). For this is highly conceptual horror, using the very forms of fictive cinema to expose the plasticity of our perception and the limits of our knowledge in a universe that comes highly circumscribed and decontextualised. Randall Taylor’s unnerving score brings just the right amount of disorientation, while DP Matthew Rogers’ cinematography repeatedly play with our perspective. The desert vistas may be vast, the ancient megalithic arches may be mysterious and awe-inspiring, but here no one – including us – can ever fully see the bigger picture.

Like the rock formation from which it takes its title, and whose two words might be repurposed to describe the film’s porously fragile, self-ironising plot, Delicate Arch offers a timeless portal onto parallel worlds with a big hole (a narrative lacuna or semantic void, both demanding and denying interpretation) at its centre, and leaves us feeling trapped in these landscapes of emptiness and alienation, with eyes wide shut, both wandering and wondering if there is anybody out there.

strap: Matthew Warren’s metacinematic, psychonautic feature debut frames its characters in a trippy existentialist trap

© Anton Bitel