Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks
Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s For the Plasma bills itself as a “lo-fi mind bender…that flirts with sci-fi and horror conventions, even as it subverts them.” The ostensible plot centers on Helen (Rosalie Lowe), a young woman living in a remote town on the Maine coast, who monitors cameras in the surrounding forest for signs of a fire. Charlie (Anabelle LeMieux) arrives to give her friend a hand in this simple profession. During a cryptic discussion, Charlie learns that Helen has figured out how to change her perception of the forest images from the CCTV cameras in order to “predict” financial changes in world markets. The results have begun making her another income and she wants Charlie to help her by occasionally journeying out to check on cameras and compare Helen’s perceptions to reality. As Charlie becomes more involved with Helen’s work, conflict arises and the girls find their friendship strained to a breaking point.
For the Plasma is itself a cryptic film, the sort without any clear delineation of plot or even characterization. Helen and Charlie make up the main human actors in this drama, but they are joined by the lighthouse keeper Herbert (Tom Lloyd), who adds his own little dose of weirdness to the mix. The rest of the film is primarily populated by the image, and it is in the image, more so than any cursory narrative, that the most meaning can be derived. Shot in 16mm – a deliberate aping of the frame of a CCTV camera – For the Plasma features lovely, vibrant images of the Maine coast, that offer the viewer, as well as Charlie and Helen, an opportunity to decode; to form meaning out of the complex order of nature.
This emphasis on the creation of meaning out of the image makes up the main theme of the film. Helen’s analysis of the CCTV images is arbitrary: she relates her understanding to financial markets, but admits that she could have chosen anything and produced similar results. Yet Helen’s conclusions prove to be correct. She ties one arbitrary assignment of meaning (images of trees in Maine) to another arbitrary assignment of meaning (financial markets). For the Plasma likewise goes to some lengths to create provocative and cryptic images that cannot make up a single, concrete meaning for the viewer to take away. The use of frames, what is inside and outside of them, reflects on the nature of filmmaking itself, and the meaning assigned to individual images put together in a particular order. Despite its nods to this kind of symbolic complexity, For the Plasma is more confounding than it is deep, apparently refusing the assignment of meaning while insisting that there is still something underlying it. It’s neither an experimental work, nor is it particularly surreal or intellectual, pasting together concepts without clarity of purpose.
I’m sure that its acolytes will say that For the Plasma is deliberately confounding, offering up the image as something inherently unknowable and meaningless until assigned symbolism by the human mind. Despite this Derridean emphasis, however, there is something curiously lacking in a film that aspires to a certain kind of philosophical depth. There’s simply nothing there, nothing provocative or interesting in the images that Bryant and Molzan produce. The characters speak in curious, clipped tones, more like computers than human beings. There’s a consistent sense of the robotic – emphasized by an electronica score by Keiichi Suzuki – that underlies the human beings, forming a contrast between them and the natural world in which they attempt to discover order.
For the Plasma grapples with heady concepts, but is unable to present its argument with any real artistry. I ended the film with the sense that the filmmakers believed they were being clever, but were unwilling or unable to follow through on the very thematics they chose to introduce. Symbols and symbolism, image and imagery, the conceptualization of meaning in what is inherently meaningless—these are all fundamental concerns of artistic filmmaking. For the Plasma seems to want to say something about all of them, yet cannot begin to articulate. All we’re left with are some very pretty images, pleasant in themselves, and unformed by a coherent artistic thesis. For the Plasma is certainly a film, with images and characters and dialogue, but that in itself does not give it merit. For all its beauty, it is also dull; for all its attempts at depth, it proves itself hollow.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)