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Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

Like Harmony Korine’s Gummo, Tony Stone’s Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America is the type of film that will polarize critics and audiences, even those sympathetic to independent film. Except for a few positive reviews – most notably by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and a spirited defense of its originality by Mike Ryan on the indie blog Hammer to Nail – most responses are what you might expect from a narrative film that eschews complexity of characterization, plot, and dialogue in favor of a poetic exploration of visuals, sound, and music. Severed Ways is a Modern Gothic period piece that is shot much more like an experimental film or a very inspired home movie, where the actual story is far less interesting or important than the music soundtrack and the spectacular natural landscapes its two main characters traverse for nearly two hours of screen time.

Like so many narratives by younger film directors today, Severed Ways relies on a rough outline rather than a traditional script (see my recent article on this in the Journal of Screenwriting). Stone is much more concerned with improvising while on location – the weather became a major structuring device – which is one of the decided benefits of low-budget digital cinema. For instance, there’s an incredible shot toward the end of the film where Orn chops a tree frantically, and the sun behind him keeps obliterating his image into a burst of white frames as he rhythmically swings his ax.

The stunning imagery of the film continually trumps story, which is what you might expect from someone who studied with a bunch of experimental filmmakers (Peter Hutton, Peggy Ahwesh, and Adolfas Mekas) at Bard College. In an interview on The House Next Door, Stone defends the power of visual storytelling: “There’s so much to show and explain through the visuals, editing and simple pacing. Most films are spending most of their time figuring out how to frame a conversation. It’s pretty liberating to be free of that restraint.”

Based on Thorfinn Karlsefni’s actual expedition from Greenland to the New World, Severed Ways tells the story of two Vikings – Orn (Tony Stone) and Volnard (Fiore Tedesco) – who become stranded after the rest of their party have been slaughtered by the local tribe of Abenaki, whom the Vikings call “skraelings” in 1007 AD. Orn and Volnard wander off into the interior in hopes of finding others and survival. Along the way, they stumble upon a makeshift church with a huge cross and two monks. Orn attacks and kills one of them, while Volnard spares the other one after running him down. We understand his motivation from a previous flashback involving his sister’s love affair with a Christian.

A relationship develops between Volnard and the remaining monk, which epitomizes the split between paganism and Christianity. The scene of the monk washing Volnard’s feet is an obvious religious reference, but also hints at possible erotic overtones. Whatever the case, their secret meetings will have later ramifications for Orn and Volnard, who are revealed to be contrasting characters. Stone at one point provides a dream of Orn’s wife (Gaby Hoffmann), who castigates him for going on the journey and turning out to be “an embarrassment to the Norse.” She also indicates she’s now married to another man “who actually knows how to service me.” In a utter male fantasy, Orn later gets drugged and raped by a female Abenaki, who at first stalks him from a distance. As might be expected, the specter of death hovers over the remainder of the film.

Plot, however, is really beside the point in Severed Ways. The few subtitles are too fast to read, and the minimal dialogue, when understood, appears very stilted (especially when it employs contemporary idioms delivered in highly mannered Old Norse). The huge red chapter headings that are interspersed throughout add an odd sense of gravity, even though they are more or less extraneous or blatantly obvious in terms of the actual story. In lesser hands, Severed Ways might seem laughable – and judging from responses on the Internet, many people consider the film to be just that – but Stone’s insistence on the connection between the Vikings and black metal provides an interesting revisionist spin on the history of this country.

The scene of the two Vikings burning down the church with fiery torches at night, has contemporary parallels to the black metal subculture in Norway, which is reinforced through Stone’s inclusion of soundtrack music by Burzum (Varg Vikernes). A notorious figure in black metal subculture, Vikernes was convicted of murder and setting fires to churches, and spent time in prison for these crimes. In this regard, Severed Ways recalls Banks Violette’s haunting multi-media sculptural installation of a burned-out church, fabricated in salt, at the Whitney Museum in 2005. It featured black metal music by Snorre W. Ruch, who was also associated with Vikernes.

I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Stone made films as a teenager and played as a child in the main locations for the film (which was shot in Vermont, but also apparently in Newfoundland and Maine). With Severed Ways, Stone seemed able to tap into his own childhood and teenage filmmaking as a source of inspiration. He told an interviewer: “I’ve said this a bunch, but as a kid we used to run around, pretend to kill each other, make forts, and build fires, and not much was changed. This is an extension of that cranked up and documented.”

There’s a shot roughly twenty minutes into the film where Orn defecates in closeup, and then wipes himself with leaves from nearby branches – a scene that appears to have grossed out many viewers. Back in college when I saw my first Andy Warhol films, I remember being surprised when Paul America suddenly took a pee in the bathroom scene of My Hustler (1965), and Louis Waldon literally urinated on screen in Lonesome Cowboys (1968). I realized I hadn’t seen that in a film before. In showing the primitive conditions of the early Norse, Stone’s inclusion of such material makes sense. Have folks never gone camping? If moviegoers are really so shocked and disgusted by this, then Stone’s deliberate in-your-face attitude might provide a much-needed corrective.

Throughout Severed Ways, Stone emphasizes the sheer physicality of early exploration. The Vikings chop down trees, build shelters, spear fish in the creek, slaughter and eviscerate chickens, make fires, and seem to walk endlessly through thick brush and forests. Stone’s approach is a lot like that of Lance Hammer in Ballast. He’s less interested in a dialogue-driven film than in how we actually experience the characters. He commented: “But I think you can read a lot into people by their physicality, how they walk, chop. I think it’s more accurate and fairer to the characters. I think it’s far more interesting to decipher characters by actions than words that conveniently tell you who these people are immediately and give you their backstory within five minutes of watching a movie. That’s not how life works.” One memorable shot shows Orn headbanging to black metal while chopping a tree – a visual joke involving the chapter heading titled “camp,” as well as a playful joke about the relationship between diegetic and non-diegetic sound in film.

Just as Warhol was apt to point his camera at something other than the main action, that’s equally true of Stone. We get the closeup of Orn previously mentioned or a plant or grass against the sky, but some important narrative action might be filmed so closely with a shaky mobile camera or in such an extreme wide shot tableau that it’s rendered less legible on a narrative level. One crucial scene involving Volnard resorts to synecdoche. Yet what Stone does choose to focus upon always turns out to be visually fascinating.

Like the very best outsider art, there’s an obsessive quality to Severed Ways – an intensity and insistence to Stone’s eccentric vision that shines through nearly every frame. The film exudes a sense of mad conviction, and, to its credit, Severed Ways is never really predictable. There’s a love of nature, a sense of child-like wonder at the natural world depicted here – a sense of paradise about to be lost as a result of the “discovery” of America by the Norse. On Columbus Day, I happened to pass a protest on campus by a small group of American Indians, who drummed and chanted. One held a sign that read, “The only thing that Columbus discovered was that he was lost.” The same could be said of these Vikings.

While Severed Ways might be much too weird for most mainstream viewers, I’m nevertheless grateful to Magnolia Home Entertainment for releasing this unusual film on DVD. Compared to most of the formulaic movies playing at the local multiplex, I’ll take weird any day.

Posted 16 October, 2009