Discover more from nonlinearities
08: Lake Forest Park
On Kersti Jan Werdal’s Lake Forest Park (2021), and on oblique sorts of narratives.
“Do you know that guy?”
In the aftermath of a traumatic event, life carries on. Everything is the same and yet everything is different. This is the idea behind Los Angeles based photographer and filmmaker Kersti Jan Werdal’s Lake Forest Park (2021), a film not so much about a tragedy as it is about the period which follows one. An accident has taken place, a gun has gone off, and now a teenager is dead, but in the film, this pertinent information is introduced so slyly that it could almost be missed. Lake Forest Park begins with several ordinary landscapes: a bumpy road, an empty car park, and a run-down cinema facade. There is no human presence at all, no signs of life other than the pitter-patter of rain and the low rumbles of distant passing cars. Then, over several images showing a series of innocuous-looking road-sides, snippets of a radio news broadcast, made to be almost inaudible, are played out. A librarian has found the body of a 16-year-old boy “lying in rain-soaked bushes,” much like those seen in the accompanying frames, a report reveals. He died as the result of an “accidental gunshot wound to the head,” having recently been charged with carrying a weapon himself. Rumours have been going around the high school the boy had attended, and “a 13-year-old suspect has been arrested,” but much else remains unclear. The date, time, and location of these events are not stated, and it is not evident from the glimpses of crackling audio how these teenagers got their hands on firearms, or why they felt that they needed them. Nothing is revealed about the perpetrator or the victim, nor anything about their relation. Much is missing from this story; all that is present is a skeletal narrative onto which a body of detail and texture can be transposed, and the story’s tragic ending.
As the film continues, it becomes clear that the specifics of the accident are not what matters, only that it has taken place. Instead of showing Chekhov’s gun, Werdal starts with what happens after the weapon has gone off. She has no real interest in investigating the incident, nor in speculating about its causes or the circumstances through which it happened. Instead, her interest is in something more immaterial: in transmitting a sense of feeling, and in showing, on one level, how mood can become embedded in a landscape, and, on another, how a viewer reads the meaning of ostensibly neutral images when a context for them has already been pre-established. Watching, a viewer is encouraged to wonder: would this film play differently if the contextualising opening news broadcast was omitted, or are the images and music potent enough to convey the sense of pain and loss that is palpable in the air entirely on their own? Lasting 60 minutes, and consisting only of a cascading series of beautifully framed, delicately textured static 16mm compositions with almost no dialogue and little in the way of dramatic occurrences, with Lake Forest Park, Werdal’s focus is largely on form, using a sparse, modest approach as a means of experimenting with the generation, and transmission, of mood: how much can be shown just through images and their sequencing; how much can be said without stating anything at all?
The film is effective in this experiment. With images that are not just attractive but also consistently resonant too, and a sparingly used folk guitar score by Marisa Anderson that cumulatively settles under the skin, the film always feels loaded with feeling. Part of the strength is in the setting: the location here is as strong a presence as any character is, and also what informs the film’s aesthetic. Talking about Lake Forest Park, the suburb in Western Washington where Werdal spent her childhood and where the film is set, the filmmaker said that “growing up in a place that rains most of the year [...] I think it’s pretty hard not to develop a strong relationship to the environment. It guides behaviour, and accompanies memories.” Depicting the sort of wet, wintry Pacific Northwest landscapes that aligns Lake Forest Park immediately with similarly moody environmental films by Gus Van Sant or Kelly Reichardt, Werdal uses a consistently cold, grey-green visual palette that makes the film’s passing scenes all feel forlorn and one of a piece. Given the lack of narrative shape, this cohesion feels essential, acting as a sort of structuring force that guides the edit in the place of any developing character arcs or linear narrative direction.
It is also because of Werdal’s method. When shooting the film, which is a sort-of hybrid but probably wouldn’t be described as such by its director, Werdal discarded the script she had written, instead giving her cast of local non-actors scene-by-scene instructions and letting them improvise the outcomes. As a consequence, scenes have an ordinary sort of realism, feeling like actual people having genuine moments within real places rather than something more fake or constructed. If Van Sant can be seen as an influence, this film is arguably the inverse of his Paranoid Park, wherein a fictitious story was lent legitimacy through the application of a form of documentary realism. Here, a documentary subject is realised through a fiction film method. Closer to reinterpretation than recreation, the film becomes a fabrication responding to reality.
Scenes pass by one by one, collectively making up the constituent parts of a story shuffled out of any logical order. An empty football field at night, lit by floodlights; two teens in a school bathroom, putting eyeliner on each another; a boy shooting hoops alone, methodically over and over; a hand petting a dog; a couple’s first kiss; a girl asleep in a car seat, raining lashing heavily against the windows. As well as functioning as isolated story beats for an unrealised narrative, these scenes also show the automatic actions of grief-stricken people acting on a sort of robotic autopilot. Instead of foregrounding one person’s story in the wake of a tragedy, with its micro-moments that propel forward more like disparate pictures collected in a photo album than the linear progression of a traditional written narrative, Werdal’s film offers a spread of individualised moments that together encompass the abstract grid of group memory and collective experience. In frames that are shot either in abstract, almost Bressonian closeups, or from a calculated, isolating distance, people talk idly and inconclusively, often at a volume that is barely discernible. Things happen, time passes, people gravitate around each other, and time lurches slowly forward despite appearing slackened by the dull fog of shock and ambient sorrow. The sense of loss remains pervasive even though nothing overtly sombre is ever actually occurring.
The film is withholding, but when examined closely identifying details do appear, present more as background mysteries than anything overt or heavy-handed. In Lake Forest Park’s credits, James Benning is listed as a consultant, and midway through the film, several teens are seen watching Landscape Suicide—a landscape film he made about various histories of violence in America. While part of Landscape Suicide involves a case in which one teenager stabbed another and its inclusion is likely a link to the real incident that forms the basis of Lake Forest Park’s own treatise on grief and the aftereffects of violence, Landscape Suicide is also seemingly included as a way of signalling the sort of film Lake Forest Park intends to be, its rigorous structuralism, its commitment to minimalism and negation, and the work and patience Werdal expects of a viewer engaging with it. Elsewhere, a news piece heard on a television off-screen contextualises the era that Lake Forest Park takes place in, something that is hinted at through the characters’ period-recognisable costuming but is never explicitly stated. Talking about the rise of eBay selling, the news reporter mentions the company’s “first seller conference,” an event that took place in June 2002 in Anaheim, California. The fact that this identifying detail is even further in the background than the death that forms the film’s centre also says something about Werdal’s attraction to what she calls “inconclusive endings, steering away from any fabricated drama, and leaning into restraint rather than spelling out what is happening or why to the audience.” Beyond how beautiful the film’s images are and how transfixing they become through their sequencing, this sort of concealed, almost invisible detail is what makes this film particularly fascinating. What works as superficial set dressing is equally effective as a layer of context and as a carrier of meaning. “I’d prefer the viewer have more agency rather than dictate how they should feel,” Werdal says in that same interview, and, as a seemingly simple landscape film that rewards repeat visitation, Lake Forest Park works equally well when absorbed passively as it does when put under closer scrutiny.
Kersti Jan Werdal’s Lake Forest Park (2021) screened at various festivals including Camden International Film Festival 2021, IDFA 2021, and Prismatic Ground 2022. More information about Kersti Jan Werdal can be found here. To receive more articles like this, please subscribe. The writing in this newsletter will always be free-to-read, but donations are very welcome.