In the middle of the Sonoran Desert, somewhere near the U.S.-Mexico border, a grizzled figure stirs. He rises from the scrub and rubs his eyes, as if emerging from a long, deep sleep. This is Sundog, the subject of Lisa Malloy and J.P. Sniadecki’s dusty, contemplative documentary feature A Shape of Things to Come. Sundog – who looks a bit like the love child of Christopher Lee and Leon Russell – wears a bewildering assortment of ragged hats. He is a hermit, eccentric, survivalist, herbalist, mystic, and (maybe) terrorist. In many respects, Malloy and Sniadecki’s film is an anthropological documentary in the tradition of Nanook of the North (1922), with all the fact vs. fiction obfuscation that implies. The feature spends 73 minutes sketching this curious individual through the close observation of his habits, but in the end, Sundog remains something of a knotty mystery. It is fitting that the viewer’s introduction to the man involves him springing seemingly ex nihilo from the sage and creosote, given that he resembles nothing so much as an avatar of the desert. Sundog might have assumed his rumpled post-hippie form out of convenience, but in the filmmakers' conception he embodies something much more ancient and cosmic.
Straightaway, the co-directors establish their hands-off approach, silently following along as Sundog goes about his daily life. He hunts and butchers a wild peccary, divvying up the spoils between his hogs, his cats, and himself. He harvests the secret bounty of the Sonoran scrub, carefully picking leaves, flowers, and fruits from the plant life the grows near his ramshackle house. He collects psychoactive venom from desert toads, carefully extruding the fluid onto a piece of glass and later scraping up the dried substance with a razor. He squints suspiciously at U.S. Border Patrol monitoring stations that have been erected in the region, and mutters curses at the agency’s vehicles as he drives past them in his clattering pickup truck. He occasionally ventures into the nearby town to check out library books or to just cut loose at a blues-rock show.
To say there is a plot here would be generous: A Shape of Things to Come is deliberately fragmentary, bordering on impressionistic. The filmmakers capture snippets of Sundog’s existence that are alternately illuminating and perplexing, but they rarely stitch those pieces together to produce a traditional narrative. There are miniature arcs where some sense of chronology is necessary, as in the collection, preservation, and eventual ingestion of the toad venom, or in Sundog’s escalating tensions with the mostly faceless Border Patrol. In general, however, the sensation conjured by the film is one that feels pointedly out of time, unshackled from the atomized rise-and-grind routine of contemporary existence.
Of course, the modern world has a way of finding its way inside the barricades. In some instances, the intrusion is an invited one. Sundog still listens to recorded music in his desert hideaway – Leonard Berstein and A Flock of Seagulls both pop up on his personal soundtrack – and he keeps a cellular flip phone for occasional conversations with friends. (The co-directors never interrogate their subject directly, so these one-sided phone calls offer a rare platform for Sundog to articulate his broadly paranoid, New Age worldview.) Other incursions into his personal Eden are less welcome, as epitomized by the Border Patrol surveillance drones and monitoring stations that vex him throughout the film. Eventually, Sundog's seething frustration at these disturbances prompt him to take up his .30-06 rifle and engage in a spectacular bit of direct-action resistance. Or so the film suggests, although it remains ambiguous whether the fallout constitutes shocking reality or anarchistic fantasy – or some mischievous blend of the two.
Despite the film’s relatively simple components, A Shape of Things to Come is doing a couple of different things, not all of them wholly successfully. On one level, it’s a relatively aloof but broadly sympathetic portrait of an individual pursuing an unconventional way of life. Sundog is an undeniably colorful character, and there’s a low-key allure in simply watching him putter around his little world, as much a part of the desert ecosystem as a gnarled mesquite or sunning rattlesnake. Malloy and Sniadecki rely on long takes that revel in the motion, texture, and sound of a man in his element: eating dinner, gathering herbs, brewing tea, feeding hogs, shitting in a pot. Sound design is crucial here, as Sundog’s endless mumbling and grunting – and his sporadic bursts of singing, yelping, and swearing – are essential components of the film’s de-romanticized depiction of life (mostly) off the grid.
This approach makes for a mellow, reflective documentary, one where the possibility of drama is inherently limited by the fact that there is essentially only one character. Although Malloy and Sniadecki do convey some of the Sonoran Desert’s uncanny, hardscrabble beauty, their film’s scruffy, lo-fi aesthetic is not well suited to capturing vivid, majestic landscape imagery. Which fits the film's ambitions fine: A Shape of Things to Come is not interested in gawking at scenery, but in closely observing Sundog and perhaps trying to unpack the mystery of him. In this, the directors’ loose but attentive approach occasionally pays dividends, as the idiosyncrasies and contradictions in their subject’s lifestyle gradually emerge. The man’s complex identity is primarily expressed not through declamation but through action: a hunter, but also an animal lover; a Luddite, but also a pragmatist; a pacifist, but also a would-be eco-terrorist.
Were A Shape of Things to Come merely a verité portrait of an oddball hermit, it would be a modestly interesting but still relatively conventional documentary. However, the style employed by Malloy and Sniadecki often suggests something stranger, moodier, and more apprehensive. (The title, not incidentally, is derived from a 1933 H.G. Wells sci-fi story, famously adapted by the author himself for the 1936 film Things to Come.) Burbling with deep-space tones and digital hiss, the feature’s restless ambient score alludes to both its subject’s far-out ethos and his tetchy suspicions vis-à-vis technocratic authority. Indeed, the whole film has a subtle but distinctive dystopian vibe, as though it were unfolding in a not-too-distant future of omnipresent surveillance, depleted resources, and environmental devastation. The film also nods to psychedelic, post-apocalyptic features such as Silent Running (1972) and Phase IV (1974), particularly in its explicitly reality-warping final sequence.
This passage is the clearest sign that Malloy and Sniadecki are striving for something nervy and slightly experimental, evidently in an attempt to shepherd the viewer into Sundog’s unique headspace. The man’s uneasy, complicated attitude towards the larger civilized world cycles through various modes of apathy, hostility, and above-it-all Zen enlightenment, and the film’s slightly trippy style gives expression to this ambivalence. Although this lends A Shape of Things to Come a dash of artistic vibrancy, it also feels like a strained, ultimately ineffective attempt at forced subjectivity. Rather than harmonizing with the film’s generally empathetic depiction of Sundog, the addition of hallucinogenic flourishes just reveals the filmmakers’ lack of imagination. Ironically, the more forcefully that A Shape of Things to Come employs its art-doc style to plunge the viewer into its protagonist’s quasi-mystical outlook, the more ossified and uninspired the feature ends up feeling.
A Shape of Things to Come is now available to rent via virtual cinemas from Projectr. Purchase a ticket between March. 12 - 25 and the proceeds will help support the Webster University Film Series.