Review by Sean Boelman
It would hardly be an overstatement to call Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s experimental documentary Crestone one of the most unique and unorthodox selections that was set to premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. And while it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Hertzler’s film is able to prove in a mere seventy-three minutes the immense range that film has as both a visual and an aural medium.
Though the film lacks a strict narrative, the movie takes a look at the lives of a group of musical artists living together in Crestone, Colorado as they live together getting high and making music to be posted on the internet. Although one wouldn’t expect a documentary about SoundCloud rappers to be as innovative and well done as this, Hertzler defies all expectations.
Unlike most films that don’t have an obvious through-line, Crestone moves along at a solid pace thanks to the narration provided by the subjects and Hertzler herself. Hertzler introduces herself into the story at the beginning as a former high school friend of the subjects who decided to reunite with them in order to document their lives and use that footage to make a movie about them.
However, Hertzler frequently blurs the line between reality and perceived reality in what is shown on screen. There is complete honesty as to the way in which the characters are portrayed on screen, but Hertzler plays with the audience’s mind by distorting the viewer’s view of the world, creating a similar disorientation to that experienced by the subjects.
Perhaps Hertzler’s biggest success with this movie is that she is able to draw the audience into the world of the subjects with ease. The film almost has a tongue-in-cheek nature about it as it explores the unusual lifestyle that these self-promoting rappers have created for themselves. Viewers will be endeared to the players in the movie through their unique personalities and senses of humor.
Hertzler had her start as a maker of experimental shorts, some of which have found success on the festival circuit, and that avant garde style is clearly evident in the visuals of her feature debut. There is something gorgeous about this film’s hypnotic and surreal visuals, juxtaposing the harsh and unwelcoming environment of the desert with the playfully poetic interactions happening in the foreground.
Even more impressive, though, is what Hertzler is able to do with the movie’s soundscape. Of course, the soundtrack is composed of songs written and performed by the film’s subjects, and their quality will be dictated by personal taste. That said, the objectively intriguing part of the movie’s sound design is the way in which Hertzler uses the soundtrack and other sound effects to create the feeling of a not-quite-real world.
With Crestone, Marnie Ellen Hertzler experiments with documentary techniques unlike anyone else ever has before. By refusing to limit herself with the confines of traditional narrative, she has successfully crafted one of the most perplexing films to come out in quite a while.
Crestone was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.