My first introduction to the work of surrealist auteur Charles Davis was his 2016 feature, Eddie Glum, and while his most recent work, Athas, seems to promise a more digestible narrative than that film, which centered around a race of malevolent aliens feeding on humans in the wake of a giant woman falling to Earth and a bowling alley filled with mannequins, it ultimately proves even more elusive to grasp. Davis plays the lead, a writer who has decided to rent a room at an inn to get in some quiet time to focus on his work. The owner of the inn (Leslie Dame) invites him in but her people skills seem a bit underdeveloped as she seems to barely tolerate his existence with an unflinching scowl and no patience for small talk that isn’t about the man’s writing.
Outside of that I can’t say much for sure, there’s a typewriter (he’s told that his laptop won’t function at the inn, advice he seems to accept implicitly) and a radio that plays music when he first arrives but this gives way to static before beginning to flatly broadcast certain words which the man interprets as guided inspiration for his writing, finding himself nearly finished after a few days despite nothing on the radio making any sense. There are moments of character development, like when the man explains to the innkeeper that he’s felt like his head has been on fire while at the inn but is then dejected by the fact that it lacks the hallmarks of a creative mind as characterized by her father.
Interpretation of work this abstract often tells you more about the person doing the interpreting than the work itself and Davis seems to welcome this with little desire to elaborate on his intent with his work. There seem to be recurring themes of alienation and isolation, as his characters talk past each other, devoid of anything resembling human connection. It’s a world of existential meaninglessness, where labels are given to things arbitrarily without regard for their function, as with a game room that is decorated with a throne and weapons “because they’re fun” even though this is clearly not a place where anyone has ever had any fun.
Athas is a largely quiet work, with small islands of interaction and plot development surrounded by oceans of silent introspection and while the realities of what was achieved and why largely remain elusive, the process of contending with that confusion has a certain meditative quality. Athas is quite the solemn experience and not one I would recommend watching with anyone else, something I also felt with Eddie Glum. It’s a very personal experience and the mood that it communicates through its visual storytelling will resonate with anyone that has struggled to find an identity through creative expression even if many of the questions it raises remain unresolved.
You can view the film on AMAZON here.