For full disclosure – I have never surfed. I have never even thought that balancing myself on a surf board was something that I should attempt, yet for years I have been fascinated by the sport. I grew up only a short distance from coastal New England (not quite California) and would see various skill levels of attempts of surfing the choppy, chilly waters of New Hampshire and Massachusetts beaches. And then I saw Point Break. For better or worse, Kathryn Bigelow’s film chronicling surfing bank robbers elevated the sport to a realm of fantasy for me; something almost uniquely cinematic that also existed in reality – and, more importantly, a reality that I could witness barely an hour away from where I lived. More than twenty years later, I got that feeling again. Only this time it was via a film not intent on telling a story, yet still managed to capture surfing in a light that – to me – still maintains an aura of fantasy. That is Hangs Upon Nothing.
I was fortunate enough to catch Jeremy Rumas’ film Hangs Upon Nothing in a theater this year with the director in attendance. I had heard little about the film outside of the announcement from Etiquette Pictures that they would be distributing it. I went in knowing two things: it’s about surfing and it is shot on 16mm film. Shot over a period of seven years and featuring a score from Rumas’ band, this is very clearly a passion project and comes off as deeply personal on screen – despite zero reliance on narration from Rumas. The result is a documentary that plays out much more like an essay film – feeling akin to the more personal works of Chris Marker or Chantal Akerman – than any sort of focused documentary. In the talk that followed my screening, Rumas made mention that he was inspired by Baraka – and the marriage of moving image and music (a combination that is constant) is absolutely there, but Rumas’ film ultimately feels removed from the global scope of the cinema of Ron Fricke or even someone like Godfrey Reggio due to how intimate it manages to be.
And that intimacy is as much due to Rumas’ subject(s), editing and locations as it is the other major aspect that will separate it from the vast majority of contemporary documentary cinema: it is shot on film. And not just any type of film either – Rumas shot this on 16mm, a gauge typically utilized for home movies and/or avant-garde work. Using a Bolex, a camera that is cumbersome and only allows for shots that last seconds, Rumas’ film has a sense of urgency to it that we never seen in cinema from Fricke or Reggio. There is no time for timelapse here, we’re dealing with seconds and – especially in surfing – every second counts. Hangs Upon Nothing runs a rather lean 91 minutes, but watching it feels longer than that. Not because it is boring (it never is) but because the rhythm that Rumas establishes with short shots, ends of reels and an inescapable pulsating score brings the film to a sensation of meditation. Watching this in a theater felt right, necessary even. But watching this at home only made it feel even more personal – as if I was watching someone else’s home movies, carefully curated and assembled into one long journey that I only wish that I could have been a part of but am happy to have the privilege of bearing witness to.
Etiquette Pictures have brought Hangs Upon Nothing to Blu-ray for its home video debut and the results are beautiful. This is one of the more organic presentations I’ve seen in HD so far – perforations are visible, rounded frames remain intact and damage and debris isn’t scrubbed. There is a very healthy layer of film grain throughout and none of the integrity of small gauge film has been lost in the transfer process. This is exemplary work. Audio comes through in a 5.1 DTS HD-MA track that handles the constant music very well – you’ll be hard pressed to keep the volume low on this one.
Hangs Upon Nothing comes packaged in a very handsome cardboard digipack that I really can’t give justice to. For a film that clearly cares so much about tactile media, it’s a nice touch from Etiquette to package the film in a way that feels only fitting. Beyond that, onto the disc itself, we have a couple very welcome supplements. We start with a commentary by Rumas which is absolutely worth a listen and may be a good way to begin for those who prefer docs with constant narration – it practically works as a different version of the film. On to a ten minute interview with Rumas titled “About Nothing,” which serves as a nice intro to the project. We then get another ten minute talk with Rumas titled “Surf Celluloid” which goes over the 16mm photography and some of the technical limitations he faced on the project. Lastly, things are rounded out with stills and three different trailers.
Etiquette Pictures have outdone themselves with this release. I can’t recommend Hangs Upon Nothing highly enough, especially for those interested in essay films and/or the sport of surfing. The technical presentation is exemplary and the supplements offer plenty of insight into a personal project. Highly Recommended.