This Art Film Tells A Dark Family History Through Haunting Masks

Molly Lowe’s ‘Redwood' uses 50 masks to share a complex tale.

by Taylor Grace Lindsay
Mar 19 2016, 3:00pm

Photo credit: Andy Romer. All images courtesy of Pioneer Works

Imagine that you've received a memory transplant. Could you keep the new memories separate from your own?  This is one of the curious concepts behind Redwood, the feature-length film from artist/sculptor/painter Molly Lowe. The narrative includes time travel, meditations on a dark family history, and futuristic brain connecting to counteract dementia—and every character wears a handmade mask.

Pioneer Works, a Brooklyn-based a multidisciplinary arts nonprofit, commissioned the two-year project, hosted much of its filming, and now facilitates the exhibit. Three main set pieces are on display: a fantastic redwood stump projects out of the ceiling three stories above, a sandy hill forms an unmistakable single breast, a beachy slope rolls upwards and tumbles into bedding, glowing with moonlight. Also on display are the 50 handcrafted masks of clay and vacuum-formed plastic that Lowe designed and sculpted. They range in emotion, but keep identities purposefully ambiguous. 

Photo credit: Andy Romer

The story told in Redwood is deeply personal. Two women perform a futuristic memory transfer by hooking their heads together via glowing tubes and cords. One of the women represents Lowe, the other is her grandmother, staving off dementia. During this tubular exchange, memories are handed off—but which of these are her grandmother’s, and which are her own?

Photo credit: Andy Romer

Real-life Lowe had a close relationship with her late grandmother, who couldn’t fully pursue her passion as a painter while caring for her children and an alcoholic husband. As she passed down her stories, she lived vicariously in Lowe’s future; simultaneously, Lowe found herself entranced with her grandmother’s past. “Even when I was talking with other people or going somewhere, her stories were constantly playing in my head,” she told The Creator’s Project.

Photo credit: Andy Romer

The film itself plays on repeat in a dark room at the exhibit’s center. It is dialogue-free; breathing, minimalist music, lapping waves and a single gunshot are the single-hour drama’s soundtrack.

Photo credit: Andy Romer

As scenes overlap each other like memories melding—from a garden to a grave, a swing dance hall to a buzzing neon club—you get the feeling that a young Molly held these memories in tightly cupped hands, letting nothing slip through her fingers, not even the blurry bits. Every remembrance portrayed onscreen has that uncanny memory-like aura; you remember the feeling of it so clearly, but the visual details are hazier. To focus on the facial features of a person or the exact words they spoke would detract from the thrumming sensation of the memory itself. Without a script or fleshy faces, you’re pulled deeper into that warm blur.

Photo credit: Andy Romer

Lowe further explained the masks’ intentional ambiguity. “The masks were an easier way for me to slide between characters,” she says. "My grandmother often confused a lot of family members with each other, so this was a way to unify them and blur them together… that’s how it felt, when she talked about them.”

Photo credit: Andy Romer

Yet the actors are far from muted by the masks. Each character comes alive in tender hesitations, fearful recoiling, and nearly unsettling intimacy. In a closing scene, four artists are painting as a model stands in front of them on a sunny hillside. As a young woman runs up the hill to join them, she sees that the model is the older woman, who reaches out her arm to the new painter. Lowe later explained, “The old woman is dying… this is her wish, for fulfillment for herself and for the generation after her. You’re not just watching the class from outside anymore—you’re a student in the class.”

Photo credit: Andy Romer

From frame to frame, Lowe’s rendering of her family’s story is both delirious and sincere, accessible and sacred. It’s more than a must-see; it’s a must-feel.

Photo credit: Andy Romer

Redwood is showing at Pioneer Works through April 24th. For more information, click here


8 Video Artists Tackle Collective Memory and Hidden Truths

An Old Door Factory Is Now a Giant Art Playground

Watch: The Flying Lotus-Scored Short Film Hits the Web

Watch Memories Turn into Gold in Magical Animation 'The Alchemist's Letter'

Pioneer Works
Molly Lowe