“Automatic at Sea,” a new film shot on the Vineyard, will play at the Capawock Sunday, July 30, at 6 pm. Longtime summer resident David Henry Gerson produced the film, and plays a central role in it.
Filled with arresting images, this unusual film uses a plot structure based on dreams that might be called anti-narrative. The title came to the director, Matthew Lessner, in a dream. Gerson suggests it has similarities to the automatic painting of the surrealists. Viewers will recognize many Vineyard locales where “Automatic at Sea” was shot.
Gerson plays Peter, identified as a wealthy heir living on a private island. The Swedish actress Livia Hiselius, whom the director met while living in Sweden, plays Eve. Coming to the U.S. for the first time, she accepts Peter’s invitation to visit the island. Peter’s world is strange and disturbing, and Eve responds to it in Swedish voiceover meditations; subtitles are provided for the viewers. A third character, Grace, played by Vineyard actress and summer visitor Breeda Wool, arrives with plenty of chutzpah. “He is very dangerous. Keep an eye on him,” she warns Eve. Grace confronts Eve often with homoerotic innuendoes, even professing to love her, and the two seem to join forces in opposition to Peter.
Dancing and swimming are recurrent motifs, along with scenes in a barn where Peter disappears, warning Eve not to enter. At one point Eve launches a dinghy into the ocean in what seems like an attempt to escape the island, but she ends up with the boat in a tree. Another striking image depicts a series of nude women stretched out on the limbs of a tree. Characters are often shown reading “Magic Eye II,” a bestseller filled with 3D images. Eventually Eve tells Peter she wants to leave, but each time she tries to, she ends up back at Peter’s.
Music and costumes both contribute to “Automatic at Sea.” Rene Hell, one of the aliases of musician Jeff Witscher, provides much of the soundtrack, but classic pop tunes like Lesley Gore’s “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and Bing Crosby’s rendition of “Don’t Be That Way,” along with Mozart, help weave together an eclectic mix of sounds to accompany the hallucinogenic images. An array of costumes designed by Krissie Torgerson and worn by Eve and Grace help create the sense that these women have lost track of time. Gerson says that because it was a low-budget film, the costumes were a cost-effective way to reflect its surreal qualities. Danielle Mulcahy of the Vineyard’s Barnyard Saints designed a faun costume that Peter appears in.
Gerson met Lessner at the 2011 Sundance Festival, and they won the audience award at Sundance in 2014 for their short film, “Chapel Perilous.”
“We wanted to bring together the artist community I had known from growing up on the Vineyard to collaborate on making a film together on the Island,” Gerson says.