Flowering Slugs

Unlike cinders inhabiting warm ashes, snails love damp earth. They go along glued to it. They carry it with them. They eat it. They excrete it. They go through it as it goes through them, the one simultaneously bathing and feeding the other, which covers ground at the same time it eats it. —Francis Ponge

With a running time of two hundred and four minutes, the avant-garde documentary Sudden Death features two-dozen octogenarians playing Bingo in expectation of one of their number suddenly crying out victory. The setting is the basement of the Saint Thomas cathedral one Saturday night. Spliced in, in a few and far-between moments, footage of snail-infested grow bags and more snails clinging to the undersides of lime-colored leaves. Boys setting salt mound traps in snails’ pathways. A snail stuck to a pail hanging from a beam over a brick-lined well. Snails living in and out of the woodpiles near log cabins aswarm with the kids of Camp Quiet Sierra.

Topiary features horticulturists shearing shrubs into animal shapes along Grand Avenue. Behind the reflective glass rising up in the background, tourists crane their necks to look skyward: Calder’s mobiles turn as imperceptibly as celestial bodies. Cut to a common house spider ballooning through a bright kitchen. Cut to a snail inching over tears in rancid linoleum. Cut to snails sliming the Plexiglas rooftop, tilted toward the sun, of a middle schooler’s science project simulating in miniature a public utility desalinating seawater. The mollusks the filmmaker Arkemy glorifies go slowly and half blind, their tentacles to act as feelers.

In Interstate, a film shot from a fixed spot not a far cry different from Formerly a Forest, men working off fines for crimes like drunk driving pick up trash along the highway heading north from here. In a picnic scene set in the shadow of a lone oak tree a hundred miles farther north, a snail crests a rim pouring itself into a Tupperware container.

Mopping architectural glass with telescopic poles and squeegees, the window washers of Ascension motor up and down the sides of buildings on such modest platforms as make a dull circus act. Or it’s the seed of a poem and not an act, when the snails in the public garden below propel themselves forward on a single, flat foot secreting mucus. “There’s no going backwards,” we hear someone say, “but there is time to go back.” This is the only discernible speech in the Arkemy catalogue. He loves his silence, does he not? He emphasizes incidental noises. Human voices run together.

He makes a name for himself filming perfect strangers. No one you see is ever identifiable. “Snails,” he reminds us, “are faceless,” and so his anonymous subjects stand outside polling sites and post offices. They form a line going half way around the block waiting for a blockbuster to open. They wait at the bus stop in their hats and long coats and various slacks and dresses. Briefcases rest at their feet. Bags hang from their shoulders. They hang their heads to look at their devices. They wait like spiders wait or like religious people in forgetful anticipation of the Second Coming. “All species,” says Arkemy, “have the act of waiting in common.”

In the same interview, he asks us what we see when we walk through a wet park. He says, “Get a whiff of it.” He says, “Scoop our share of soil.” He tells us in a way that frankly I find pretentious that, like the snail, we bury our mouths in the earth in a kind of perpetual feasting. As if to embarrass us, he adds, “And if you think we have nothing in common with our friends the snails, like them we each have our own little anus.”