THE SEEKER: Cloud Cult’s Meditative Foray Into Experimental Cinema
[Published at Film Inquiry] For most people, the experimental indie rock band from Duluth, Minnesota, Cloud Cult, has been under the radar for the past 22 years. That’s about to change. The band, led by Craig Minowa, who provides the story, has produced and written their first feature length film. At only 63 minutes in runtime, The Seeker contains no dialogue except for Minowa’s lyrics and Cloud Cult’s music. One can think of it as a music video set to the entire album of the same name that tells one, cohesive story. It is the first of its kind in both the medium of music and film.
Cloud Cult’s collective sound is a mix of Brian Eno, Tom Twyker, M83, Family Of The Year, RJD2, Angels and Airwaves, and Radiohead. If you’re familiar with half of these artist or groups, you can infer that their music is considerably cinematic. Indeed, the meditative, orchestral, rock and pop infused sound of the group goes well with the transcendentally stunning, beautifully shot spectacle of visuals that director Jeff D. Johnson produces in The Seeker. However, the lyrics, though heartfelt and sincere they may be, based on a tragedy surrounding Minowa 15 years prior, are too heavy-handed, and, at times, jarring when juxtaposed with the poetic, visual narrative unfolding.
Regardless of sporadic lyrical shortcomings, Cloud Cult’s vision is brought to life by Johnson’s direction and his and co-cinematographer and co-screenwriter, Chad Amour’s breathtaking manipulation of cinematic time and unique observations of nature and inanimate motifs. Undoubtedly inspired by the work of Terrence Malick, sometimes to its detriment, Cloud Cult, Johnson, and Amour’s The Seeker is an ambitious reconstruction of the silent film genre.
The Visual Narrative Is Enough
Cloud Cult’s music is nothing groundbreaking, but melodically, it is pleasing on the ears. However, Minowa screams his lyrics in a pitchy manner that offsets the story that is trying to be told in The Seeker. These lyrics are, for the most part, a literal commentating of the events occurring onscreen; it becomes redundant and distracting. Minowa’s story, Cloud Cult’s instrumentals, and Amour and Johnson’s imagery are enough to give the viewer a pristine idea of The Seeker’s plot. Throughout a decent portion of the first half of the film’s runtime, audiences will likely wish Minowa would take a breather and let the story be told naturally by the moving pictures.
It is a story about the cosmic effects of tragic loss, grief, and time’s ability to damage as much as it can heal. It is also a humanistic pondering of the “great unknown,” as Minowa words it repeatedly, that which we cannot see but eternally seek.
Josh Radnor was approached for this project after one of Cloud Cult’s tracks was featured on an episode of How I Met Your Mother. As the father of the central character, Grace, played by three different female actresses at different times in her life, Radnor has 15 minutes of screen time. Though short it may be, he absorbs every frame, taking full advantage of his role. The naturalistic interactions with his daughter and wife (Amanda Day) provide an essential realism in the otherwise mystical atmosphere created in The Seeker.
Johnson and Amour do a superb job of creating natural lighting with sunlight and saturating it in the post-production process to create a surreal mood in the first half. The second half is primarily characterized by a darker hue in every frame as the ramifications of Grace’s past are magnified with age. The present-day Grace is played with nuance by Alex McKenna. Her journey is harrowing, but ultimately uplifting.
The Creative Process Is A Part Of The Plot
Cloud Cult has always experimented with scoring, in some form or another. They used to perform their lives shows while a painting would be made on stage, and auction off the painting after the show. These paintings were visual transpositions of the emotion of each onstage performance. A feature-length film was always the endgame. Over the past year, Cloud Cult has played their live shows of the album, The Seeker, while the film plays onstage. I can only imagine how much more immersive and emotive that experience is. In The Seeker’s instance, a live performance is how this film was meant to be seen.
Minowa incorporates the old Cloud Cult tradition of painting into the The Seeker’s storyline. Grace and her father created things when she was a child. Model boats, planes, automobiles. Painting them together was their way of bonding. These memories become more visceral and affecting to Grace as she gets older, prompting her spiritual mecca to self-discovery and emotional and physical closure.
Eventually, the striking beauty of nature takes the forefront of The Seeker, drowning out Minowa’s vocals to the betterment of the film. This project, in and of itself, is a work in progress. Minowa’s willingness to expose his creative process, which can a be an extremely intangible, personal thing to most artists, through a medium as all-encompassing as film, is laudable. Like any process, it’s a learning curve, but if The Seeker is just the beginning of Cloud Cult’s new ambitions, it represents an impressive start, to say the least.
More Than Worth The Hour
A lot of audiences nowadays hear the words “musical,” “experimental,” or “silent film,” and become immediately turned off about the idea of seeing anything that bares those labels. Don’t succumb to these instincts with The Seeker. Initially, I didn’t know what to expect because the concept behind The Seeker was relatively unknown to me. I questioned whether or not I would maintain interest after the introduction of Minowa’s off-putting vocals. To the viewer’s pleasure, there is nothing boring about the film’s hour-long runtime. The second half is full of surprises, and the tonal shifts are seamlessly executed.
Most impressive about Cloud Cult is that it was made on a next-to-nothing budget, with absolutely no CGI (a certain storm scene in the ocean offers some of the more wondrous shots in cinema in recent memory). Overall, The Seeker is an imaginative feast for the eyes. Whoever that Jeff D. Johnson is (Cloud Cult’s tour manager and freelance videographer for the last 10 years), he has one hell of a promising career as a filmmaker. As for Cloud Cult, The Seeker is a testament to their commitment to exploring new heights in the synergy between music and visual artistry.
Are you a fan of Cloud Cult? Did you enjoy The Seeker more as a film or as an album?
The Seeker was released June 20 in the US and Canada on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo.