A Great Lamp. 2019. Directed by Saad Qureshi. Screenplay by Qureshi, Donald R. Monroe, Max Wilde, Spencer Bang, & Steven Maier.
Starring Steven Maier, Spencer Bang, Julian Semilian, Max Wilde, Laura Semilian, Connie Stewart, & Netta Green.
Not Rated. 76 minutes.
At the end of the film, before the credits, a note lets the audience know director Saad Qureshi had a rough Christmas last year, so his friends helped make a film to cheer him up. The result is the odd, poetic, and wonderfully strange feature A Great Lamp. Shot in black-and-white, with a sole sequence bursting in colour, Qureshi’s film is fragmented and surreal piece of cinema about three lost people in a small North Carolina town looking for anything meaningful in existence to which they can cling.
The film’s wandering story takes us through the streets, comedy clubs, squat houses, the suburbs, and even a skating rink. There’s an everyday quality to the locations, all familiar landscapes to anybody, no matter if they’re from North Carolina or, like Father Gore, Canada. Then the editing, the sound design, and all those small moments of surrealism whisk us into the ether, delivering us to a space behind all those locations where the magic – dark or otherwise – of life occurs. Qureshi’s film at times does embody the sadness he apparently was feeling when he started creating it, though there are equally as many times where the beautiful strangeness of life bleeds through, too.
Often the characters feel like they’re in a film self-consciously. They’re actors without a role to play, or characters without a plot to follow. Max (Max Wilde) is a vandal who lives on the streets, aimlessly going from one place to the next with flyers about their grandmother, using wheatpaste to post them anywhere and everywhere possible. They’re caught in a cycle of grief, unable to entirely let go, yet at the same time Max feels they’re forgetting grandma’s voice and she’s slipping away.
Their aimlessness is given a little purpose when he stumbles across Howie (Spencer Bang), who’s left home to come see a rocket launch passing by the town— except that’s not really why he left. These two come together, bonding, learning about each other, leaning on one another in their time of need. Suddenly, Howie’s gone back home after seeing the disconnection Max has with others and the world. Their brief journey together around town is merely a pit stop in existence, just like our lives, in the grand scheme of things, is a blip on the surface of eternity. In spite of life’s fleeting qualities, Howie and Max have found little things to enjoy in life, like listening for the wishes people leave in fountain pennies and finding the hidden lives of objects, of everything around us. And who knows… maybe they meet again, someplace else.
There’s also Gene (Steven Maier). He’s quit a job he hated and afraid to tell his dad, so he goes out all day driving around, doing nothing until dad’s home and he can return. He, too, is lost and floating further into isolation. We see him alone in his room, alone at a skating rink, alone in a movie theatre— the physical spaces of loneliness translate to an obvious psychological loneliness in Gene.
All three characters in A Great Lamp are indicative of millennial angst. They live in an age of endless possibilities, simultaneously caught in a hostile, shifting world without any real foundation. They’re seeking what takes them to that “happy place,” unable to actually find it, grasping at anything and everything for meaning. Work doesn’t give us meaning. Neither can other people give it to us. Christmas captures this feeling perfectly, as a holiday once meant to bring people together only to be perverted by capitalists into a season during which everything’s for sale – especially people’s love/attention – and wholesome holiday sentiment is often garbled by food, drink, and presents rather than focused on the people by whom one’s surrounded. Not sure if Qureshi did it on purpose, but “What a great lamp!” is a quote from A Christmas Story. Feels like a statement’s lurking somewhere in there— a commentary on how modern consumerist Christmas is less about togetherness each passing year. A Christmas without snow in a black-and-white film is likewise an epitomising image of an existentially empty Xmas.
“I was told these shoes would last forever”
“Nothing lasts forever”
A Great Lamp had its world premiere today at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. This is a heartfelt debut, even if it’s, at times, a bit far out there. The surrealist moments might be confusing to some, but they’re gorgeous to watch unfold in front of your eyes. While the film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, Qureshi’s debut feature expresses a desire in the director to explore human suffering and modern friendships on a small scale while treating it with grandiosity, care, and seriousness. Even in the lost and fragile moments these characters exist in a world not devoid of beauty, which breaks into the frame through drawings and letters and crackles of film grain, and despite feelings of aimlessness or a sense that meaning eludes them, the characters realise, in the end, they live in a world where connection and magic is possible, if only you reach out and grab it.