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Creeping Garden, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Best slime mold documentary you'll see this year. Or most years, really."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I take a certain amount of pride in seeing/reviewing movies like this at festivals, and I half think it's why some issue me press passes - a lot of folks will be trying to get into the big Marvel movie, but he is down for the slime mold documentary! And you know what? These movies are often some of the most fascinating wherever they play, especially when they've got a level of polish and style to go along with their intriguing subject matter, as is the case with "The Creeping Garden".

What is a slime mold? Is not an animal, plant, or fungus, though it has characteristics of all three. They most closely resemble the latter - hence the name - but they move (albeit very slowly, about an inch per day) and pulsate when seen on time-lapse. Though found everywhere on Earth, they are peculiar enough to freak people out or inspire curiosity when they turn up, as is the case in a bit of old network news footage that bookends the film, referring to strange blobs in Texas. But, as it turns out, slime molds and the history of public fascination with them is interesting beyond how they are biological oddities.

It's easy for me to list out the interesting bits in this movie, making the review nothing but a recap and perhaps discouraging people from actually seeing it because they've already heard the lecture, so to speak. Fortunately, in addition to providing the expected information, directors Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp make a film that is really a treat to watch. There is striking photography, including some time-lapse work that is almost too good, as it may give the impression that this throbbing and moving is happening in real time. A cool, unnerving score by Jim O'Rourke plays underneath, full of thrumming bass and bings & bongs out of a 1970s sci-fi movie. There are sharp-without-needless-adornment bits of CGI and nice clips of microscopy to help the viewer visualize what may not be visible to the naked eye.

For all that those sights and sounds may be creepy - and they frequently are a bit grotesque, although a fun kind - Grabham & Sharp don't lean into the horror movie vibe nearly as much as they could; though these things seem so far out of our experience as to be scary as heck, the filmmakers instead see slime molds as fascinating, and use them in part as a way to celebrate investigation done out of pure curiosity. They spend plenty of time with respected academics working for traditional institutions, but also have Bryn Dentinger of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew point out that their vast (if incompletely cataloged) collection owes a great deal to civilian scientists like the amateur mycologist we meet early on, and one of the most enthusiastic voices belongs to Heather Barnett, an artist whose work with this living medium connects fairly directly to some of the fascinating work done at universities seen later on. It's perhaps a bit of a stretch to see these folks outside the formal community that has come to define science as a parallel to lifeforms that don't fit into the main biological kingdoms, but not a huge one.

That curiosity shared by everyone involved is what gives the film life (both in terms of existing at all and presenting interesting material), although it can run a little wild. The filmmakers go off in some directions that are themselves interesting, like 19th-century magic lantern shows and early nature documentaries, that at times seem a little too tangential. The flip side of that is that Jasper & Grabham also feel free to talk about more directly relevant topics that may still seem esoteric, such as how slime molds are capable of simulating network systems as a sort of organic computer (if a slow one). It's a sort of intelligence, but very different from how we frequently use the term, and an unexpectedly big concept for a popular science documentary.

So come for the bits that may initially just seem weird; this is some very cool science that doesn't come off as gross so much as engrossing. I'm admittedly much more a fan of this type of film than most, but when they're so interest-grabbingly well-made, that just make them a better change of pace than usual.

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originally posted: 08/29/14 12:41:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2014 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

User Comments

9/03/14 amy tolley liked this movie 4 stars
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Directed by
  Tim Grabham
  Jasper Sharp

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