Tallgrass Film Festival Review – Attack, Decay, Release

This review is for a film originally viewed at the 20th Annual Tallgrass Film Festival. WD;ED will update when the film becomes available either in theatres or on VOD.

While never an easy filmmaker to grapple with, H.P. Mendoza has made some of the more personal and fascinating independent films of the last twenty years. His films I Am a Ghost (streaming on Shudder) and Bitter Melon (streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Paramount+) are both extremely raw and honest films, each forcing the viewer to accept the perspective of the filmmaker and to confront any demons they might also be wrestling with. Bitter Melon was a very difficult film for me to come to terms with, balancing the comedy and darkness in tones, but most of my hardship with it revolved around dealing with my own trauma that the film had dug up.

Never one to shy away from creating a personal film, Mendoza has now delivered more of an art instillation/visual album than he has a straightforward film. Attack, Decay, Release is unlike anything I’d seen in ages, combining ideation of The Quatsi Trilogy with iconography from 2001: A Space Odyssey and even a bit of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine to create a film that is about all of us as much as it is himself. Following this logic is key to understanding his piece, which treats us all as one in a way that is less “I am the Walrus” and more existential. In a Q&A at the Tallgrass Film Festival, he spoke on the structure of his piece and its origins, but one of the more interesting answers he gave was in regard to the film’s structure. It was pointed out that he had positioned the different movements of the music as a modern Sonata, which he discussed through the view of Chiptunes music and its penchant for leaning toward the classical structure. This mindset had been with me throughout the entire film; an electronic album incorporating visual imagery that was both classical and modern to create something both avante-garde and entirely human.

Each song from Attack, Decay, Release was written by Mendoza himself. Always as much a songwriter as he is a filmmaker, the director wrote the album for his husband in 2022 (the film includes a very tender bit of footage from their wedding and serves as a celebration of their relationship among the myriad of other things it accomplishes brilliantly). Created in collaboration with the Prelinger Archive, which preserves films that were developed as industrial, educational, advertising, and amateur films, Attack, Decay, Release incorporates much of their footage alongside the director’s personal archives and new science fiction visuals. These are all matched to the music to form the three movements of the piece.

I would hesitate to refer to this as a film in the traditional sense. The original display was projected on three screens with a dance floor in the middle and served as an interactive visual album. The projection at Tallgrass was on a screen, but kept the spirit of that idea alive with encouragement from the director to get up and dance or participate in an absolutely delightful bit of interactive music. This is a highly experimental work that serves as one of the most interesting and wondrous films I’ve seen in quite some time.

Some viewers are going to be blown away by this, some confused, and some merely lost in wonder. I think the final option is the point, one that I hope you all feel as this becomes available. This is a truly beautiful, deeply humanistic, and always entertaining film that is never anything short of open and earnest. I don’t know if I’ll ever get some of the music out of my head, earworms that pop up through my daily life, and their coupling with visual cues and interactive elements made this one of the most exciting forms of artistic expression in 2022.

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