Plasmodial slime mould. I have to confess that before this film came along, I’d never even heard of it. The Creeping Garden gives me the impression that I am not alone in this, since within the confines of biology, few researchers have paid much attention to the phenomenon. However, those few who have done so and are featured here – plus an artist – are clearly smitten.
To the naked eye, plasmodial slime mould is similar to fungus. There is one huge difference between the two: slime mould moves. Purposefully. Not that you’d notice in passing because it moves very, very slowly. In one of many fascinating detours, The Creeping Garden takes a look not only at early cinema but also at pre-cinema in the form of a triple magic lantern, a Victorian device for projecting pictures which you might imagine would be still. But just as today’s cinemas attempt to enhance the moving image with digital projection, increasingly complex sound systems and IMAX and/or 3D visuals, so these 19th century efforts attempted to make their still pictures move in a variety of ways. One of these was to put live insects into glass slides so that their living shadows would be projected onto a wall.
Fast-forward to the early 20th century and British amateur naturalist Percy Smith constructs his own complex camera rigs to shoot microscopic, time-lapse films such as Magic Mixes (1931) in his back garden and greenhouse to provide an early glimpse into the slime mould’s hitherto unseen world.
Slime mould was once though to be animal in nature on account of its ability to make decisions. But it’s actually a series of little organisms which function together as a coherent whole, not unlike a colony of ants. No brain is involved. Time-lapse imagery shows it, for example, navigating a maze or reacting to poison by recoiling from it. Artist Heather Barnett rigs up an experiment in a museum to get a group of human participants to behave like slime mould in order to better understand how it works and does what it does. People rope and clip themselves together before being required to follow, en masse, a person carrying a picture of an oat flake (representing a common form of slime mould food). Despite all their communication being limited to movement, touch and physicality, the group is able to communicate within itself for the purpose of going through a door or dealing with three separate persons carrying oat flake pictures who threaten to pull the group in different directions.
The film alternates between breathtaking time-lapse visuals accompanied by strangely compelling and otherworldly music by renowned composer and music producer Jim O’Rourke and passages following the activities of various weird and wonderful obsessives who one way or another work with slime mould on a daily basis. They wander in woodlands collecting it, they catalogue and perform experiments on it, they rig up machines with it to make music come out of a piano. It’s not hard to see why they fall in love with the stuff. By the end, you will have done so too.
The Creeping Garden is out in the UK on Friday, March 10th and on Dual Format BD/DVD from March 13th. If you opt to pick up the film on Dual Format (and why wouldn’t you?) it has some worthwhile disc extras, plus the first pressing also comes with an excellent CD of the soundtrack and an illustrated booklet on the film with writing about it by co-director Sharp.