By Mike Dub
*Opens tomorrow at the 4 Star Theater in San Francisco.
“It’s not animal, it’s not vegetable, it’s not fungi. It’s slimeball.”
A fascinating science documentary by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp, The Creeping Garden bristles with a sense of awe that I hope still hits some junior high science students every now and then: that flash of inspired captivation, the seduction by something magnificent and previously unknown, and the need to investigate it to the limits of our imagination. That magnificent subject here is an ungraciously named life form called slime mold, a not-quite animal and not-quite vegetable that has the general appearance of a fungus, but it’s not quite that either. Impossible to classify but endlessly fascinating to those who study it, slime mold has a surprising array of possible uses to help extend our understanding of it, of our planet, ourselves and even our future.
Like the creepily expanding mycetozoa that is its subject, the film’s investigative tentacles branch out widely. In what is likely to be the favorite section of many cineastes, Grabham and Sharp takes us on a field trip to learn about the very beginnings of the nature documentary. By the end of the film, we have seen slime mold adapted for use in robotics, visual art, human social experiments, city planning, and even in as a “collaborator” in the composition of music. Along the way, we meet an array of slime mold enthusiasts, each of whom bonds with the mold in their very particular way, but these are not the usual assortment of perfunctorily strange and obsessed characters you might expect to see in a “quirky” documentary; most are university researchers and scientists who share the same enthusiasm for slime mold as the filmmakers.
The Creeping Garden is a highly polished film, making sophisticated use of computer imaging and time-lapse photography, while creating an intense, impressionistic portrait of the eerie mystery of nature. Though largely shot with dark, chilling tones and constantly backed by a haunting score by Jim O’Rourke, there lies underneath its aesthetic an almost counter-intuitive glee. It is exactly that sense of mystery, of unknown purpose and untapped potential, that makes nature so wondrous and exciting.