Let’s Not Use the Word “Metaphor”: An Conversation with Blake Williams

Prototype

The once-intriguing possibilities of 3D films have become a gimcrack commodity, one used by producers to inflate the price of movie tickets and increase revenue. For Hollywood films, it’s usually done as a post-production conversion, nothing more than a brummagem, money-grabbing afterthought devoid of sincere artistic purpose. It is, in a way, a bastard descendant of the crafty stratagems of William Castle (Smell-O-Vision, the flying skeletons, etc.), but without his passion and showmanship, and certainly without his thriftiness. PROTOTYPE, Blake William’s hour-long, innominate new feature, is the rare film to not only take advantage of the unique possibilities of 3D technology, but to become symbiotic with it. In the film one find flickers of hope for the medium. You cannot watch PROTOTYPE in 2D; it simply does not work. The ineluctable ambition of the film—of its formal experimentation, its assured daring—needs, and deserves, to be experienced as intended, with respect for the reverence with which Williams approaches the form. The monochrome starkness pops and pulls you in like no other film in recent—or distant—memory. There are shots that, in their self-aware bravado, made me think tangentially of Irma Vep, specifically its self-effacing ending, which posits that only through deconstruction rather than emulation of the past can cinema move forward.  

Williams’s film traipses through a century-plus of cinematic conventions and innovations, amalgamating them into something singular. Though there are hues of Lynch and Snow and various other avant-garde auteurs, its closest ilk is Godard’s

Goodbye to Language

, one of Williams’s favorite films (he is a proficient critic, with esoteric tastes; his

Cinema Scope piece

captures his fervor for the film beautifully). The 3D in

PROTOTYPE

is, similar to Godard’s, innate to the experience, not the otiose conversion that has become a blockbuster norm.   

There is, purportedly, a narrative here, though, in all honesty, I’m not sure I would have known that had I not been privileged with press notes. In 1900, a storm tears through the Texas town of Galveston. Subsequently (I think), a televisual device is built. The rest is nebulous, and ineffable. It’s a film in which you bask, from which you cower. It seems to be constantly questioning its own existence, its own purpose, unsure of the answer or if there even is one. PROTOTYPE is, most immediately, a sensorial assault. Banal items and occurrences are rendered surreal, almost alien, through Williams’s abstract compositions and rhythm. The ocean writhes like static on an antiquated television. It churns, the white-tipped waves crashing and rising, rising and crashing. It fades to black; the noise lessens. It returns, ebbing and flowing. The ethereal hints of people drift by, again and again, in Sisyphean redundancy. Machinery comes apart, goes back together. 45 seconds of footage reappear, amounting to six minutes. The film’s genre could be called Repetitive Cinema. Williams conjures a world of humans and human-made things that brings to mind J. G. Ballard, Inland Empire, and Wavelength; the history of moving images becomes, over the course of 60 minutes, something abrasive and alluring, something new made of many things old. (Coming to mind: both Ezra Pound’s axiom “Make it new” and Videodrome’s “Long live the new flesh.”)  

With its persistent sonorous moan, PROTOTYPE creates a sort of aural blanket. Noises enfold you, swaddle you. Though the abstractions can be violent and aggressive, and innocuous images carry with them an air of menace, there’s something calming, almost soporific about the film, the waves twisting overhead and the industrial soundscape clamoring unflinchingly. Like the oscillations of a fan, the repetition is almost serene, and only when an alteration happens is one jarred. The film is replete with arcane and beauteous images—gleaming screens of old tube televisions, the archaic apparatuses like something from another world; sepia-toned photographs dragged into a third dimension; the whir of time eclipsed by technology; a pigeon gazing like a stoic at the weft of ocean before it—but underscoring the formal experimentation is a discernible idea, one that feels at once epochal and timeless: Technology pervades our existence; it always has, in some form or another, and it always will. From old stone structures to speedboats, daguerreotypes to 3D cinema, humanity and technology are, like the film and 3D, intrinsically tethered.

Williams is the film’s factotum: he wrote, directed, shot, edited, and did the sound and production design. The only other credit belongs to Marco Gualtieri, the producer, and the director’s partner. Raised in Houston and now based in Toronto, where he is a PhD candidate, Williams produces films and criticism at a Herculean rate. PROTOTYPE is his eighth film since 2008, and it represents a culmination of the many affinities that appear in his writing and his other films, the formal dexterity, the obsession with mediums and communication.  

At the tail end of a brutal, bone-aching cold spell, I met up with Blake Williams in Manhattan. We talked for several hours in the homely warmth of a coffee shop, sheltered from the lacerating winds that cut the temperature to the negatives by mid-afternoon. We both took our coffee black. Two days before, PROTOTYPE had its New York premiere at the First Look Fest at the Museum of the Moving Image, as the opening night selection. (It has been picked up for distribution by Grasshopper Film.) To witness the audience’s befuddlement after the noise finally dissipated and the house lights rose will be, I am sure, one of my great moviegoing pleasures of 2018. 


NOTEBOOK: I’ve had a hard time describing the film to my friends. I defer to “It’s experimental, and in 3D.” How do you describe it to people? 

BLAKE WILLIAMS: I think it’s important to always mention the 3D-ness. It seems like with experimental films you start with the format. And at least the way I’ve been describing it for programmers: I’ve been focusing on the Galveston Hurricane, and telling them it’s a 3D film about the Galveston Hurricane. Which, I think, ends up being misleading, because I don’t think it’s about the Galveston Hurricane, that’s just a template setting. It would be just as apt and accurate to say it’s a film about the auto industry, or about the beginning of cinema, or about 3D printing. It’s not one thing, but because the movie starts there, it’s an easy kind of narrative to tell people. But the movie is also purposefully not possible to explain coherently; there’s no gestalt, nothing that ties it all together. 

NOTEBOOK: The sounds, what I call “sonorous moans,” permeate the film, and carry us from one shot to the next. 

WILLIAMS: That’s true, yes. It’s an industrial sound I got from an online database and manipulated on my computer. A lot of the auto stuff I filmed at an international auto show in Toronto, and one of the displays they were doing was for a future car, I don’t even remember which company. Maybe Chrysler? Or Dodge? I think you can see the logo on the car. And it was a display showing off the body of a future car, and they had this LCD display behind the monitor showing the construction and deconstruction that I recorded.

NOTEBOOK: They let you shoot the video and put it in the movie?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah, I think the assumption at those shows is that people will take pictures or videos and post them on social media or online, in order to develop hype for the future cars. 

NOTEBOOK: So PROTOTYPE is kind of a piece of experimental viral marketing for Chrysler.

WILLIAMS: Maybe! It could be, yeah, just a giant industrial design ad campaign. 

NOTEBOOK: Perhaps those flashes that happen towards the end are actually the Chrysler logo being transmitted subliminally to our minds.

WILLIAMS: You can see the logo during the second half of the movie, when it becomes more abstract, and a Ford Mustang logo, a galloping horse, does scroll across the screen. 

NOTEBOOK: My date wanted to see your film because in the Museum of the Moving Image newsletter there was a picture of a horse they used, and she has that same horse picture in her room. And when it wasn’t in the film, she was immensely disappointed.

WILLIAMS: That horse never appears in the movie. That’s a picture I found that I liked. I’m sorry, I feel like I should send her a refund.

NOTEBOOK: Since you use a lot of historical images, did you feel any kind of issue with appropriating people’s pasts to make your film?

WILLIAMS: Not really. History is subjective, it has so much to do with context. History is an assembled narrative constructed by a specific person or body that has edited the way certain things relate to one another, and there’s a lot of creative license that goes into historical context. I think I’m just as much at liberty to take those histories and appropriate them the way I want to without feeling exploitative, since history and those photographs are already constructed, and a story. History is not a fact. An artifact is a fact, an element used for constructing a story, which is essentially what I’m doing.

NOTEBOOK: Were the circa-1900 photographs you used stereoscopic?

WILLIAMS: They were. They were playing with stereoscopic images and 3D in the mid-1800s, actually, so they were very common, especially among the bourgeoisie, who would buy these devices from a company called Keystone. News reporters would go out and document the world or various disasters in stereoscopic photography, so one of the ones that was documented was the aftermath of this hurricane. There are probably hundreds of images, but the Library of Congress, where I got these images, had about 30 of them. There’s no post-converted imagery or computer-generated imagery in the film at all. It’s all shot with two cameras.

NOTEBOOK: Interest in 3D seems to undulate, becoming popular in blockbusters than receding like the tide again.

WILLIAMS: It does, yes. I think there’s currently an expanded interest in multi-dimensional cinema, moving towards augmented realities and virtual realities, and there’s a perception that that’s what people want. Maybe there won’t be another major 3D wave for 20 years, or maybe this is the last one. 

NOTEBOOK: Maybe we’ll have a reemergence of Smell-O-Vision.

WILLIAMS: We kind of did, actually. Maybe in Japan, certain places that are more adventurous. Last year the Museum of Modern Art had a 5D screening that incorporated smells and maybe mists.  

NOTEBOOK: That makes me think of a Universal Studios ride I went on like, ten years ago, when an alien escapes and they spray mist on you and your seat vibrates like The Tingler. It’s like mainstream, commercial avant-garde.

WILLIAMS: Actually… my first multi-dimensional film experience was when I was a kid, and I went to the Six Flags amusement park in Dallas and I rode a ride based on the movie The Right Stuff, which I still haven’t ever seen. It was like a ten-minute ride where you got into a mobile seat and were rocked while watching a flight simulation. 

NOTEBOOK: So the thing that engendered your adoration for 3D was… a Six Flags ride?

WILLIAMS: Basically, it’s possible. Either that or the Jurassic Park 3D experience I had, or maybe the Terminator 3D experience I had.  

NOTEBOOK: Your movie is “experimental”…

WILLIAMS: Is it, though?

NOTEBOOK: Uh… I don’t know. Is it? Because in the afterword of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Guy Tremblay says calling art “experimental” is a lazy way of disengaging with the material.

WILLIAMS: It suggests a certain idea of what people are in for. It’s just… [sighs contemplatively] It suggests a certain absence of narrative content so that you can adjust your expectations accordingly. But there’s a problem with that term that I think does a disservice to people’s control over what they’re doing. Perhaps you’re not just experimenting, but doing something very deliberate, and you’re not experimenting but doing a very specific process the same way there’s a very specific process to a narrative film, that’s had a script written and been storyboarded. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is an experimental film because there was a certain amount of experimentation that went into it, and a certain number of factors. It was made up as it went along. I never really had a clear idea of what I was doing. Even up until the very end I had this anxiety that this wasn’t even a movie. It didn’t become clear that this was an actual movie until some people wrote about it at Locarno as if it were a movie. 

NOTEBOOK: What did you think it was?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know, it could just be… I don’t know. It could have just been a whole lot of nothing. 

NOTEBOOK:

A sublime nothing. Maybe this is only because we just watched Elizabeth Price’s

A Restoration

[

an experimental video installation

that played at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World] together, but I kept thinking about the way 3D in

Goodbye to Language

and, to a lesser extent, in your film plays with the two distinct eyes, and how you can close one eye and see something different.

WILLIAMS: It’s disappointing more people don’t play with that. It’s a fun thing to do with the format, and it’s very surprising to me that not many people seem to try to do that. I think credit should also go to his Director of Photography, Fabrice Aragno, not just Godard himself. It was more Fabrice’s contribution to the film. But I think it’s a good way to throw people off and make them conscious of their own biological makeup, like the fact that we have two eyes forward and see approximately the same thing and our brain is able to see those two images and create depth illusions. But when you orient the eyes into different configurations, they make you have the experience of having two eyes on opposite sides of your head, perhaps like a squirrel, to protect themselves from predators trying to eat them. So it’s a nice way to get out of your body. 

NOTEBOOK: Your film seems to almost gain sentience as it goes, as if it’s aware of its existence and is questioning it, and it references or alludes to your own previous films. It made me think, vaguely, of the ending of Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep.

WILLIAMS: That’s actually one of my favorite movie endings of all time. For no real rational reason. You mentioned earlier today that the film gained a moment of sentience, and I think it’s such a pure expression of madness as the filmmaker played by Jean-Pierre Léaud has just vanished and his presence is no longer there. Just his film, which has reached this point of abstraction that’s only justified by the fact that he’s turned away from the world into himself, like he stopped giving any fucks about anything. He just goes, This is the product I made and I don’t care if it’s what you want, this is how I viewed this material. It’s destroying the legacy of French film. The material of the film eats the imagery, and the entire legacy.  

NOTEBOOK: The scene when Sonic Youth’s “Tunic” is playing and Maggie Cheung is slinking around in latex is one of my favorite scenes in cinema. It’s mysterious and sexy and I can’t explain why I love the commingling of Sonic Youth and Maggie Cheung so much. Maybe it’s Assayas’s passion for cinema, for music, and for her all combined.

WILLIAMS: I love that scene. It’s just a pure marriage between a song on a soundtrack and the imagery it’s playing with. It feels like they were meant to be together, like that song was written for that scene, and of course that scene was written for that song. And her writhing on the bed before she goes wandering down the hallway… 

NOTEBOOK: My one issue with that movie is they mocked Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, because I love Batman Returns. It’s so dark. It’s literally a superhero movie about baby genocide. A portly, cigarillo-smoking madman is killing children.

WILLIAMS: The other film they mention in Irma Vep, or one of them, is The Heroic Trio, which is also about saving babies. It’s the first Johnnie To film I ever saw, but I think it’s about someone kidnapping babies or something. 

NOTEBOOK: Assayas references two superhero films about killing and abducting babies, in a film about destroying history to move forward.

WILLIAMS: Also, by returning cinema to its infancy by having this abstraction, and this attraction.

NOTEBOOK: So if a film gains sentience, does it become the progenitor and you the creation, or…

WILLIAMS: I like to think of films as being individual objects that have their own internal logic and are aware of themselves. I think at a certain point I wasn’t making PROTOTYPE, it was making itself. 

NOTEBOOK: Is every individual film a sentient object, or is the entire body of work sentient and each film is an appendage, to totally ruin this metaphor?

WILLIAMS: Let’s not use the word “metaphor.” 

NOTEBOOK: Do you not like the word “metaphor?”

WILLIAMS: We could call it one, but let’s not use it. I just don’t like metaphors in general. I like when things refer only to themselves and not to something else.  

NOTEBOOK: I find the television you use as the televisual device  in the film, the 1959 Philco, sort of endearing in an archaic way.

WILLIAMS: That TV is maybe responsible for Philco going bankrupt. They broke so easily, and I’m amazed mine still works. It’s also sort of alien, even though it’s still of the past, but this particular design never took off. I just watched Twin Peaks, episode 8 on the big screen at MoMA, and I honestly preferred watching it on my 1959 television. The episode is mostly in black and white already, and it’s set in the middle of the century so it feels apt.

NOTEBOOK: I’m going to come over and watch Twin Peaks on your Philco.

WILLIAMS: That’s fine, come any time.  

NOTEBOOK: Do you think PROTOTYPE will play well on televisions, if you can get a home media release in 3D?

WILLIAMS: Well, I made it on a 23-inch monitor, so in a way that might be the most natural format to see the film in, on a 25-inch television screen. I do think all films should be seen big, but you mentioned being able to get a better idea of composition when you watch a movie on a small screen, and I try to see them both ways if I can. True/False Fest doesn’t do 3D projections, but they do do VR experience, and they asked me if I could make Prototype into a VR experience. I don’t know how to do that, or how difficult it would be, but it could be interesting to have that experience in your face.

NOTEBOOK: It would be like Poltergeist, being in the television.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah, in a sense that film could be another reference point for PROTOTYPE.

NOTEBOOK: I noticed in the second-to-last shot of the film there’s a dog in the corner of the frame, a dog on the beach like in Goodbye to Language.

WILLIAMS: …Is there?

NOTEBOOK: I noticed it my second viewing. It’s like, a dog or a woman or a pigeon or something in the bottom left corner. Maybe my glasses just had a smudge or something though.

WILLIAMS: You could be right. I’ve just be so fixated on the object in the center of the frame that I never actually noticed what was around it.

NOTEBOOK: I love the last shot, the pigeon looking at the water, but since I just re-watched the ending of The Sopranos, I feel like all movies have comparatively lackluster endings. Nothing will top the show’s finale—no offense. Just… Tony Soprano looking up at that door and the sound of the bell, the sudden smash to black. It’s so good.

WILLIAMS: I’ve literally never seen an episode of The Sopranos.

NOTEBOOK: Oh. Well, sorry I just ruined the very last shot for you.

WILLIAMS: It’s fine. By the time I get around to it I’ll forget what you said anyway.

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