Our entire world is now mapped. It doesn’t matter how terrible your sense of direction, if you’ve got a smart phone you know exactly where you are. There’s even a (very fun) game that drops you in a randomized location in Google Street View and challenges you to figure out where it is. This constant stream of geographical information has likely forever altered the way we see the world, which opens the door for artists to further mess around with it. This week’s online retrospective from Doc Alliance, made up of films that played last year’s edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam, has a charming and enigmatic trio of short films that confuse and mutate our ability to take our bearings. Watch them here for free through February 14th.
The most deceptively simple of the three is Gerco de Ruijter’s Playground, a three-minute trance of grass and astroturf. Made up of images of football fields found on Google earth, it is a brief compilation of one of America’s most archetypal contributions to the surface of the planet. The mathematical certainty of these rectangles, 120 yards long and 160 feet wide, casts a strangely technical cinematic quality. That’s almost CinemaScope. As the film progresses, de Ruijter moves from the unadorned grass fields of the American countryside to the bright green turf of state colleges and professional teams. Yet the false vegetation quickly loses our attention anyway, in favor of the brightly colored logos that identify each stadium. When it comes to sending our image out to the stars, we are a nation of mascots and fonts, symbols of local pride and corporate design at once.
So if you found yourself next to a football field, you’d at least no what country you’re in. No such obvious hints are available in Bailu, China, which was mostly destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Rather than resurrect the town the same as it was, the government rebuilt it as an idealized French town. Nicolas Boone’s Bailu Dream is a visual introduction to Bailu, which is now dominated by the pastel colors of its European imitation architecture. This is not to say that they look convincingly like France. They’re too obviously new, too perfect. Rather, it looks more the fairy tale landscapes of Disneyworld. Boone tours the town in a single take, which only adds to this kitsch. The mood almost feels like a musical number in Beauty and the Beast, or at least one of those campus-wide college lip-dubs that were recently so popular. As the residents walk to work, exercise and even take wedding photos, one imagines them suddenly bursting into song. That Boone’s journey ends at a period-inappropriate stage where two pop stars are performing for a small local audience seems almost too magical to be real.
Quantum also plays with urban landscape. A single continuous shot of an Italian town, complete with a Renaissance-era skyline, is manipulated through the use of sound and light. The filmmakers, Italian collective Flatform, use text to evoke a mutation of time. In the “Short Day,” we are told, there is no sunrise or sunset. Night falls instantly. “Light is but a prosthesis and sound becomes but the imitation of light.” These descriptions self-actualize when the lights are suddenly shut off on the town, plunging it into complete darkness. Perception is dislodged through the use of spotlights, which draw attention to individual spots in the cityscape one at a time. They are accompanied by sound, as if the audience were pressed right up against the walls of each house. We can only barely make out the people in their distant homes, but the noise of the city is practically intimate.
Uncanny use of sound characterizes the whole film, though Flatform uses a few different approaches. The use of “Nessun Dorma,” the ubiquitous aria from Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, is particularly brilliant. It’s played without a singer, as if it were an operatic karaoke track. The result is attention drawn both to the lack of singing and the passionate support of the orchestra, reversing the mood of a song featured so frequently in other media due to its tenor virtuosity. Quantum is about exposing the backgrounds, highlighting the distance between daylight and darkness, silence and sound, distance and closeness. It’s as beautiful as it is strange, turning any sense of direction upside down and leaving behind more ambiguous sensations of sound and image. To steal words from Quantum’s final text, the film is all about evoking fragments, partial experiences, and accidents of memory.