It must have been a warm night in Los Angeles, California, for the surviving media of the pre-event show attendees in a state of undress rarely seen even in those days of limited public scrutiny. Not quite stars, no—they had long ceased to attend what you might call physical events—but fans, aspiring socialites and those they aspired to be, a handful of industry insiders with uncharacteristically coy grins, even a couple of die-hards making the trek from far-flung corners of the county for the first actual film projection in, well, at least living memory, though of course in recent years that meant less than ever. Tickets were not particularly hard to come by, the house was a little over half full, but there buzzed along the rows of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre a real energy in anticipation of the film. The director, Davern Ansella, had insisted on the location, as she had on certain other obscure details of the production, though with the benefit of hindsight one can assume that the theatre’s history as the site of the first ever premiere in Hollywood had something to do with it.
Popcorn popped in the lobby, drinks fizzed in cupholders, and the house lights dimmed as the projector started up with a whirr. Patrons broke off conversations with deferent nods to the screen and wriggled down into their seats. There was no introduction, no speech from Ansella to recount with the weary self-satisfaction of a creator anecdotes of difficulties in financing, delays in production, subtle jabs at overbearing executives. None of that, nor anything to prepare the audience for what was to come. There was nothing superfluous, no title, even the invitations specified only the date and location. The film itself—the first fifteen or so reels, at least, extant technical sheets advertise a running time of 155 minutes—was oddly classical, verging on staid in comparison to the hyper-stimulation of modern entertainment, according to the impatient few driven early from the theatre by boredom, familial obligations or the promise of a more personal, private fantasy on the screens in their pockets. A drama, present-day, with a conventional three-act structure, nothing overtly supernatural or even particularly interesting to note beyond its barely-concealed similarities to what would later emerge as the facts of the director’s life.
After two and half hours, the film having come to its apparent end and begun a long fade to black, the house lights were raised and patrons stirred in their seats, heads turning to companions, hands fumbling in purses, but eyes soon enough directed back up at the screen, where the expected credits had in fact not started to roll, and the picture seemed instead to be fading back in. It was almost the same picture as the first of the film everyone had just seen, but something was different, or it felt that way. Audience members thought back, trying to remember what they had seen the first time around, figuring it to be an error of projection, but the image up on-screen continued to move and trains of thought were quickly derailed by the sudden realisation that something strangely and powerfully attractive was happening in the theatre. One man began to cry, but most eyes were transfixed, entranced by the story unfolding in front of them, which was similar in many ways to the first but would prove to be undoubtedly unique, affectingly personal to each viewer’s understanding of themselves, the world and those they shared it with.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, except to those who consider distinctions such as centuries, even millennia, to have anything more than calendrical significance, the first quarter of this century was in many ways a continuation of the systems and structures that were laid out in the early days of the 20th century and firmly consolidated in its second half. The hierarchical Hollywood system, auteur theory, art’s uneasy relationship with politics, America’s professed idolization of the individual—all served as foundations for the institution that brought in billions of dollars per year from all across the world. Yet all, in turn, proved unable to adapt to the accelerating changes brought about by other, increasingly relevant, loci of power. The resulting crisis in entertainment required a modern solution, a human hand on the controls of an increasingly inhuman machine, if the icons of Hollywood Boulevard were to remain anything more than fading reflections of a light long eclipsed, staring eternally off into the Pacific like the mo’ai of Easter Island.
The industry born one hundred years earlier had shaped itself to accord with, if not indeed to explicitly mirror, the capitalist system of production from which it promised to provide weekly—and for a lucky few players of this national lottery, everlasting—escape. A lack of a certain imagination, revolutionary spirit, or simply the more pressing concerns of personal fulfilment, artistic creation, and mere survival meant that this microcosm machine, splicing together images of the whole country almost exclusively in the golden glow of its southwestern-most corner, was subject to the same ills that pervaded the nation as a whole. The paranoia of the 1950s that turned neighbor against neighbor achieved its most hyperreal expression in the trial of the Hollywood Ten and their—and many others’—subsequent blacklisting. Storytellers turned informers, actors turned reactionaries, as if the privileged caste needed to be subjected to the same ordeal as the American people, the mirror turned back on the face of the nation. The product of this self-reflection was, of course, hugely successful, both with the viewing public and the institutions that incited the upheaval. For proof, one need only look at the critical, commercial and bureaucratic success of Elia Kazan’s apologist masterpiece On the Waterfront (1954), which, eight Academy Awards and a selection for preservation in the Library of Congress later, has firmly consolidated its place as the industry’s official response to—and more importantly its characterisation of—the turbulent politics that seeped into every corner of American life.
Once upon a time, Hollywood was uniquely trusted in to soothe these maladies in bursts of cathartic violence, sobs of melodramatic tears, and, occasionally, for certain viewers, near-religious revelations of light. Thus the public was not quick to let go when Hollywood fare slipped from the dream-weaving and wish-fulfilment of the 20th century to a more paranoid, reactionary product in the early 21st. The stultifying effects of repeated success meant that the industry was slow to react to changing, fragmenting tastes. The top-down nature of production, departments neatly segregated, all subordinate to a director who must in turn justify his or herself to the producer, who answers only to the shadowy exigencies of the dollar, meant that innovation was for a long time stifled. Audience preferences had shifted markedly with the proliferation of personal electronic entertainment devices. Movie theatres struggled to cope with the overnight exodus from their darkened sanctuaries as viewers retreated into personal fantasies, filling every possible waking minute with almost endlessly-novel entertainment. The instant availability of all information, educational and otherwise, at all times in all places, fragmented what had once been a largely homogeneous consumer base. Barriers to the pursuit of personal preference were torn down, their removal largely celebrated as a liberation from one more self-perpetuating power structure. The effects manifested themselves in different ways, some people followed private obsessions to their logical conclusions, some obtained educations far beyond that which their material circumstances would have otherwise permitted, still others were paralysed at the breadth of choice before them, opting for no action over a potential misstep. This development brought about changes in form, too, a revolt against the unbearable linearity of traditional film, ticking forward at 24 frames per second, 10 minutes per reel. Audiences, having become accustomed to a different sense of time—after all, when the answer to any question is one click away, when a message takes a millionth of a second to travel around the world, when every place on earth with a human and a smartphone is immediately consumable, in short, when anything your neural circuits desire is available in an instant, who thinks about time?—were searching for something novel, even if they didn't quite know it, something that would more accurately reflect their increasingly unbounded lives.
This insatiable thirst for novelty stressed the traditional studio system. Whereas one thousand monkeys given typewriters and an infinite amount of time may indeed recreate Hamlet or War and Peace, an application of the collaborative nature of film would require one thousand monkeys trying and failing and trying again to get costumes right in the art department, another thousand pulling focus over and over, another thousand in the sound department manning—or rather monkeying—the microphones, hoping that one of them gets it right, and each additional department exponentially increasing the time required for a miraculous coincidence. In short, too many monkeys. The application of this theorem to the filmmaking process highlights the differing systems of input—and consequently output—between the screen and the page. As discussed, a film is the product of many monkeys: screenwriters, directors, actors, editors and producers push and pull to leave their mark on the final product, whereas a novel is largely the creation of a single mind. A quick glance at Academy Award winners of the last, well, hundred years, will offer some insight into the type of film created and congratulated by the establishment. There are exceptions, of course, certain examples of major-studio films with aspirations stretching far beyond the wrought-iron gates of Melrose Avenue. Yet the fact remains that the Hollywood system of production had, after more than a century, outlived its usefulness.
Faced with this crisis, the studios harvested once again the fertile fields of independent filmmaking in taking Jim Jarmusch’s (Mystery Train (1989), Paterson (2016)) exhortation to “steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” Hidden inside dark rooms on sun-washed Burbank backlots, computers “devour[ed] old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.” All this on a scale a trillion times grander than the most ambitious creator could hope to achieve from poring over the fragments that fill a life. Script-writing programs analysed every page of every screenplay in the archives, cameras were programmed with copies of every Best Cinematography Oscar winner, and machine learning had advanced to the point where editing software could sift through the thousands of hours of multi-camera coverage now pouring in from soundstages and on-location, distilling it down to a rough cut to be approved by a human editor, then, as the cuts smoothened out, bypassing the editor to be rated by focus groups alone.
The resulting films debuted on the Boulevard in a blaze of lights and confidence, executives sincerely believing that this latest innovation would save their ailing industry from its most existential threat since the antitrust cases of the 1940s. At first, they had good cause. The newness of the venture—advertising campaigns of the time promised nothing less than a “revolution” in entertainment—buoyed ticket sales as dopamine-hungry viewers flocked to the multiplexes for the latest and greatest. Yet the novelty quickly wore through, and what was revealed behind the curtain was not the almost-comforting presence of a bumbling Oz-like figure twiddling knobs and dials at a control panel, but the machine itself, imposing and unknowable. Up on the screen, the audience, long accustomed to suspending disbelief in the artifice for the sake of some real kind of belief, were confronted with an artless sham, a confounding mash-up of familiar themes, blandly archetypical characters, and unsettlingly tasteless plots that could only be collaged together by a guileless machine. Its perverted art naïf promised a revelatory path to the future but instead led viewers down an endless hall of monstrous mirrors, in which the contextless images bouncing back and forth revealed only the inhumanity of the whole enterprise.
The machine could reference and even respond in an instant to market pressures, diversity quotas, viral trends, but was unable to reproduce that ineffable something that captivated audiences, and, more importantly, kept theatre lobbies full and streaming subscriptions on auto-renew. The problem became apparent. In their zealous embrace of the spirit of Jarmusch’s proclamation, the creators, or perhaps more accurately custodians, of the new entertainment had overlooked his qualifying remarks – to steal, yes, but most importantly to steal from things “that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work – and theft – will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” Despite the best efforts of Milton Friedman and the dogmatic pupils of his neoliberal school, and to the perpetual consternation of Ayn Rand, the profit motive failed to serve as anything more than wishful thinking: an inverted beginning and end, motivation then profit, first and last, one and two. The problem lay in the middle. Binaries are simple, the termini of a spectrum are much more easily identified and categorised than the invariably relative points in between. Just as the computer-generated films turned out to be empty shells, technical feats void of actual content, the profit motive forms an incomplete equation. The space between the two words does not hide an equals sign (profit = motive), but rather an invisible third variable (x): the creative force that bridges the two otherwise irreconcilable values, the soul in the machine.
The solution seemed simple: the time had come to revive the stalled foray into interactivity and viewer-guided plots that had died almost before its hype was over, just like 3D. Surely, if a lack of soul was the issue, then that could be solved with the simple addition of viewer input. Present a story (motive), give audience control over the storyline (x) that lead up to a set of predefined conclusions (profit). Outsource the labor, the filling-in of the blanks. Have the audience solve for x themselves with Hollywood playing the role of high school calculus teacher. There would be no more worrying about catering to the latest shifts in consumer preference, satisfying the unknowably intricate combination of desires we are each subject to. No, personally-tailored wish-fulfilment would eliminate all potential for failure, offence, negative return on investment. It seemed almost too easy. Once again, after initial success, the approach failed. Audiences quickly grew tired of the effort required to see complicated plotlines through, the mental energy needed to remember character names and motivations, let alone weigh up and make decisions for them, being for many precisely the opposite of entertainment. Recreation had become a chore, a commodified property, the final pervasion of the ruthless system into the most desperately cherished privacies of being. Streaming revenue plummeted. The mood in high-level meetings was more than tense.
You can imagine, then, the eagerness with which the studios jumped at the proposal, scant on detail as it was, of one Davern Ansella, a photographer-turned-filmmaker with a few shorts, one self-produced feature and some big ideas to her name. A few dismissed her as nothing more than a cheap charlatan, a fraud at best, downright dangerous at worst. They will be forgotten by History. The Amalgamated Studios—competition at such a tumultuous time having been deemed an unnecessary inefficiency—gave Ansella a blank check. She got to work immediately, taking over half the soundstages in the city. Suburban streets, cloistered mansions, even entire city blocks throughout the county were shut down for weeks at a time, their perimeters guarded by contractee cops flown in from across the country. Production on other projects had largely halted as a result of the ongoing crisis, leaving Ansella free to pick and choose from among the restlessly unemployed technical experts of the industry. Shooting wrapped relatively quickly, on-time and on-budget, as far as anyone could tell. Rumours whispered throughout Hollywood, but in the lead up to the film’s premiere very little was known for sure.
Back at the Egyptian, the spectacle was unfolding. Theatregoers, confused at first by the extended running time, soon settled back into their seats in receptive attention. The preceding film, or more accurately the same film’s first instalment, had been enjoyable, its adherence to formal convention seemed perhaps a little dated, but it was solid nonetheless, even outstandingly competent in its limited ambition, as if Ansella had wished to demonstrate to the audience her mastery of the basics before moving on to the main event. The plot, though not exactly autobiographical, upon the closer inspection that would come later from enthusiasts, students and researchers who thought they could withstand the spell of the movie for long enough to draw from it some sort of conclusion, seemed to mirror the course of its creator, striking in its unsentimentally clear-eyed recounting of a life.
A couple of viewers had noticed when turning around to shush patrons seated in rows behind that the projection booth had gone dark. A strange development, especially since Ansella, in her only public statement on the work, had alluded to the “extraordinary generative power of those tiny molecules, of which we too are composed, sitting in darkness, waiting to be exposed to the light.” Those ‘tiny molecules’ being, of course, the silver halide crystals suspended in a gelatin emulsion, pasted onto a cellulose triacetate base and forming film stock, on which Ansella had insisted on shooting the movie. This triacetate base replaced the volatile nitrocellulose film of the first half of the 20th century, substituting its spontaneous combustion with the slow, regulable decay of the former. One of the more worthwhile battles in the modern war against entropic forces. Whereas nitrate film was apt to ignite without warning, triacetate base undergoes an extended deterioration, its acetyl moieties converting in light and heat to acetic acid and gradually destroying the film stock, as if its own death were coded in its genes. This process takes place over a period roughly equal to a human lifetime, the film finally succumbing after about 80 years at 65°F—coincidentally, the mean temperature of Los Angeles.
“The parallel,” reads Ansella’s statement, circulated in the days following the premiere when the director’s absence was first noted, although ‘following’ does imply some sort of end to the event, “will become clear—may be already. As a photographer I carefully combined the variables of space and time—aperture and shutter speed—with the near infinite variation of what may appear before the camera, to create my images. Under such carefully controlled circumstances, light striking the film transfers its energy to the halide crystals which burst in excited response, producing an image which remains latent until development when a skilled hand is able to conjure it up out of the depths of the darkroom trays. Or rather the image’s inverse: the negative. The careful application of science, in this case chemistry, permits, explains, but does not diminish the magic of the reaction. Now add to this the fact that cinema, unlike photography, occurs in time. Twenty-four images per second, offering the not-so-illusory perception of movement. Such potential for narrative in film, absent in still photography, calls for its realisation. This complicates matters. Not only must we consider sound and editing, but performance, character development, plot pro- and re-gression: past, present, and future. A film creates its own history. As you sit in the theatre and the curtain opens, exposing you to the light of my film like its own tiny silver crystals, think of history: your own, naturally, but also that of those sitting beside you, and those you were not born in time to meet. Just as an image is formed of millions of crystals—each, on the whole, not much more than a speck, indistinguishable alone but playing an indispensable role in something greater—so too is our world, at any specific point in time, formed of millions of people flashing across the surface of the Earth like a single frame on the screen. I have spent my life reducing the world to its reflection, capturing slivers in silver. Now, I hope to correct my course, to give back to the world the gift of life it has given me. Thank you, and enjoy the film.”
Whereas the first instalment was easily recognisable as having been shot in and around Los Angeles County, the same could not be said for the scenes now playing out on-screen. They were not unfamiliar exactly, in fact they were strangely identifiable, leaving each viewer with the distinct impression that they had actually visited before, opened their eyes once and found themselves a part of the very same land and cityscapes, though undoubtedly not during any waking hour. A few attendees, their hearts never really in it to begin with, became fed up with the spectacle and decided to leave. This brought about a curious phenomenon—the film seemed to flicker as people exited the theatre, waning in strength, its contrast fading, though before long as word spread and passersby filtered in from outside, intrigued by reports of the bizarre event, the film recovered its strength, not only the picture growing in brightness and returning to full-colour, but the actors themselves seeming to notice and picking up their performances, the plot too becoming much more engaging, the score sounding richer and fuller, as if the movie was somehow drawing from the energy of the audience. This continued for some time, all reference to which became increasingly irrelevant as the effects of the film began to take hold. Some patrons managed to tear their eyes away from the life on-screen to message loved ones, informing them that they would be late for dinner, very late, in fact they may never really make it home…
It slowly became clear to the audience that this was an extraordinary event they were witnessing. The projector’s shutting off confirmed what many now began to suspect, that the image on-screen plainly existed in more than the customary three dimensions of height (y), length (x), and time (t)—adding a z-axis of depth. This axis, not anything exactly visual so much as strangely perceptible, seemed to be the manifestation of that energy sustained by the crowd. It started off with the realisation of one audience member, and then another, until everyone was waiting for their turn, that a character, a location, or even a single beat was undeniably taken from their own life, too familiar to be anything but a sample of their lived experience. The film was not so much reproducing the lives of its viewers as it was drawing inspiration from them, each scene bearing Ansella’s artful touch, who was still nowhere to be found, never would be, in fact, at least not in any physical form outside of the theatre…
This revelation served for the audience as the final proof they needed to believe, truly believe, that the film was something special, existing outside of the day-to-day. As it dipped in and out of viewers’ lives, animating past hopes, dearly-held dreams and memories long-forgotten, masterfully weaving a story out of the willingly contributed material, the film created its own history and, after some time, a certain essence, a truly palpable aura which its most ardent believers would come to call its ‘soul.’ The film’s breadth, and its boundless compassion for the often imperfect courses navigated by its protagonists—who, up on-screen, were not reverting to any ideal form but actually appearing to become more distinctly human—really did offer to its audience the best chance they would ever get to to see like a god.
Life continued outside, of course, it still does. The attraction of the film’s promised metaphysical transcendence was not worth the material trade-off for some who preferred the more immediate pleasures of nature, or for those who simply distrusted the lure of an external force promising the world, or at least a world… Authorities debated the correct course of action, deciding eventually that no laws were being broken and shuttering the theatre would be akin to a religious persecution, unthinkable in the city of live-and-let-live. Pilgrims young and old came from across the world, midwestern kids who hopped on the first flight out of high school, retirees, mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons, locals who sat in one day and never brought themselves to leave, with nothing more in common than their loyal devotion to a particular way of being.
The film is still showing, years after the last reel of Ansella’s life spun to a stop, at the theatre on the Boulevard, a curiosity to stare at as you sit in traffic on your way to work, imagining for the length of a red light what may await you inside, how your life would change were you to settle into one of those firm seats, lean forward in anticipation and open your eyes to the image before you. The doors are always open.