Friday, May 11, 2012

Postmodern Canada: You Are Here

When is a room not a room?  When it is a Chinese translation machine, of course.  However, it has no conscious awareness of what it is translating, because it is just a room.  Let the epistemological-ontological-linguistic games begin in Daniel Cockburn’s unabashedly cerebral genre-straddling narrative You Are Here (trailer here), which opens today at the ReRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn.

A New Agey Lecturer immediately puts us on notice not to passively accept the images put before us.  Then Cockburn introduces us to Alan.  More than a man of the masses, Alan is the masses.  More accurately, his is the collective conscience of a crowd.  Some of Alan’s members are tracking operatives, who guide field agents around the city for no apparent purpose.  Their paths will cross the Archivist, a woman compelled to collect and catalog mysterious documents, VHS cassettes, and reel-to-reel tapes that seem to seek her out.  She will be our protagonist.  This might not be immediately evident, but the press notes assure us it is so.

But wait, there’s more, including the Experimenter, who creates a prototype of John Searle’s “Chinese room,” a hypothetical construct purporting to illustrate the limits of artificial intelligence.  Putting himself into the “machine,” the inventor responds to passages of Chinese (which he does not understand) by utilizing step-by-step reference books, replicating the computer’s translation process in the physical space of the cell, without any understanding on his part.  Eventually though, this system break down.  However, the Inventor perfectly realizes his scheme, forever altering mankind’s perspective on the world with prosthetic eyes.

You Are Here really is a narrative feature, but you would be hard-pressed to prove it to some viewers.  Episodic by nature, Cockburn’s film is fragmentary, hop-scotching all over the place.  Indeed, Cockburn’s background in experimental-installation and short filmmaking is readily apparently in his narrative approach.  However, there is a there there in You Are Here.  Unlike say James Franco’s Francophrenia, Cockburn respects his audience, presuming a high level of sophistication that will appreciate his philosophical gamesmanship.

Stylistically and intellectually, YAH’s most successful arcs follow the Experimenter and the Inventor.  In fact, their modular feature sections could easily be lifted out of the film and presented as rewarding self-contained shorts in their own right.  While the other braided strands are less focused, Tracy Wright dramatically humanizes the film as the Archivist.  In one of her final screen roles before tragically succumbing to cancer, she resolutely eschews quirk, conveying the profound frustration of one seeking meaning in a randomized universe.

YAH bills itself as a meta-detective story, but that rather overstates the mystery elements.  If Alain Robbe-Grillet rewrote The Matrix, jettisoning the kung fu and narrative cohesion, it might look something like this.  Though not every arc fully plays out, its ambition and inventiveness are impressive.  Recommended for those well versed in analytic philosophy and post-structuralism or simply inclined towards cinematic puzzles, You Are Here opens today (5/11) at the ReRun Gastropub in Brooklyn.  Graciously recognizing the film requires a bit of unpacking, ReRun will not charge for repeat screenings.