The Polaroid camera was the original “selfie” device, but it was better. It used physical chemical film, so each shot meant something. Polaroid film was killed by the digital revolution, but it rose from the dead because people were not ready to let go. Instant photo-chemical film gets its due in Willem Baptist’s quasi-experimental docu-essay, Instant Dreams (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
Chris Bonanos wrote the book on Polaroid. It is called Instant: The Story of Polaroid. He will provide some traditional documentary background and context, including the creation story. Bonanos is also a Polaroid user, which meant he was a film hoarder, as well. Stephen Herchen is the chief technology officer of the Impossible Project, who led an effort to reverse engineer Polaroid’s one-minute development project. Stefanie Schneider is one the artists who specialized in Polaroid photography (there were more than you maybe realized, such as Elsa Dorfman). Ayana JJ is a Japanese musician and artist, who would appreciate the immediacy old school Polaroid, but must make do with Polaroid-like pictures produced on a printer featuring the voice of Werner Herzog.
That is not the only weird cameo in Instant. Udo Kier makes an uncredited appearance in one of Schneider’s shoots. That is enough to forgive some of the film’s slow patches. However, what will really wins viewer hearts and minds is its unabashed analog love. Let’s be honest: digital sucks. Willem’s experts make that point pretty clearly.
In fact, there are some rather provocative ideas in the film, like the contention Polaroid was demonstrably ahead of its time, at least in a cultural sense. It is also rather mind-blowing to see a promotional film from the 1970s, in which company founder Edwin Land pulls a thin black iPhone-looking wallet out of his pocket, claiming someday every will have a camera that size, at their finger-tips.
There is nostalgia in Instant Dreams, as well as an appreciation for Schumpeterian creative destruction. Baptist has a keen eye for visuals (especially the Tokyo nightscapes) and a cool cerebral aesthetic. (Weirdly, some of the most banal looking sequences capture Schneider’s photo-shoots, which include brief nudity.) Regardless, it is a thoughtful, good-looking film that should have many more stops on the festival circuit following its screenings at this year’s Slamdance.