Sunday, August 20, 2017

Future Imperfect: Slow Action

In the future, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon has been lost. Sociologists and ethnographers now believe utopia is attainable, though admittedly at a very high cost. Some sort of apocalyptic event has wiped out most of the world, but four island communities will vie for the designation of Utopia on Earth from an Asimovian encyclopedia in Ben Rivers’ experimental science fiction essay film Slow Action, which screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

Researcher-advocates will narrate anthropologic papers on their prospective island communities as Rivers camera explores the exotic locales. The city-state of Eleven offers the strongest case. Despite believing themselves to be holograms, the residents of Eleven sleep all day and venture out at night naked as jaybirds. They conduct their courtships through mathematical equations, so new arrivals better brush up on their diffy q’s, yet residents are always free to leave by boat.

Hiva is an island chain whose visible hardscrabble poverty contrasts sharply with the locals’ epic-heroic sense of self. While feudal fiefdom and communist collective compete under the archipelago’s lose central government, each resident maintains his own running narration of his life, building up to a dramatically scripted suicide.

Kannzennashima might be the truest Utopia yet, since it only has one resident, Harai, a castaway historian who finds sustaining glory in the “ruins of the ruins” of the island fortress. However, those who lived on the island ages before him would never have considered it utopian. Similarly, the characteristics of Somerset ought to instantly disqualify it. The streets are literally lined with gutters for blood, because the citizens exist in a constant state of warfare and rebellion. Fittingly, Trotsky and Rousseau are among the philosophical polestars of this community, whose residents wear burlap war masks that would not look out of place in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Nightbreed movie.

Slow Action incorporates elements of science fiction, but it is definitely in the Olaf Stapledon tradition, which was never particularly accessible. Perhaps unfortunately for Rivers, Lanzarote, the real-life setting of Eleven will be more recognizable to genre viewers after Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution was filmed there. Likewise, anyone who has seen Battleship Island will immediately guess Kanzennashima is in fact the tragically historic Hashima. Hiva is Tuvalu, but frankly, it never really looks that exotic, while Somerset is indeed Rivers’ South West England birthplace.

There are some striking visuals and some intriguing bits of speculative ethnographic detail, but Slow Action is definitely the sort of film that depends on viewers to invest it with their own meanings. There is no great truth that emerges out of the film, but it ironically reinforces the idea utopia is an elusive and frequently dangerous ideal that humanity would be foolish to pursue. It also effectively showcases Rivers’ eye for assembling images as the director, editor, and cinematography.

For those who want a taste of avant-garde filmmaking, the forty-five-minute Slow Action is pretty easy to handle, but it has rather awkwardly been paired up with Barry Jenkins’ Remigration (a didactic film that never manages to go anywhere), presumably because of his eleventh-hour Oscar victory with Moonlight. Produced as part of ITVS’s Futurestates, it is one of the lesser installments of the series. Only Slow Action is recommended for discerning patrons of experimental film and cerebral science fiction when it screens this coming Tuesday (8/22) and Thursday the 31st, as part of Future Imperfect at MoMA.