The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène
By Adam Nayman
It’s appropriate that Toronto video artist Daniel Cockburn’s feature debut premiered in Locarno in the Filmmakers of the Present competition. More than any other film I saw at the festival, You Are Here represents an attempt to wrestle with the present tense. Which is not to say that Cockburn’s “meta-detective story” is especially “topical.” Rather, the film’s textures, fragmented structure and air of creeping, unnameable anxiety speak to the contemporary moment, even as the filmmaker goes out of his way to elide contemporary signifiers.
To wit: You Are Here is a movie about the internet that doesn’t ever show or mention the internet. The only time we see a computer, there’s trouble even getting the thing started, owing to a particularly nefarious bit of password protection. Instead, Cockburn, whose previous short pieces carry a recurrent theme of technophobia, opts for a lo-fi, anachronistic production design, and shoots on almost all possible formats: 35mm, 16mm, RED, HD, MiniDV, Super 8, and even BetaMax. In a pinch, one might describe it as micro-budget junk-shop sci-fi.
For instance: one of the main spaces in the film—that, in lieu of a straight narrative, offers a series of episodes that slide over one another like a palimpsest—is a bizarre call centre staffed by a quartet of operators. Their job is to field anxious phone calls from everyday citizens who offer minute-by-minute reports on their movements, and beg reassurance that they’re on course. There’s comedy in these passages, especially for Torontonian viewers, who will surely be amused at the way Cockburn uses authentic street names and then wildly fudges their geography. At the same time, there’s a sense of desperation, as this web of crossed wires and constant status updates fuses multi-directional connections with a sense of loneliness.
The call centre is but one of many eccentric, closed-off systems, each with its own inscrutable set of rules. A little later in the film, Cockburn stages a famous thought experiment by the American philosopher and linguist John Searle called “The Chinese Room.” The set-up is deadpan absurdism: an English-speaking man finds himself locked in a room lined with a document written in Chinese. He’s then presented with a multiple-volume set of mindless instructions for translating it, but not for divining the text’s meaning, turning him, in effect, into a human processing unit. Is this, Cockburn (via Searle) asks, merely an approximation of consciousness, and if so, whose?
This idea of a room that seems to “know” more than the person inhabiting it also informs the segments starring the late Tracy Wright as “The Archivist.” Introduced in the throes of an ongoing investigation, she is the film’s “meta-detective,” rigorously cataloging seemingly random objects from her surrounding environment. She is, by her own admission, a slave to a mystery that may not even exist; as in Zodiac (the catering budget of which could have paid for principal photography on You Are Here), the implication is that an accumulation of information is not equal to actual knowledge.
The few critics to date who’ve seen it have deemed You Are Here “difficult,” and such assessments will only continue to pile up when it screens in Toronto, where it’s clearly the odd film out in the Canada First! section. But there’s also a lot of filmgoing pleasure here, in the way that Cockburn and his cinematographer Cabot McNenly create telling textural gradations across the film’s different segments; in the wise but understated comedy of having the explicit authority figure of the Lecturer (R.D. Reid) thwarted in his discourse by a group of impatient children; in the genuinely affecting and smartly visualized conceit of a “crowd of people named Alan,” who seem to collectively inhabit a single quotidian existence (even when that existence effectively comes to an end); and in the furtive, sharply felt performance of Wright, who registers as the most vivid human presence in a film purposely populated with ciphers.
But the most interesting character is The Inventor (Peter Solala, glimpsed briefly), who looms over the proceedings like a sinister organizing principle. Described as a solitary genius even as a child, the Inventor’s great achievement was to create a red, prosthetic eye with unparalleled, far-reaching vision; the next step was to force the rest of the world to see things in the same way that he did. It’s a crime for which he was imprisoned for life—but not before ensuring that his optical regime would go unchallenged. As a metaphor for filmmaking, the Inventor’s saga is not exactly subtle: Cockburn may not see himself as an isolated, visionary genius, but there’s no question he’s addressing what it means to make images with the expectation that they’ll be seen by others.
The Inventor’s all-seeing red eye is deployed as a visual motif across all of the film’s segments, most notably in the Lecturer’s opening monologue in the form of a skittering laser pointer. Behind video footage of gently rolling waves (actually a film from fellow Toronto director John Price), Laing informs us that this flickering red trajectory is ultimately a false guide, and that as viewers, our goal should be to be aware of its movements while ignoring them, lest they lead us astray. It’s arguable that the entirety of You Are Here is an illustration of this seemingly contradictory set of marching orders: with each red orb that appears onscreen, we’re simultaneously searching for evidence of an overall pattern while remembering that we’re supposed to be resisting the urge. And so it is that one of this very ambitious and ultimately rewarding film’s best jokes involves the gradual revelation of the word “headache.” That tingle in your frontal lobe means that it’s working.
CINEMA SCOPE: Can you talk a little bit about your background, and about how you got into making video art in Toronto?
DANIEL COCKBURN: I started out very narrative-feature-film minded. I studied film at York, and my fourth year thesis project was a 15-minute narrative piece on 16mm that I spent a lot of time and money and effort making. At the end of the year I realized there were a few minutes in it that I liked and that the rest of it didn’t work, I didn’t like it; it didn’t succeed. It was very demoralizing. But over that same period, I had become aware of the experimental scene in Toronto, at places like Pleasure Dome, and that was my gateway to becoming aware of other kinds of cinema and other kinds of storytelling. I got into the on-the-fly festival, where you have to produce an entire film in 24 hours. Instead of trying to make a film with a plot, I made a character sketch, which seemed easier within those parameters. And it turned out I was much happier with the film I spent one day making than the one I had spent one year making. I was excited by possibilities afforded by voiceover, and by a very disaffected performance style: I was very influenced by Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. I cast myself in the next piece and realized that I could do deadpan, that I was good at it. I kept doing it. For me, the question then became: am I cultivating a habit, or am I just in a rut?
SCOPE: So how did you decide to make the transition from short video pieces to a feature film?
COCKBURN: I’d made short works ranging from one to 22 minutes in length that were screened at a lot of different festivals and venues. I realized that with short films and video pieces, the audience response was often very dependent on the programming. I had experiences where all the films selected complemented each other very well, with each piece having its own autonomy and yet an underlying theme to the overall arrangement. Other times, the pieces would all be at odds with each other, and not in a productive way. It’s sort of like how some people have a talent for mixtapes, for picking songs that you might not think go together but which weave together into something you’d like to listen to over and over again. So with that in mind, I started thinking that it might be a good idea to make a series of short films that were a whole program unto themselves, which were intended to be shown together, with certain recurring images and ideas. I wanted it to be a “movie-like” experience, I guess. I started doing grant proposals, which isn’t that much fun but was really useful. It forced me to put all the ideas down on paper, to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.
SCOPE: Did the material change a lot during this process?
COCKBURN: Well, it was two-and-a-half years from conception to final draft, so yes, I’d say it changed a lot.
SCOPE: I would assume that the Archivist and the archive was one constant through-line…
COCKBURN: It’s funny, but no, it wasn’t. Initially, there were six short film scripts, and each section had its own title. I had them separated by these red pages. Someone read them and said that the red pages made sense with regards to the script as a physical object—as a way of organizing the pages—but told me to ask myself what they stood for in the film. This same person also told me that I needed to give the audience a way into the material, a kind of proxy character. From those two suggestions, I came up with the idea of the Archivist and her dilemma.SCOPE: You talk about her as a proxy for the audience, which I think relates to the idea that you’ve made a participatory narrative: there’s space for the audience to construct meaning. Of course, it’s also possible that attempting to construct meaning is the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to do—don’t follow the red dot. COCKBURN: This is an aspect of my personality that comes through in most of my work. I’m very good at second-guessing and doubting and wanting to see both sides of any argument. It’s like I’m presenting the audience with a number of possibilities about ways of thinking and suggesting that any one of them might be a good idea. Though the movie does focus mostly on negative possibilities. There’s not a lot of hope in the film, or if there is it’s very subdued.SCOPE: I’d argue that it is hopeful insofar as it urges the viewer to simply take stock of his and her reality and act accordingly.
COCKBURN: It’s gratifying to hear it positioned that way. I tried to make a lot of things in the movie ambiguous, like whether the archive is actually sentient and rearranging itself, or whether the Archivist is, for lack of a better word, mentally ill. In the script, I was sure it was the former, that the archive was coming to life. The end of the movie is also ambiguous in that you can view it as hopeless—the Archivist has left one system for another, this pointless information society. Or you can see it as a step forward: as you say, of recognition. If the world is a world of systems, better to move toward one that at least involves other people.SCOPE: Well that’s the thing about the call centre: even if its purpose is vague, its employees do seem to be helping people. It sort of felt like those scenes could have been a stand-alone short, like you were describing—they’re like a self-contained retro-futuristic farce.COCKBURN: A lot of the office stuff was cut. It was originally this 22-minute thing, very much a “calling-card” sort of short. Originally, each of the four dispatch operators had a distinct personality and there was a lot of interplay between them. It was about their dynamics. We found out that if one of them wanted to leave, they had to call in to say where they were going, even if was just to the bathroom. I wasn’t sure if it was working: I thought maybe it was at 90% of where it had to be. Which in comedy isn’t quite enough. And I started to think that the scenes weren’t really necessary to the movie as a whole, so I started paring them down.
SCOPE: I still think that they serve their purpose: they represent contemporary technology, i.e. the internet, but via an anachronistic visual design. The internet is like the film’s structuring absence. It’s not there, but I was hyper-aware of it. My first thought upon the presentation of the word puzzle—what is the only word that starts and ends with “he”—was that I would just plug it into an online anagram generator.
COCKBURN: One of the through-lines in the videos I’ve made is a fearfulness of the medium of video. I often perform as characters who are stuck in some sort of recursive Borgesian narrative that they can’t escape. Borges wrote about a man trapped in a library because he was writing a book, and I’m making a video about somebody trapped in a videotape. So it was natural for me to come back to it—though again, I wonder if it’s a rut or a habit. I wanted to make a movie that expressed anxiety about a world where the mapping and archiving of the world is more substantial than the world itself.
SCOPE: I think that’s also a Borges story: a scale map of the world that’s bigger than the terrain it describes.
COCKBURN: That’s right. Here’s how I see it. Photography or video is already one step removed from reality. The second step away from reality is: how is it stored, how is it findable? There’s the world, there’s pictures of the world, and there’s this multitude of search engines that you can use. I mean, you said that your first instinct to solve those word puzzles in the film was to find an anagram generator online, which is already two steps removed from reality. That’s where our instincts lead us at this point.
SCOPE: And there’s also a fourth level—the person who is using those search engines, the person who is looking. There are a lot of different motifs of vision in the film, especially in the story of the Inventor. The one perfect red eye is a very suggestive metaphor for the terror of feeling different and the consequences of superior perception. I also figured it was about being a filmmaker, right?
COCKBURN: Absolutely. The man who develops this prosthetic eye and makes everyone in the world look through it is a filmmaker avatar. For a long time, the tendency in films that interrogate filmmaking, like Peeping Tom (1960), was to do it through tropes of voyeurism, through making the audience complicit. I’m not sure that’s entirely what it’s about anymore. Voyeurism is still present, but it’s more about making yourself and what you see visible to others. How many hits can you get? I think the desire to inflict your perspective on others is giving voyeurism a run for its money. And so the character in the film does reflect that negative side, and it’s also the negative side of me as a filmmaker.
SCOPE: Can you talk about borrowing?
COCKBURN: A lot of my videos make very heavy use of cultural appropriation. I use a lot of pop music, and clips from pretty well-known Hollywood movies. I’ve always been very careful, though: there’s a difference between using a pop song because you think you’re reframing it or interrogating it in an interesting way, and using it because including it helps your movie kick ass. I also believe in crediting my sources, and there are a lot of video pieces that don’t do that. I like the idea of keeping footnotes alive even if they’re in a different form. I contacted John Searle and got permission to use the “Chinese Room,” but I forgot to credit Douglas R. Hofstadter who wrote Godel, Escher, Bach, which was the source for the “headache” word puzzle, although I think he may have taken that from somewhere else, too.
SCOPE: How did Tracy Wright come to be involved in the project?
COCKBURN: It occurred to me pretty early on that Tracy would be perfect in the role of the Archivist: I think that I had just seen Monkey Warfare (2006) and was still in thrall to the way she had commanded that movie with her unassuming charisma. I took a stab in the dark and wrote to Jacob Wren, who I had met on the Pleasure Dome programming committee, and who had done theatre work with her. I sent her the script, and we met and talked together for three hours, and she said she’d do it. Well actually, first she said that she didn’t “get” the script, and I ended up telling her about a paranoid-delusional breakdown I’d gone through, and how that was the emotional basis for what I’d written. I don’t know if that’s what helped her find her way in, but however it happened, she found the non-theoretical, genuine core of the character. We had scheduled the shoot so that the first two days were just Tracy in the archive, which in retrospect was smart; it gave me the chance to get used to the rhythm of having a crew, and getting set up with blocking and performance before we starting doing ensemble-scenes. But also, those two days gave me hope that the movie was going to have some kind of life. I’d been making video work for ten years, and in most of those pieces I was the sole performer. During those two days with Tracy in the archive, I saw my cryptic monologues turn into the framework for a real human presence. It was like a crash course in directing actors. Tracy had an openness to appreciating each moment for exactly what it was—good or bad or both—and it seems to me, based on our relatively brief time together, that that’s what made her performances so surprising and authentic at the same time. There’s so much more that I could say about her, but I’ll just say that she was a special woman, one of a kind as a performer and as a person, and I am so lucky that I got to work with her, and to begin to get to know her.
SCOPE: I’m interested in talking about the movie’s treatment of Toronto: you cite real street names, but also fake ones, and considering the importance of location in the movie, these seem like important decisions.
COCKBURN: Well, on one level, the movie is all about location, or at least talking around the idea of location. It was shot entirely in Toronto, but for most of the duration we don’t even bother to specify whether these various stories are taking place in the same city or not. I say “don’t even bother,” but really, it was a concerted effort not to do that; this dislocation, the non-specificity of place, is closely connected to the anxiety and uncertainty-of-selfhood that I hope is somewhere near the movie’s heart. This was especially pertinent for the call centre scenes, with the “field agents” heading to exact intersections in the unnamed city. In earlier drafts of the script, I had them calling out Toronto intersections, but I vetoed that idea for practical reasons: if I used places that actually existed, I’d have to work out the travel times between them, and each field agent had to have an actual itinerary, or else I would end up having somebody take an hour to take a cab two blocks, or somebody else traverse the whole city by foot in five minutes. And this is precisely the kind of thing that some internet wag will point out, and that audiences will get stuck on. So I made up a mishmash of Toronto streets and also made-up names and numbered streets so nobody could ever watch the movie and try to correlate it with extant geography. It’s kind of like the game The Simpsons keeps playing where they never let you know what state Springfield is in.
SCOPE: At the film’s premiere in Locarno, you also said it had something to do with a larger tendency in Canadian cinema, where cities never “play themselves,” as Thom Andersen might say.
COCKBURN: That’s an ideological issue that all films have to deal with, but Canadian productions especially: which city is your city playing, and how much do you foreground or underplay that fact? Not to make any sweeping statements about Canadian cinema, but it seems to me that Canadian cinema’s younger-brother syndrome usually manifests itself, city-wise, in one of two ways: either filmmakers shoot a Canadian city and pretend it’s American, or they shoot a Canadian city and wave the flag as much as they can: “Holy crap, look, Toronto’s in a movie!” I think audiences are equally alienated by both approaches, by the overly proud one as much as the self-effacing one, and both lead to that undefinable bugaboo of “that movie sure feels Canadian,” meaning not up to scratch, or something you might watch in order to feel proud of, but not just because it’s a good movie. It’s a sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, and so I opted for a first feature whose conceptual underpinnings gave me an excuse to make a movie that exists in non-space, and so avoids the problem altogether. I won’t get off so easily next time.