Monday, October 17, 2011

NYFF 2011: Upending (2011)

I've been playing about quite a bit with Icelandic songstress Björk's iPad app Biophilia.

Presenting songs from her album of the same name, Biophilia presents the user (I was about to type "viewer" there, but it's to play with, not simply watch) with a virtual galaxy of constellations and stars. Touch the screen and slide your finger to spin around or zoom into a star system; each super-bright (nova exploding?) star represents a different song containing an experimental interactive touchscreen visualization on microbiology, cosmography, and their mathematical and chemical relations to music.

Watching Upending , a fifty-minute avant-garde film by the OpenEnded Group, reminded me of the Biophilia app. Abstract and highly subjective, Upending presents a series of computer-animated designs that slowly spin, turn, and coalesce into mundane objects of our lives: a chair, rooms, a swing on a tree. More than simply a "what's that going to be?" guessing game, Upending challenges us to perceive the world around us in different ways, from diverse angles. The slow and gradual build and shift from one visual to the other is accompanied by Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 2, the celebrated experimental work whose deliberate tempo is made up of a slow beat of about one per second. Giving the images a dreamy and hallucinatory accompaniment, the soundtrack also gives us little explicit or concrete to interpret: whatever we make of it, it's all in our own minds. It's a carefully orchestrated art piece and a proper study of it in the context of other works by the OpenEnded group would likely be a strong study or thesis for an art, film, or music graduate student.

As a film, however, Upending seems misplaced and misdirected, certainly among the other movies of the New York Film Festival. Suggesting it fails for me because it "doesn't have a plot" is crass, but a more accurate and significant opinion may be that the form and presentation actually distanced me from the motion picture. Much of the blame for this can be placed on OpenEnded decision to release this in 3D, which requires the usual dark uncomfortable glasses and puts one more barrier between the viewer and an already-challenging film. I'd describe the 3D effects as no more than "pretty," and Upending's attempts to expose the viewer to a new way of perceiving an old familiar world, even in three dimensions, isn't helped by this rave tech du jour that's been too-overused in only a couple years. Can we blame the technology? Well, in some way. 3D has not yet reached the point where a bright screen image is not substantially dimmed by the glasses. The screen image looked murky and underlit to my admittedly nearsighted eyes; several times I took off the glasses to see if there was anything on the screen because nothing was visible through the glasses.

In MoMA or the Tate Modern, I would stand and watch Upending with interest and, if not comprehension, then at least a fuller idea of what it is trying to do. Oversized, in a movie theater, with newfangled sunglasses on, my only reaction was appreciation of the computer technology used to create the film. Perhaps, like Biophilia, it could have used a few more exploding stars.

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