Energy Cinema in Houston: “whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir” (Reviewed by Derek Woods)

Posted by on Nov 7, 2012
Energy Cinema in Houston: “whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir” (Reviewed by Derek Woods)

(review begins beneath the image)

Eve Sussman’s film whiteonwhite: algorithmic noir screened at Aurora Picture Show Nov. 9, 10, and 11. You can learn more about the film, and buy tickets, at http://aurorapictureshow.org/calendar.asp?pageid=83&calid=779 and at http://www.rufuscorporation.com/wowpr.htm.

An expedition to the banks of the Caspian landed Rufus Corporation in a dystopian “future-opolis” that became the location for their experimental film noir. Pushing the envelope of cinematic form, the film is edited live in real time by a custom programmed computer they call the “serendipity machine.” whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir delivers a changing narrative – culled from 3,000 clips, 80 voice-overs and 150 pieces of music – that runs forever and never plays the same way twice. The unexpected juxtapositions create a sense of suspense alluding to a story that the viewer composes. Driven by key words, the work seamlessly comes together as a movie – that is not a movie. The film follows the observations and surveillance of the central protagonist, a geophysicist named Holz (Jeff Wood), stuck in a 1970’s looking metropolis operated by the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company. Voiceovers and dialogues (in English and Russian with English subtitles) forge the implied narrative – wire tapped telephone conversations, reel-to-reel tapes, snippets of a job interview between Mr. Holz and his employer and a mysterious woman referred to simply as “Dispatch”. A narrator describes various impositions on the citizens including strangely manipulated time keeping, a language ration, lowered suicide statistics, the effects of lithium, and the workings of the water factory. It becomes evident that the character is controlled by the city and the factory he is working in, as the course of the story is controlled by the machine that edits the film. whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir – inspired by the Suprematist quests for transcendence, pure space and artistic higher ground – was created with a small crew, one American actor and local actors hired en route. Filmed over two years, the artists journeyed through Central Asia ending up in a 50-year old utopian town. The fictional location is named – in a nod to Alphaville – City-A. The place is the result of the ironic marriage of the opposing forces of the twentieth century as pre-fab apartment blocks are gilded with mirrors and chrome. In actuality City-A is a conflation of many places from the mid-century modernist planned living systems of ex-soviet space to the Norman Foster sci-fi baubles requisite in every new rich metropolis.

 

whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir

 Directed by Eve Sussman

Starring Jeff Wood

Algorithm by Jeff Garneau

Further Credits at www.rufuscorporation.com/wowpr.htm

 

Eve Sussman and her crew shot in Kazakhstan and Dubai over the course of two years. As the website notes, its setting is a place with more oil than water. Many of the Kazakh scenes take place in and among post-Soviet infrastructure: in fertilizer plants, landscapes hung with power lines, landscapes pored with oil wells. Industrial energy apparatus dominates the film’s setting, if not always its theme. City A is modelled partly on Dubai and partly on the Kazakh city of Aktau on the Caspian Sea. The latter city contains the largest desalination plant in the world, initially constructed to supply water to the Soviet petropolis—at which point it became the only desalination plant with its own nuclear reactor as a source of energy. Initially named Guriyev-20 in 1961, the city started as a secret planned camp for Soviet oil workers and uranium miners. The camp became an open city in 1963 under the name Shevchenko.

According to the Rufus Corporation website, “the film follows the observations and surveillance of the central protagonist, a geophysicist named Holz (Jeff Wood), stuck in a 1970’s looking metropolis operated by the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company. Voiceovers and dialogues (in English and Russian with English subtitles) forge the implied narrative – wire tapped telephone conversations, reel-to-reel tapes, snippets of a job interview between Mr. Holz and his employer and a mysterious woman referred to simply as “Dispatch”. A narrator describes various impositions on the citizens including strangely manipulated time keeping, a language ration, lowered suicide statistics, the effects of lithium, and the workings of the water factory. It becomes evident that the character is controlled by the city and the factory he is working in, as the course of the story is controlled by the machine that edits the film.”

algorithmicnoir has no plot. The plot can never be the same from one viewing to another, because it’s controlled by an algorithm called the “Serendipity Machine”. 3000 video clips, 80 voice overs, and 150 pieces of music are constantly reshuffled by the program. The computer is the only agent with control over how the plot takes shape, and there many microplots and narrative fragments possible within the space of the piece. More material is still being added, decreasing further the chance that one viewing would ever be like another. But this algorithm doesn’t work like the shuffle function of an mp3 player. No scene can be repeated immediately, and when it is repeated it comes with a different voiceover and with different music. The Machine sorts the scenes through complex means that no one at present at the opening, including the people who worked on the film, could explain. I don’t mention this out of meanness; it seemed rather emblematic of the situation we are in every day in hypercomplex technological society: no one knows how anything works, and even the experts only know the workings of their specific link in the chain.

To my knowledge, Sussman’s experiment is the first time an algorithm has been used as a narrative or editorial device in a feature film. The best precedents come from narrative fiction, where  from Finnegan’s Wake to the Oulipo novelists, to Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read when I was 10, numerous writers have worked with shuffling, indeterminate plots. But in algorithmicnoir this structural indeterminacy is a different thing entirely. Unlike a printed novel, its combinatorics are the product of the viewer’s interpretive process and the operation of the algorithm. Even the most non-linear, reader-driven novel stops moving once the proofs are in, but Sussman’s film can’t help but be different with every viewing.

At least on me, the Serendity Machine worked amazingly well. The non-plot held my attention, and it was fascinating to feel my brain constantly trying to impose a linear narrative structure. In the middle of the screening—there was no official end, only an arbitrary one—Jeff Wood took some questions from the audience. The most interesting part of the discussion had to do with the algorithm itself. At times, it even felt like the algorithm should be answering the questions. Many of the questions circulated around the plot or lack thereof. It gradually emerged that a plot synopsis does exist, somewhere—but it hasn’t been written down. Wood gave us the impression that the filmmakers were always working with a sort of phantom synopsis, despite the fact that, in the final product, any imagined plot would eventually be falsified by the algorithm. We also learned from Wood that the computer driven plot didn’t become part of the project until after the shooting was complete. According to Wood, Sussman decided she didn’t want to do the editing herself—but she didn’t want another person to do it either. So she asked Jeff Garneau to custom design an algorithm to do the job. In a sense, algorithmicnoir went through an extra stage of production: the synopsis was more clear before the film was edited; afterward it is continually disassembled and reassembled by a computer that defeats the viewer’s (and perhaps the filmaker’s) efforts to construct a narrative.

The film also had an interesting effect on the audience and the space. The beautiful Aurora Picture Show cinema in Houston hosted the viewing, and the audience continually circulated from the courtyard to the cinema. Though silent, they circled the room, stood, or sat in chairs for a period. But at times their attention would be drawn away at a ninety-degree-angle by a television screen mounted on the side wall of the room. The screen streamed the code produced by the algorithm running the movie’s plot. This meant that at any point during the screen one could see the computer thinking, and this provided a second text in addition to the voiceover tracks already noted. The film’s two innovative structures changed the choreography of the audience by causing us to use the cinema space differently, and move between the code and the content it constantly reorganized.

Another effect of this doubled screen was similar to that of Godard’s play with captions, translation, and switches between French and English dialogue in Breathless; another example would be certain YouTube videos that have two or three layers of captions in different languages, in addition to the voice tracks. In whiteonwhite this effect came from switching between Russian and English dialogue in the dialogue and voiceover, the captions in English, and the code language on the perpendicular screen. The older cinema form seemed to be citing, and drawing on, the formal possibilities of internet, especially given the non-linear, code driven structure of the film.

Perhaps the film’s least successful aspect was its attempt to work with the influence of the suprematist aesthetics of the Russian artist Kazimir Malevic. Malevic was famous for his geometric abstractions, including the painting White on White. Sussman et al. claim to be working with the influence of Malevic, thus the first half of the film’s title. The scenes which seemed most literally working with it, though, seemed the most strained. For example, repeated shots of a black-and-white, disembodied leg did little with Malevic and seemed extraneous to the rich urban and desert landscapes that populate the rest of the film. But a later operation of the Serendipity Machine could always prove me wrong.

The Machine’s collage of media, at the level of form, is mirrored in the content of the piece, where numerous media technologies are either seen or heard throughout. Many of these were hard to identify: archaic tape recorders, dictation machines, unfamiliar post-Soviet technologies, and even the control room of an analog fertilizer factory. Many of the shots of the landscape were criss-crossed by wires and transmission lines. These engagements were an interesting theme throughout, and a reminder of the (often vanishing) mediators that link together energy systems and infrastructures. The voice-overs often come from telephone conversations or taped interviews, and much of the footage feels as though it’s being shot by surveillance cameras. The result is that the feeling of an objective cinematic perspective on the events of the film is often occluded. Instead, we are immersed in the communication networks of City A, trying to parse their signal-to-noise ratio for long enough to understand what’s happening to Jeff Wood and what he’s looking for.

Most of the time, however, City A itself is looking for him and controlling him. Although the algorithm might not make this clear in every iteration of the film, we are supposed to realize that Holtz is “controlled by the water factory” in the last instance. But control is also a broader theme related to the setting and its industrial networks. The theme shows up, in particular, when the voice-over that signals the protagonist’s reflexive thought processes wonders about the overarching plan of City A’s construction. We get the impression, in watching clips of his explorations, that he has been examining its infrastructure. At one point, we hear that city seems to have been built under many different regimes, with disparate strata of infrastructure that never quite work together. Then again, Holtz gets the sense that there is some kind of overarching plan at work beyond or behind this confused design. This voiceover cues us into the theme of control, associating it with the epistemology of paranoia much in the way that Thomas Pynchon does in Gravity’s Rainbow: the supposed actions of political agents (embodied in this case in the infrastructure of City A), may or may not be subject to a super-agency that unites their disparate actions in an overarching plan. In Pynchon, this super agency takes the form of the military-industrial-chemical complex underpinning the actions of nation-states during the Second World War. In algorithmicnoir it is more spectral and almost seems embedded in the film’s visual and auditory thematization of communication media. We never arrive at (or another iteration of algorithmic control does, during some future viewing) the obscene father in control of the entire infrastructure, as we do for example in Roman Polanski’s famous neo-noir film Chinatown. Unless the algorithm itself plays this role.

The point about the strata of City-A also signals the strongest part of Sussman’s film: its setting. whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir is a fascinating experiment in setting, and the algorithm plays as much a role in this experiment as it does in the plot. It even seems as though the always-disassembled plot structure helps foreground setting to make it part of the film in a more distinct and active way, rather than treating setting as only the passive stage on which human drama plays out. The images taken from the field work done by Sussman et al. in Central Asia and Dubai serve as the medium in which the City A is constructed—as reference to the fantasy city Alphaville in Jean-Luc Godard’s noir dystopian detective film of that name. The cinematography is particularly strong, representing a landscape that few viewers of the film are likely to have seen, and doing so with substantial improvisational skill. Energy networks and communication networks, and the geographies they shape and draw resources from, are as much or more the subject of Sussman’s film than its human characters. In this respect, Jeff Wood does an excellent job of acting irrelevant. In his trenchcoat, he parodies the noir detective protagonist who would focalize a plot and be its subject of action. The film’s proliferation of media technologies seem to make Wood just another medium. They also show how infrastructure and landscape seem to reach into communication itself—almost like the lithium from the water factory that alters the minds of the inhabitants of City A. This connection of media to geography via industrial infrastructure also serves as a demystifying reminder that our information economies aren’t postindustrial. They would be better described as hyperindustrial, and their relationship to heavy industry and energy networks is never that of the immaterial to the material.

On the other hand, this use of actual documentary footage to construct a fantasy setting could also be read as a form of exoticism. It prevents engagement with the cultural specificity of the places that form setting of the film. Beyond the orthography of signs and the accents audible in some of the voiceovers, there was little to tell us that we were somewhere with a culture history. Even though local actors were employed to make the film, one could ask whether it could have just as easily been made in Texas or Norway. What was the specific appeal of this oil-producing region, if not as an exotic and unfamiliar, and perhaps romanticized, post-Soviet landscape? That being said, the setting works, and the exotic (from my perspective) petroscape functions well for the purpose of aesthetic abstraction. It uses, in part, a planned Soviet resource city (Aktau) in the process of building a future city (Aktau-city) influenced by the design style of architects working in the UAE, and mixes these shots with shots of Dubai itself. In this sense, the film is able to play with the processes of transnational abstraction involved in some of the massive urban design projects that are characteristic of the history of oil extraction and carbon capitalism.

 

1 Comment

  1. Eli S.
    November 12, 2012

    Hi Derek, thanks for writing about this movie. I was able to watch a trailer, which I realize is nothing like the real thing because it is pre-recorded and thus identical in every instance, but it still gave me a taste for Sussman’s work. When I first read your review, I thought that the film was quite similar to Gregory Markopoulos’ films, particularly “ENIAIOS” — a mega 80-hour film that Markopoulos created over many years. That film, which I’m familiar with from a second-hand account of it, is only shown at the Temenos, a festival that takes place in Greece each year at a site chosen by Markopoulos to interact with the film he created. In a sense, it’s the complete opposite of Sussman’s vision — Markopoulos demanded control over every aspect of the film, from its form, to its content, to its projection and screening location, whereas Sussman’s choice in the editing process randomizes these creative decisions, turning them over to a computer instead. But really, is there such a significant difference between the two approaches? It seems like part of the message of both films is that our perception of film, or even art broadly, ultimately rests on our own experiences, not at the director’s command. So in a way, perhaps these two divergent films serve a similar purpose in challenging our normative conception of interpretation. This is an empowering notion, and I wonder if it can be applied to the areas of humanities interacting with the sciences, especially in regards to the issue of the “expert.”