Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, 2017) & The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, 2016)

With It Comes at Night it is, I suppose, interesting to find a horror film that draws on Tarkovsky, but generally I found this derivative and uninvolving. The horror elements are confined to - admittedly effective - jump scares, while for me at least any real psychological horror is undermined by the overfamiliarity of the "underexplained plague" scenario and the flatly grim "boy's own adventure"/"heteronormative families are at the centre of our humanity" survivalist narrative. The dialogue is also mostly without wit. It's certainly by no means a poor film, but nothing in it reached out and pulled me in, not even the games with dream or delirium (keep an eye on those aspect rations).

The Human Surge, on the other hand, had me continually engrossed and is the most original new film I've seen since Kaili Blues. There certainly seem to be traces both of Pedro Costa (including some meticulously worked post-synced sound) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but I got no sense of influences being worked through, as is often the case with young directors - such as Shults in It Comes at Night, in fact (Shults and Williams are almost the same age). The Human Surge is a meditation on different forms of connectedness and proximity (mobile phones and the internet are prominent throughout) - both montage and thematic, narrative, or visual echoes all come to seem embodiments (more than allegories) of this theme. Like digital media, the film explores the making of continuity out of discontinuity (1s and 0s; sleep/waking; work/play; inside/outside - at one point two men discuss sneaking into a building and then seem to find themselves on a wide open plain). Location and the distinction between being lost and found are also central throughout. In the film's last section, set in the Philippines, the idea is proposed that if you get lost you can find your way back by following a beautiful person, which is indeed what the camera does for much of the film. Earlier on, somebody helps someone else out over the phone with a trigonometry problem, which also connects to the fiction/documentary binary; as Leo Goldsmith writes, "though presumably a fictional narrative, the physical and psychological triangulation between camera, cameraperson, and subject suggests the voyeurism of documentary". There are further gentle doses of reflexivity: a young man refuses to kiss his girlfriend because people might see - meaning, perhaps, those of us sat in the cinema? Though some of the film was shot (beautifully) on 16mm there is no sense of elegy for old technology, but rather an emphasis both on the humanity of the connections formed by various media, and the distortions and disconnections they afford. Connections are made boldy: at one point the camera passes the young man who has been the protagonist thus far and follows a young woman instead. So far, so familiar - we've seen this move before. But shortly afterwards what seemed to be images from a diegetic webcam prove to derive from a camera that is able to follow its subjects out into the night, and we realise we have moved from Argentina to Mozambique. Later, a descent into an anthill (shades of Blue Velvet) that one of our new protagonists is peeing on takes us through its tunnels, only to emerge in the Philippines. The Human Surge manages to show that the connections forged by new digital media are real connections - there is, as I said, no elegy, but neither is there a gleeful embrace of "posthumanism" or any such concept - without losing sight of more immediately physical chains of production and interface: we end in a factory (presumably also in the Philippines) making laptops, soldering together circuit boards. (As Ela Bittencourt puts it, "he is not looking at the digital age as something alien, imposed or a metaphor, but rather as a new type of immersion".) The digital may be differently physical, but it is still physical.

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