Noah J Nelson on Friday, May. 27th
Not that long ago I accidentally found myself at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Storyscapes event. It was a happy fluke of scheduling: I’d hoped to go for years, but it was never in the cards. Without even realizing it I booked my first real vacation in two years to New York City during the exact dates of the festival, and while there a friend who was working on one of the projects invited me up to see the work and meet the filmmakers behind it.
The work in question is an interactive film piece produced by the National Film Board of Canada called Seances. The core filmmaker in question is arthouse hero Guy Maddin (Brand Upon The Brain, Saddest Music In The World). This being Storyscapes the project wasn’t a straightforward film, but a kind of interactive mad scientist experiment in the art of “lost movies.”
Seances is a film art installation that somewhat randomly generates a new film for each audience that views it. Never to be seen again.
“There’s like 500 billion permutations,” Maddin told me after I’d seen one of those permutations, “or something like that.”
Here’s how the full experience goes.
A small audience enters a micro-theater, where they are confronted with a touch activated video table. They are encouraged to tap away at any images that catch their eye, but not to think too much. This is an exploration of liminality, and the more the audience gives in to unconscious impulses from the start the better prepared for the final result they will be.
After the computer running the table finishes offering up still images the audience is invited to take their seats. That’s when the algorithm that is at play stitches together film clips that the selected images represent. The given material is all silent, colored in various tones, and involve the dramatic conceit of a seance. Hence, the name. While this is an example of procedurally generated storytelling, it is not an entirely random process.
To give the assembled films a sense of flow the creative team focused on hooks that could be used to get from sequence to sequence.
“We call those connectors,” said co-creator Evan Johnson. “At one point we were sitting around and writing only connectors.”
The logic involved is still one of a dream. Indeed, part of the “game” of Seances is that sequences are able to progress from one dream to the next, with characters falling unconscious in one reality only to have a possibly oddly resonate story emerge in the next layer of reality down.
In this fashion, the experience reminded me of the somewhat obscure 1965 Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript, which had a bit of a renaissance in the 1990s thanks to the interest of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
Dreams and obscure films are at the heart of the project, as Maddin is somewhat obsessed with the idea that there are countless lost films from the silent movie era. The films assembled by the algorithm are intended to serve as riffs on the countless films that were lost to time thanks to poor archiving and neglect.
“I’d been dreaming about it a bit before,” said Maddin. “This idea of making lost film adaptations I started doing as far back as 1994. Secretly. Whenever I got a short film commission from some film festival.”
This drive has culminated in the Seances experience, which is both touring film festivals and has a reflection online in case you want to view one of the possible films yourself. Resurrecting lost films is not the only aim of the project, which challenges viewers with its dreamlike structure to find their own narrative in the assemblage.
“I think it’s natural for viewers to impose a narrative on things,” said Maddin, “but some people do it more comfortably than others.”
It is this aspect of Seances that holds the most fascination for me. No matter how linear and straightforward a given film is, each person experiences that movie with the baggage of their personal experiences with them. This leads to starkly different reactions. You can see that by reading multiple reviews of an Oscar contender, or watching film critics and fans have spectacular flame wars over popular movies.
Seances, with its need for interpretation worn squarely on its sleeve, leans into this phenomenon in a way that is instructive. No two viewings of the project will ever be the same, and within the context of a single screening there is almost no way two viewers will come away with the same interpretation. The project is a fantastic meditation on the art of editing and the gap between authorial intent and audience perception. Two things that are valuable to consider in the chaotic media age we find ourselves in.