The theme of the 2012 New Frontier — the Sundance section devoted to installation work, experimental film and video and art utilizing/ exploring emergent technology — is “Future Normal.” At a preview of the lineup held for press, programmer Shari Frilot defined that branded theme as reflective of an attempt to analyze the role of film in an age when “screen culture is evolving,” to the point where “media technology integration really sustains humanity.”
It's fitting the first piece visitors to the New Frontier gallery encounter, and by far the highlight of the whole exhibit, uses the trendiest technology of the moment to synopsize the past.
Marco Brambilla's Evolution (Megaplex) comes to Sundance eight months after its debut at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. A triumph of both three and four dimensions, the three-minute moving painting is projected continuously on a multiplex-sized screen, in a dark room outfitted with a bench and a box full of 3-D glasses. The imagery is a spatially dense, multi-layered collage of a hundred-plus video loops, set amongst one another to loosely narrate man's history of conflict, in the form of a horizontal pan across a landscape spanning space, sky, land and sea, stacked on top of one another vertically.
Every image in this spectacle is excised from a Hollywood film, some more obviously linked to the blockbuster phenomenon (Ghostbusters, Star Wars, more than one King Kong) than others (Ghandi, Jailhouse Rock, Dirty Harry). In other words, it's a panoramic image of the entire universe of commercial American film, with all its fire and fireworks, lone warriors and roiling mobs, working together and against one another.
Evolution is intended as a “comment on the idea of film having become such a spectacle,” Brambilla said at the preview. “It's about the removal of narrative, and the foregrounding of spectacle.”
Of course, that phenomena isn't a marker of the evolution of the medium — as long as cinema has existed, it has been used as an agent of spectacle, and the earliest film experiments were pure spectacle, sans narrative. In fact, what's exciting about Brambilla's installation is that although he's borrowing the very “now” experience of 3-D, room-size spectacle, his approach to constructing illusion is reminiscent of the illusory techniques developed to add a spectacular quality to the earliest silent films/ Vastness is depicted, and populated, through miniatures.
The booming score of the Brambilla piece can be heard far away from the room in which the piece is contained. It occasionally fully drowns out the sound of another room-size video installation, The Cloud of Unknowing, by Ho Tzu Nyen — from which it's separated by two walls and a full room. Inspired by classical landscape and traditional Chinese painting, Cloud consists of a non-narrative film set in a high-rise apartment building, in which every resident has two things in common: they all have soft, doughy bodies, and they find their living spaces invaded by a mysterious cloud.
The physical symmetry between the people and their “guest” on screen is mirrored by the space in which the film is shown: viewers can sit or recline on one of three giant white bean bag chairs on the floor, and at synchronized moments during the film, the room fills with steam shot from behind the screen. The clouds seem to seep out of the movie and into the room, drawing attention to space in a tangible way that artificial 3-D — that is, the kind that requires glasses — can't compete with.
This approach to spectacle is no less immersive than Brambilla's, but it loses out for being less bombastic. Its soundtrack, which is sometimes as minimal as whispers of breath or the scratching of a pencil, is no match for the thunderous familiarity of Brambilla's appropriated Hollywood spectacle — which is, of course, exactly Brambilla's point.