Tell me if you’ve ever been here before.
You have something you need to do but just can’t focus on it. “I’ll just watch this one quick youtube video to relax’ you tell yourself. One video turns into not quite finishing that one, but clicking on at least three others.
Sound familiar? How about this scenario…
You have some time to yourself, and you decide you’re going to watch a movie. Suddenly every recommendation of new show you’re behind on that our friends are telling you to watch escapes your memory. You spend about 20 minutes looking at IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes lists of ‘the best whatever movies of 2021ish’. Pick one, start watching it. But 20 minutes in, you don’t know a single character’s name but you’ve checked your email or Instagram at least three times. You’re distracted by that thing that person that shouldn’t be on your mind, wrecking your focus. But there they are.
I can’t tell in these moments if I have been failed by entertainment or if I’m just too distracted to be entertained. That’s a lie. I can definitely tell.
I’ll admit I’m never drawn to dance on film. I suppose because so much of it is truly just a live performance with a camera put in the front of a stage that doesn’t quite translate. Other times I think the power of watching the body tell a story requires the presence of a live body, to allow me to slip into that shared experience.
This is one reason why ‘Subject‘, the newest dance n film project by Welcome to Campfire is so successful. Subject, the company’s second sci-fi digital work, creates an imaginary laboratory where humans can voluntarily have memories erased by taking a drug and remembering to forget.
The sci-fi short is more about how stories live in the body, how humans or perhaps drugs or machine interventions in a sci-fi world, can alter them, than about how stories are told with the body. In spite of ourselves, they continue to live in there.
As with previous projects, the company emphasizes both theater and dance, both direct storytelling and abstraction. The film opens with the company directors, choreographers, and dancers, Tony Bordanaro and Ingrid Kapteyn, in sets and lighting by Pete Sax and Chemistry Creative; a brightly lit observation room, a glass box with dark figures of observers around the cube. A female voice with mechanical inflection calls out directions to the dancers, Subject F and M, to place their hands on their knees, not to touch their faces, to remember details of a conversation, to place each other back in the single folding chair in the center of the box. Over the course of the film, the dancers go through this guided remembering with the unseen voice of the doctor, seemingly bringing memories back to life with the hopes of killing them.
I mentioned that dance on film is often not captivating because the camera is not treated as its own medium of art and perspective; it’s just sort of there. This is not the case with Subject and cinematography by Dennis Robert Thomas. Sometimes the viewpoint is far away, so far that we can see the dark figures watching the two inside the box observing the scene in its entirety, sometimes so close we can the lines on the underside of their feet. One of my favorite shots came as the two slid down the wall from handstands, shooting forward on their stomachs, as the camera looked on from behind Ingrid, just over her shoulder and Tony slid just far enough beyond her that we could just see his eye looking at her from behind her shoulder. The placement and lighting of each shot is deliberate, we see the intensity of their own gaze at each other, from within the box and at their own memories through the camera. With intentional storytelling from the attention of the viewpoint alone, memories are physicalized like patterns in the brain, the muscles, how we disperse adrenaline at perceived threats, the way we remember smell. The body tracks memories even if the mind doesn’t want to.
The choreography and cinematography are complemented by a unique score from Lia Menaker, who also serves as the voice of the doctor. The sound is often atmospheric and ambiguous, filled with static or tones more that melody. Brilliantly timed with the movement, there were moments of pause as the chair would be tipped, the loud music coming back in as all four legs hit the ground.
This is the kind of layered artistry where it is difficult to separate one aspect of the creation from the other. Even the set itself seem like an instrument, the dancer’s movement around the walls, each other, and the chair seemed like buttons of a machine. In the following Q and A, Lia revealed some of the vocal phrases repeated in the score, one of which was, ‘trying to break free’. I was very convinced it was ‘trying to break things’. The sense of frustration in difficulty to understand these manipulated phrases amidst the overall sound lent to the dysphoria and sanitization of human essence as thematic in the piece. This was contrasted beautifully with a rendition of ‘Sailing’, the only moment of clear lyrics and the most fluid and connected duet between the two dancers. I’ve had it stuck in my head since Thursday.
It is very curious that some of the brilliance in Dennis’ cinematography is how, despite being in a glass box, we never see his reflection or a trace of his equipment. Similarly with the sound from Lia, the majority of the score is distorted, existing outside of communicative lyrics or even clearly recognizable instruments. Because of the stripping of their human contributions to the work, the spotlight is even more on the two dancers as the only recognizably human elements. The process looks neither easy nor pleasant despite their mostly blank faces. Although we as the audience can’t hear their breath as they fall, lift each other, or climb the walls there are details that show the effort; their faces seem flushed and wisps of hair come undone from Ingrid’s long braid.
Despite the dancers’ incredible control in transitions from the ground to standing, the balance and reflexes necessary to make movement deliberately controlled or spastic, lush, gentle, or contorted, one thing I noticed was the lack of emphasis on pointed feet as is common in my own background of ballet. This seemed to me manipulation of dance technique to make them appear more human. Subject creates a world where humanity becomes a senses like taste or sight, visceral in our own observing bodies when the artistic choices strip apparent human presence from it. It is arresting, and even the guy behind me who was loudly chomping on popcorn for the first ten minutes, seemed to stop after a while. I suppose he could have just finished it, I don’t know.
Neither F nor M speak live at all, verbally. There are recording of F’s side of the story. The storied fragmenting of time by erasing memories seems to leave them unabel to speak what they know because speech needs a sequence of words spoken in time. I am thinking about how knowledge on the human brain became much clearer when advancements in weaponry meant bullets fired in war would disperse, causing more than one hole in the brain. Once medical science could distinguish one working part from a damaged part, the field could see how vital each part is and what does what. Like an examination of parts, the film flows like a series of episodes. A sequence may be quick or slow, casual or intense, salty or sweet, orderly or random, depending on the prior history of the viewer
I have the feeling people will have different interpretations of this work. For one, I didn’t even think that F and M probably stand for Female and Male until just now. I though they stood for forgetting and memory. Because of the story and because I found Tony’s facial expression more blank than Ingrid’s, it looked to me like he had already taken the drug, had already forgotten her and only became more animated as she maneuvered him into becoming alive to serve her memory again. To me, he was the subject, she in the painful and thus far, unsuccessful process of remembering. This is why she exits the box, has to try again tomorrow. He remains in the box because he is still part of her memory. To me, the box is where the memories live. I want to know what happens once the memory is erased. Will the box be empty, the lights go out, will someone new enter?
In the folloinwg Q and A, Tony and Ingrid both mentioned how easy it seems to connect with the heoroes of the work because so much of the humanity is stripped. There is something heroic, admirable about the resistance that seems to be there in deleting this memory of a relationship, as if love is more powerful, more communicative, than pharmaceuticals or mind-hacking technologies. I’m left wondering what is the difference between a distraction and a memory- are both just attempts to avoid being in the present? This s probsbly what it takes to create new memories, the attention.
But to employ full use of language, a hero is also a term used for a submarine, something that functions underwater, beneath the surface- which is kind of what memories do. Memories like heroes leading us into action, defense, connection in ways we may not realize or see. If the past has uncertain effect on the present, then there is no need to dwell on the past. Acts are an island in time, to be judged on their own, like what lives or dies inside the brightly lit box. The box seems like a world of impulse, of sincerity, every word speaks just to that moment, every glance has only one meaning. every touch has no past or future, but we can tell it is not so.
Heroes, in this way, is more commonly used in the plural sense, many submarines, meaning that like memories, we need all of them. Subject is a terrifying, magnificently-executed sci-fi with humanity at it’s deepest core, the kind of story that forces you to go inside the box of your own mind and wonder what or who exists there that you would not want to have taken from you.
Subject can be viewed on Vimeo on Demand until April 18th.