Saturday, February 05, 2022

Last and First Men

Three more days of this at the Brattle - Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday - and I recommend seeing it there while you can. I'm sure that this will wind up on video eventually, but it's the sort of thing that benefits greatly from being absorbed in a dark room where you can't easily get up to stretch your legs or fiddle with your phone without disturbing others or gaining their reluctant permission. It's only 70 minutes, but that's longer than I typically give to something relatively abstract at a stretch. For instance, I can't easily imagine sitting through an entire museum installation where the loop is that length.

Granted, to a certain extent, this is the sort of thing that I am tempted to feel was put on just for me. I'm fond of science fiction that doesn't worry too much about grinding the incredible down to human size and contemporary understanding, as well as the spare functionality of the language. Nobody here is trying to impress the audience with their wit or turn of phrase, but instead speaking plainly about extraordinary things. The earnest unreality of it makes it a little harder to grasp, but it kind of should be; the far future shouldn't just be a metaphor for the present.

Also, I'd love to go to those Balkan locations with my 3D film camera and just shoot them, seeing what kind of images and effects I get out of that. I've been posting images from that camera on another blog for a few months now (with each post containing versions for red/cyan glasses, animated "wigglegrams" that try and trick your brain into seeing a third dimension, and left-right images for viewers to put together as they will), and it's a lot of fun to photograph odd shapes and structures that way. It's mostly vacation photos and mostly in color, but I've gone through a roll of black-and-white film (from here to here to try and see local sights a different way.

This kind of feels like the sort of thing that might play the Harvard Film Archive or the Museum of Fine Art's film program if they'd reopened, but it fits right in at the Brattle as well. Check it out on-screen if you can, though hopefully it gets a fairly spiffy release on disc.

Last and First Men

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2022 in the Brattle Theatre (special engagement, DCP)

Last and First Men is a pointedly unconventional movie, and not just because writer/director/composer Jóhann Jóhannsson uses metaphorical visuals rather than directly showing the story being told, but because that story is less an adventure or drama than an exercise in stretching the imagination without trying to wrestle that scale back down to something person-sized. The universe and the future are grand and unknowable and quite likely indifferent to present-day humanity, and this film invites a viewer to ponder that without reducing it to a problem that someone like that viewer can solve.

It's not initially presented that way, of course. Presented as a message delivered psychically from two thousand million years in the future, the narration (provided by Tilda Swinton) states early on that "we can help you and we need your help". But first, it must describe the world of the future, when humanity has taken up residence on Neptune as inner planets became uninhabitable, although it is not the humanity those in the current era would recognize, but the eighteenth successor species designed by their predecessors, although this may be the end, as the sun and other nearby stars are becoming unstable.

There are stories in there, and plot devices and problems to be solved, but no individual characters, really. Olaf Stapledon, the author of the original 1930 novel, was as much poet and philosopher as constructor of narrative, with Jóhannsson and co-writer José Enrique Macián stripping that novel down to its essential ideas, with narrator Tilda Swinton intoning them in a way that hints at eons of evolution without seeming condescending. Though a story reason this description of the far future is given, the mental image is the actual point, and Swinton captures the essence of describing marvels considered mundane from the teller's perspective.

It's description because this film isn't built to render those wonders photorealistically; even if a studio were willing to spend tens of millions of dollars on such an abstract story, this particular project appears to have its roots in an orchestral production anyway. Instead, Jóhannsson and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen take cameras to the Balkans and shoot various sculptures and bits of Brtualist architecture on 16mm black-and-white film. The results are, on their own, striking. Denied context, sitting in empty fields, it is difficult to determine whether these shapes come from some ancient civilization or modern abstraction, with a few suggesting human forms, while others look alien and others representing mid-twentieth-century electronics, while most seem strictly geometrical. The photography itself is phenomenal, reshaping these objects by shifting perspective and cautiously allowing them to emerge from mist as if materializing.

Their nature makes them good accompaniment to the narration, as the viewer knows that even though they are not created for this film, they come from human hands though the minds behind them are inscrutable in one way or another. Jóhannsson and Yair Elazar Glotman contribute an eerie and alien score (as Jóhannsson famously did for Denis Villeneuve's Arrival) that increases in intensity as the narration moves closer to the inevitable end, and it's fascinating to watch how the group combines these things to intensify the feeling: An angular figure where the human brain finds multiple faces complements talk of a telepathic hive mind, shapes resembling clenched fists hint at the struggle to continue, the camera moving through parallel sculptures with circular voids implies interplanetary travel. Jóhannsson never directly shows anything Swinton describes, but instead uses all of this to let the audience form an idea while also making sure that said audience knows that the reality is in fact stranger than they or the present-day people telling the story can imagine.

As the film ends after a sequence with some of the film's limited color (a dark, threatening red becoming a blinding white), the lighting seems to flicker for the first time, perhaps a candle being snuffed in the future or a hint that we are still proto-hominids experimenting with fire from the hive-mind narrator's perspective. At that point, it may occur to the viewer that the film never got around to how these two slices of humanity two billion years apart can help each other - but then, that was never the point.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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