“Our programming aims to make their brains accessible. To keep them entertained and disconnected. Our product is available brain time.” These lines—something John Berger might have written—are from a book by the CEO of France’s first commercial channel, in which he suggests his job, the job of TV, is to sell Coca-Cola. It’s quoted in Fantastic Machine, which played at the Sundance Film Festival last week. Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck’s documentary is a lively, thoughtful look at the essential slipperiness of the moving image.
Though the film tracks back to 1828 and the first still photograph, and on to Muybridge, Edison and the Lumière brothers, its thematic tale begins with another pioneer. George Méliès, the narrator says, is “one of the first examples of man manipulating the moving image”. In 1902, Méliès staged the coronation of British king Edward VII in his studio with French actors, after failing to get permission to shoot the real thing. The king enjoyed the re-enactment; his admiring description of a movie camera gives this film its title. “Honourable Englishmen, you’re being fooled,” a reporter at the time warned. Over a century later, the machines are still fantastic and their images still deceptive, despite our familiarity with them.
Danielson and Van Aertryck run pell-mell down the decades, stopping at the various points you would expect (Leni Reifenstahl, Ted Turner) and some you might not. They don’t focus on cinema much; instead, they examine TV, news, advertising, viral video, livestreams for signs of manipulation and unruliness. They show the award-winning photograph of a dead girl taken during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, then follow it up with another, taken from a different angle, of a battery of photographers looking for a shot. This feeling that deception may be lurking just a few feet away is not a new concern. Peter Tanner, talking about capturing the first filmed evidence of concentration camps, says, “We tried to make shots as long as possible, use panning shots so there was no possibility of trickery.”
In the way it connects cultural flotsam and jetsam, Fantastic Machine resembles the work of English documentarian Adam Curtis, though without his laser focus. We go from the viral video of the man who ended up imitating a music biz/business expert on the BBC to a little boy doing note-perfect imitations of Bruce Lee, to spectators at a children’s theatre in Riga in 1970. Ruben Östlund (The Square, Triangle Of Sadness) is one of the executive producers; the film has his sense of mischief. An earnest TED talk clip about YouTube in which the speaker tells his audience, “You are the teachers,” is followed by a man showing how to escape a fall into an ice pond. This is followed by a tutorial by ISIS on how to make a home-made bomb.
Fantastic Machine asks viewers to look closer. The Tuba Thieves asks them to listen more carefully. I started watching after skimming the description on the Sundance Film Festival site. I was expecting a wry mockumentary of sorts. Instead, Alison O’Daniel’s film turned out to be a ceaselessly inventive and thoughtful consideration of sound in cinema, one of my favourite titles at the festival.
It’s a wordless film for long stretches, yet the polar opposite of a silent film. This is a film that asks the viewer to pay special attention to on-screen sounds and how they are described. O’Daniel, a deaf filmmaker, pushes us to think about captioning, about how the richness of sound is rarely captured even in close captioning. Her own captions have imagination, beauty: “thin wind”, “hum of the forest”. Freed from the supremacy of image, this film becomes a unique viewing experience. After a while, I was hearing the images.
The title is a sly misdirection. A mysterious spate of tuba thefts across universities would seem to be central to the film: It records at regular intervals the location and content of the robberies, and even has a journalist talk about the crime spree on the radio. But as the film progresses, you realise O’Daniel is just using the robberies themselves as a jumping-off point—and perhaps a little dig at how films, fiction and non-fiction, must have a “story” in order to be saleable. There are fictional (semi-fictional?) performances by Nyke, a deaf woman, and Geovanny, a saxophone player. But the impression left behind by the film is a series of unhurried images in place of what we might think of as “narrative”.
O’Daniel finds inventive and often witty ways to attune our ears and eyes to what is happening on screen. As a tuba plays a long note on the soundtrack, we first see:
[A TUBE STRETCHED]
But when the note is elongated further, the caption becomes:
[A TUBA S T R E T C H E D]
(In another playful moment, plants start to hum, captioned as multiple Mmmmmmms)
There’s a passage that seems to encompass the different kinds of on-screen silence. A panoramic shot of nature is first soundtracked by absolutely nothing. Then we start hearing the whistling of wind, bird calls. This cuts to a scene of a small audience waiting for a pianist to play. He takes out a stop clock, which we hear ticking, but the scene changes before we hear any music from him. From the imposed silence of no sound to a more natural silence to a silence of denial.
O’Daniel allows viewers the space to form their own ideas. There are dots to connect, though rarely obvious. At one point, a voice on the radio is heard describing California wildfires as the sound of “hundreds of animals growling”. Later, the film shows us an actual wildfire. It’s soundtracked, hilariously, by unmistakable animal growls.