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In the mid-1990s, the portrayal of the internet in film offered a fascinating window into the limits of human imagination. As more households adopted the technology, its full potential as a tool for communication remained largely undefined. Filmmakers of the era had a unique opportunity to predict its full range of possibilities. The results often led to guesses that appear laughable now; the 1995 Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net is a prime example, conjuring a not-so-distant future where “hacking” consists of employing simple keystrokes common to word processing and ordering pizza without having to make a phone call.
A hilariously antiquated portrayal of the internet, at least by today’s standards, can be found in French director and artist Chris Marker’s 1997 film Level Five, screening this weekend at Metrograph as part of its film series The Singularity, which focuses on the struggle between man and machine for dominance. In a series stacked with Hollywood and auteur fare, the rarely screened film provides a visual artist’s outside perspective, replete with its director’s signature moving-image collages. Despite its distinct outlook, however, Level Five’s misplaced narrative priorities and dreadful structure are much more damning to the film’s appeal.
The film focuses on the efforts of techy Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) to create a video game based on the World War II Battle of Okinawa in Japan, where 150,000 Okinawans committed suicide, died in battle, or went missing in action. The O.W.L. (Optional World Link) — an interactive online network — allows her to research written and video content related to the event. Laura is the film’s only character and delivers her dialogue directly to the camera, which she addresses in place of a lover who disappeared after previously researching for the video game.
The O.W.L. lives firmly within the confines of its era’s technology. Its pixelated video graphics and clumsy digital renderings of photographs make it a visual cousin of the abortive Sega CD console. The system accompanies the user’s actions with a computerized voice. As users connect, the screen fills with the moving image collages, which focus on eyes and weave repeated, spiraling patterns of light and color around these organic elements. With the exception of these collages, the presumably cutting-edge machine looks quite a bit like the machines of the time.
Marker sabotages any insight Level Five might offer in the conflict of humans versus machines by overwhelmingly focusing on the human aspect of the equation. More than half of the film consists of shots of Laura in the type of poorly lit room full of nondescript technology and pop culture ephemera that an action hero’s hacker friend typically inhabits. This choice is visually dull, removing the opportunity for a dynamic, organic tableau apart from the O.W.L.’s graphics. At one point, the protagonist takes a seat in the room, points a remote at the camera, and presses a button, causing the frame to tighten into a close-up. The image sharpens and fades as she continues to play with the controls until eventually we have the clearest image possible at a mid-length. Marker places Laura — a nondescript vehicle for platitudes about technology and war — in control of the narrative, dooming the movie to the banality of her segments.
In his exploration of the relationship between humans and their technology, he also uses the wrong human as his focal point. A compelling documentary about the Battle of Okinawa lies at the heart of this feature-length exercise in navel-gazing. When the camera moves its focus from its one-sided conversation with Laura, we see the interviews and archival footage that she discovers through the O.W.L. The interviews are by far the most intriguing part of the film. In particular, an older gentleman — bald with semi-rimless glasses — speaks in tight close-up about his memories of Okinawa around the time of the battle. His tale gradually grows darker as he begins describing the stories villagers were told about the American army. As he details the mutilation and rape that they expected at the hands of the Allies, it becomes obvious that this story is not going to end well. Surely enough, he describes in a metered cadence — seeking precision with each word — how he and a brother killed his mother and younger siblings before leaving their homes to wage kamikaze war on the Americans. He repeats the order of events as if they occupy a permanent, painful space at the front of his thoughts. This confession is a rare glimpse into the type of hive consciousness and sheltered existence that breed atrocities. It is compelling in a way that honesty about grave subjects can often be.
Other movies in The Singularity — like the timeless 2001: A Space Odyssey or the low-budget innovation of John Carpenter’s Dark Star — show how humans and their mechanical counterparts drastically shape each other’s existence by plunging them into interaction. Marker is content to simply show Laura musing about technology in a vacant room for the majority of the runtime. Filtering any observations about the man/machine struggle through Laura’s prattling monologue mitigates their impact by flat-out stating what should be conveyed through potent visual examples of these observations in action. It may be within the purview of the filmmaker to peer into the potential future uses of technologies, but it is also his or her responsibility to fully utilize film’s potential in this exploration. Marker’s questionable methods yield a meandering, solipsistic slog that spoon feeds its messages to the viewer.