TORONTO — We live in an age of digital revolution in cinema, and blockbusters as a matter of course are projected in sophisticated 3D. Yet a 60-minute avant-garde film has managed to easily outmatch any hundred-million-dollar production in its use of 3D, and it does so by reverting to the simplest possible version of the format. That reversion is literal: the opening shots of artist Blake Williams’s PROTOTYPE, screening as part of the Wavelengths program at the Toronto Film Festival, are of vintage stereoscope cards, a primitive 3D viewing method popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From there, the images grow more obtuse, and the sense of immersion only becomes deeper.
The stereoscopic cards in question are souvenirs made from photographs of the devastation wrought by the Great Storm of 1900, a hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas. It remains the deadliest natural disaster in US history. Of course there were souvenirs. As I write this, multiple hurricanes have just hit the Gulf and East coasts of North America, and our modern media is spreading images of the storms in its own leering way. Galveston and its morbid stereoscope cards are perhaps the prototype for disaster gawking in the 21st century. After all, such pictures were among the first methods of mass visual communication, rapidly disseminated from their inciting incidents to be slotted into viewing contraptions all over the country.
Williams is making his feature debut here with PROTOTYPE after experimenting with 3D in previous shorts. He continues to prod the audience with the technique here, compounding the number of planes of reality in play by shooting footage across multiple old Philco televisions with his 3D camera. He presents us with slow-motion ocean waves, blues so dark the image looks black-and-white. Each time the film shifts to a new image, it takes longer to understand just what it is you’re looking at. One of the last scenes is of a rodeo — a cultural hallmark of the region affected by the Great Storm — and barely discernible, alienated to almost pure abstraction. The screen bifurcates into different areas of strobing black and white, and if you test the stereoscopy by closing an eye, you see that each half of the frame is solely projected to one eye, as opposed to the only slightly different images usually used to create the illusion of depth.
To watch PROTOTYPE progress is like seeing a photograph being emulsed in brackish water, slowly becoming soggy, decaying, and then its melted bits swirled about with the surrounding muck. The stereoscope pictures are incredibly sharp, the 3D granting the post-apocalyptic landscapes a frightening immediacy. It is the moment after the storm. From then on, Williams simulates how the passage of time engineers the corrosion of collective memory. Each new scene jars the audience into bewilderment, and then slowly reacclimatizes viewers into meditation on the film’s progression, before it does the same thing all over again. The ending then snaps the audience back to reality, with photos of a modern Florida beach. Even without the meta knowledge of hurricanes bearing down on that landscape today, it serves as an ominous reminder of how the images we circulate today will in their own way evolve from immediate to remote as we move into the future.
PROTOTYPE screens at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday, September 14.