A rush of images flash over dead sound, flickering through rapid-fire cuts: a man carefully pointing and framing a picture with his camera-phone; the flashing digits of a reset electric clock; the face of a woman sitting in the driver’s seat shot through an iPhone camera interface, overlaid with the glass reflection of the suburban houses passing outside the vehicle, her face suddenly multiplying into a half-dozen fuzzed out copies as the lens re-focuses; another barely perceptible cut back to the first figure; a cut back to the car driver. Abruptly, sound is introduced in medias res, two voices speaking over each other. One is a barely intelligible conversation punctuated by garbled voices chopped up by digital interference. The other is a slow voice intoning a repeated phrase:
“…in a fatalist universe there’s nothing left to see except suspension…”
We cut back and forth between two new scenes, one of a young man on a couch talking to off-screen friends and the other a steady pan toward a gas station on a suburban street interposed with an image of a train moving at night. Piano chords emerge beneath more disjunctive voices, a close-up of a woman reading in a library is laid over a close-up of mathematical formulas printed in a philosophy book. The images fade to black and an electronic blast interrupts the voices, like a DJ sound break interrupting a set. After a momentary lapse, the chaotic assembly of fragmented sounds and images resume.
Lasting a mere thirty seconds, this strikingly dense and disorienting montage establishes the ambitious agenda of Isiah Medina’s first experimental feature, 88:88. The hour-long film is a continuous flow of disparate sounds and images, tuned to an irregular pulse which ebbs and flows between breakneck velocity and languorous stretches. It forms a highly impressionistic and fragmented depiction of Medina’s everyday life: the small moments of shared inhabitation with lovers, friends, family and strangers in his hometown of Winnipeg.
After a series of experimental digital shorts, Medina’s first feature length film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 as part of the Wavelengths program. In interviews, Medina extensively theorises his filmmaking in terms of the ‘cut,’ a theory drawn liberally from the neo-Platonist philosophy of Alain Badiou and one which places central importance on the thinking of pure difference. This relates not only to a political project of rethinking life outside of the exploitative relations of capitalism but also a commitment to a poetic-cinematic project whose experimentation seeks to produce new aesthetic forms. Medina’s interviews, which so closely resemble the reading group discussions and lounge room banter of humanities graduate students, are continuous with the subject of his films. In both 88:88 and his earlier short, Time is the Sun, the coffee tables and bookshelves carefully exhibit well-thumbed copies of Badiou tomes, half-watched European Graduate School videos displayed on monitors and even, in one instance, a voice-over reciting logical deductions from Plato’s Parmenides. The formal program is explicitly grounded in contemporary leftist philosophy and while the film may fall short of an artistic Event (and largely resembles decades of pre-existing experimental cinema), the precocity and earnest ambition driving the project still makes for a provocative and bracing viewing experience.
As a voiceover explains halfway through the film, its title refers to the flashing display of a reset electronic clock after a home’s power has been disconnected following unpaid bills. This simple image effectively draws together the film’s thematic ambit, which seeks to depict, through its disjunctive sounds and images, the inert non-time experienced by a subset of educated millennials enduring precarious states of employment and homelessness within the current global economic downturn.The other major formal influence suggested in the film’s titular numerical image, alongside ontology and mathematics, is hip-hop. Clips of songs fade in and out of the film, playing behind and overlaying the voice-overs, which are almost never diegetically matched. Occasionally, dialogue between people (who are never named) are backed by anonymous beats. Other times the audio consists of amateur raps, poems and recited prose which assume a musical form or litany.
Rhythmically, too, the film approximates a figure eight. Its overall structure is loosely symmetrical, comprising two 30-minute segments bookended by short montages of repeated sounds and images. Each of these halves contain a central lyrical sequence where images of unnamed people inhabiting bedrooms, city streets and train stations are sutured together with long, uninterrupted dialogue from one of its two main itinerant characters. Both dialogues seem to be recorded from actual conversations and the naturalistic voices present the political urgency of poverty in the most direct, humanistic terms. One emotive lament recalls a recent compulsion to unleash violence on a mutual friend, a dumb rage borne of intractable poverty and strained relations with his mother. Another character relates a near psychotic break where he describes hearing demonic voices and feeling himself slip into an animal state. Sonic repetition serves as a primary structuring device and powerful metaphor, at once composing the infinite universe into a sensible meaning while also conveying the recursive experiences of a bare life deeply mired in poverty.
At times the frenetic cutting between wildly different sound and images produces the kind of alienating effect Medina is aiming for, however the film also presents content and meaning in more explicit ways. One example includes an uncommon synchrony between sound and image around the film’s halfway point. A close-up of a street sign with the word cut off, leaving the two letters ‘PO’ while a snippet plays from Big L’s “Lifestylez of Da Poor and Dangerous”, with the lyrics “I wasn’t ‘poor’, I was po’, I couldn’t afford the ‘o-r’.” The sign re-appears later, this time truncated to the P, a visual pun on the predicate used in logical propositions. At these points, the mathematical ‘signs’ restaged in the film world are mere textual citations, signifying as much or little as all the other contemporary cultural tokens littered throughout. In this plane of everyday signification, playing Schoolboy Q’s “Man of the Year” on an iPod is much the same act of personal performance as reading Logics of Worlds. Moments like this become unfortunately citational, clear allusions that undermine Medina’s sincere dedication to formal experimentation as opposed to knowing cultural nods to his inspirations.
Other instances of overt thematic content include the ubiquity of screens, an accurate depiction of the sheer multitude of media streams in our daily life which Medina portrays without any simplistic moralising. One striking montage sequence offers a particularly novel set of images relaying new and contemporary mediations between world and text. A shot shows a figure in the snow, with the camera holder’s fingers holding up a finger gun at the bottom of the frame, resembling a first-person shooter video game. It cuts to a closeup of an infant playing a game on an iPad, a car nearly ‘dead’, the mechanical avatar on fire and smoking heavily, eventually crashing. The next cut shows a courtroom hearing, shot from a surreptitiously placed phone in the gallery. We later learn from a reproduced text message that the court hearing relates to a friend, now serving 7 years jail. The wide-ranging mediations portrayed in this early sequence repeats in the final 10 minutes, where the film employs a stunning set of abstract images and swift, suggestive cuts. One computer generated shot depicts the first person perspective walking through the pixelated landscape of a Minecraft-esque space, every step emphasised with a loud artificial computer bleep. The same sound is then layered over real video footage of a man walking through the snow. Further on, a handcuffed figure walking through towering skyscrapers is cut with a visual match of a computer rendering of similar vectors. The inescapable influence of technology on the self-conscious activity of ‘thinking’ the world is made explicit, yet the bravura disorientation of the editing prevents these visual metaphors from feeling flat or banal.
88:88 depicts contemporary political malaise but without any attempt at a materialist interpretation or propositional solution to global political crises, which is both a blessing and a limitation to the project. The film works best when its political subject is suggested through figural sequences, images of people standing and inhabiting space with the peculiar inertia of a futureless, homeless subject. These impressions endure as the most truthful depictions of the experience of Being, universal moments of pure arrested boredom situated even within the maelstrom of contemporary media networks. As a meditation on time experienced in an age of perennial emergency, the feature is an invigorating viewing experience. Medina’s greatest achievement is finding genuine flickers of redemption and formal innovation through a committed documentation of time shared between friends, lovers and family.
88:88 is now streaming over at MUBI
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