Otto Bloom has a problem. Unstuck from the natural flow of time, he experiences memory in reverse. That is, he forgets everything that has happened to him but he knows with absolutely clarity what will happen next. To make matters worse, he’s trapped in an independent Australian feature film which has little more to hold onto than its logline. The Death and Life of Otto Bloom aspires to inventiveness—in content and form—but its ideas are so simplistic, its stabs at emotional pull so limp, its aesthetic grounding as a faux-documentary so uninteresting that it, in keeping with Bloom’s own condition, is instantly forgettable.
Cris Jones frames his debut feature as a mock-doc, a string of talking head interviews interspersed with clips, all centred around the life of iconoclastic “time traveller” Otto Bloom (Xavier Samuel), who first achieved public notoriety in the early 1980s. This approach makes some sense, giving Jones the freedom to dwell less on the internal processes of Bloom’s mind and more on the key relationships in his life, in particular his great love Ada (Rachel Ward).1 Unfortunately, that’s not really what happens—the film’s narrative gets pulled in many directions, all of them undeveloped. Bloom’s life is divided into sections, each with a self-serious, cringe-inducing title card; Bloom is cast as psychological patient, romantic lead, artistic genius, tabloid celebrity and enigmatic recluse.
It’s hard to fathom any reason other than sheer indulgence on the part of the filmmakers that Bloom becomes a celebrated and forward-thinking artist, his oil paintings just re-purposed output images from Google’s AI, his video artwork a bland study of movement.2 It’s quite an amateur mistake in film storytelling; when a piece of art within the world of the film is hailed as genius, unless you are taking the piss—don’t reveal it. Jones makes the same mistake twice when showcasing Bloom’s ‘Boxing Day Speech’, a free public lecture he gives inside a concert arena during the height of his fame. The speech, which our talking head interviewees almost unanimously proclaim as revelatory, is little more than a re-iteration of the film’s premise and a riff on Einstein’s writings about death and time. It doesn’t help things that Samuel’s delivery of the monologue is so flat and uncompelling that the idea that ten people—no less ten thousand—would cheer him on is absurd.
The film’s logical shorthand is perhaps its worst fault, narrative elements parroted then confirmed with authority by the film’s ‘expert’ interviewees: a scientific paper gets submitted and garners worldwide attention before any publication; an art critic in the film says Bloom’s mid-’80s piece of video art is pre-visual effects; the only real reference point for a physicist and a philosopher on the topic of Bloom is Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. The film’s defining trait might be its faux-intellectualism, posturing at grand ideas with no desire to actually engage with them beyond a surface level. The need to have your fictional interviewees underline the premise and plot of the film time and time again is throughly lazy storytelling, the unintentionally bold move to simultaneously show and tell. In the closing section of the film, already hamstrung by three false endings and a dumbfounding twist, two separate talking head characters try to distil what the film is really about in abrupt terms. We’re told Bloom’s life story isn’t a tale of time travel, celebrity, or death, but of romance.
To take the film at its word, judging it as a time-bent romance, it seems to aim for the resonance of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and finds itself closer to the emptiness of another recent Australian indie, The Infinite Man. On the former, Jones told The Guardian that “it didn’t seem to say anything about time to me”, an unusual take considering that film manages to achieve in one sweeping montage a more complex interweaving of time and love than anything in his film. That said, the romantic plot of Otto Bloom puts the focus on the film’s saving grace, Rachel Ward, who delivers a convincing performance in spite of the dialogue she’s given.
“Who is Otto Bloom?” reads one of the many newspaper headlines in the film’s opening sequence. By the end of Jones’ film, I don’t think that’s even remotely answered, though not for want of trying. Bloom is a concept-as-character, bolstered by empty proclamations from experts who don’t seem like experts. This fundamental hollowness also extends to the visual and thematic thrust of the film; running through film formats and concepts of cultural iconography, Jones is trying to craft substance from a scattering of images and ideas, the not-knowing in and of itself a meaningful element. Instead these efforts feel like a vain attempt to pad out a 20-minute short into a feature-length film.3 Whilst the initial premise of The Death and Life of Otto Bloom is intriguing, it never meaningfully moves beyond its narrative conceit; the film is a hollow and simplistic experiment.
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