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If High-Tech Pop Turns You Off, Turn to the Movies

Reel 2 Real Festival offers VR experiences alongside rewarding films to savour.

By Dorothy Woodend 13 Apr 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about culture and film for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Sometimes a film can make you feel very old.

Such was my experience of seeing Spielberg’s newest opus Ready Player One with my 16-year-old son. As the references piled up thick and fast, he made various noises of excitement, hilarity and recognition beside me, like a squeaky toy being vigorously shaken.

I am sad to admit that a fair chunk of it flew right over my head. The ‘80s and ‘90s stuff I got (The Iron Giant, Van Halen, and Back to the Future’s DeLorean) but the doffing of the proverbial cap to video game characters, and other VR stuff was almost entirely unknown. VR Luddite, c’est moi.

The film is a virtual cornucopia of pop culture, filled with sound and fury, buzzing, beeping, shrieking and wadded with details drawn from the media universe, some of which Spielberg himself had a hand in creating. But there is a strange hollowness at the centre of the thing where no emotion can take hold. Even my son Louis, despite his evident pleasure in some of the mash-up of worlds, was little enthused for the overall story. Other folk have evinced even less appreciation. The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody took out for the film, eviscerating its facile, quotation-heavy narrative with a barely restrained fury, calling it “a movie of spiritual zombies whose souls have been consumed by the makers of generations of official cultural product and regurgitated in the form of pop nostalgia.”

Ouch!

It’s an interesting analysis, and while I don’t quite agree with the sheer volume of Brody’s ire, it indicated something curious in the way that adults and kids look at movies, and more particularly VR.

If you would like to further explore this idea, with children in tow, you are in luck. The Reel 2 Real Festival winds up this weekend with screenings, VR experiences, talks, and plenty more.

Reel 2 Real’s Director of Programming Tammy Bannister explains that although the festival is for kids, these are not simple or pandering films, but rather, cinema in its purest and best sense. “There is a very big discrepancy between what kids like and what adults like,” says the thoughtful Ms. Bannister. “Many filmmakers come out of a Q&A after a film and say that was the hardest thing that I ever went through. Kids have no filter. They don’t hold back.”

When it comes to film this can be a great thing. As Bannister says, one of the most interesting things about working with the Festival’s two youth juries is the moment that some quiet child in the corner finally pipes up. “I love it when some kid suddenly makes an impassioned speech about a film they love that everyone else thought was really boring,” she says.

But boring is not much on the agenda at Reel 2 Real, particularly in the realm of VR.

Reel 2 Real features a number of VR projects this year including the National Film Board’s Tidal Traces, Blind Vaysha and Cardboard Crash. All of these play with the VR format with wit and intelligence. Cardboard Crash puts you in the position of an automated driving car dummy, you have to make calculations such as the rate of destruction to determine the least amount of casualties. The opening night film Earth: One Amazing Day was paired with theBlu: Whale Experience, a room-scale VR experience from Wevr that takes users into an underwater environment, filled with rarely seen creatures, such as a scale recreation of a blue whale.

A number of the VR projects actively question the idea of technology and pose philosophical questions. Which is something that Ready Player One only traces the surface of. Porn and videogames have driven VR development, but now artists are getting involved, and the results are fascinating. Masterpiece VR allows users to draw, sculpt and paint inside a virtual space.

“Many VR applications have been misused or abused,” explains Bannister, but during a visit to the Venice Film Festival, she was able to partake of innovative new projects that pushed the form, and began to fully explore what was truly possible. “VR in Venice really whet my appetite,” she says. “The Laurie Anderson project was really impressive. Also the National Geographic’s educational stuff. Great VR understands the potential and works with the medium.”

But even those who are actively working in the form admit that the technology is currently in its infancy. The fully realized world(s) of Ready Player One are still a ways off. I recently had the opportunity to preview the NFB’s latest VR project called Biidaaban: First Light. Created by Anishinaabe artist Lisa Jackson, 3D artist Mathew Borrett, digital design agency Jam3 and the National Film Board of Canada, the project will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (April 20 to 28).

Described as a work of Indigenous Futurism, Biidaaban is a fascinating experience that recreates a future version of downtown Toronto. The urban environment has been overtaken by the return of the natural world. Mossy pools fill the subway line, and trees sprout from the sidewalks. The title is an Anishinaabemowin word that means “the first light before dawn,” and encapsulates a much larger conceptual framework that “refers to the idea of the past and future collapsing in on the present.” Language plays a key role in the work, utilizing the written text of the Wendat (Huron), Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Anishinaabe (Ojibway) people to offer a new interpretation of the landscape.

If you don’t have the opportunity to fly to New York City and partake, be patient, no doubt the work will soon be available to experience in Canada.

But to be perfectly honest, I am still grappling with my own emotional reactions to the VR universe. In this, I can understand Richard Brody’s almost bodily recoil from Ready Player One, and the predigested one-dimensional world that it offers.

Bannister explains that even she finds most VR first-person fighter games too intense. But there is something else in many VR projects that I find strangely oppressive, bleak even. A sense of suffocation, or being stuck inside an enclosed airless world. It is the same claustrophobia that attends videogames for me. Perhaps, this is a consequence of age, of growing up without the benefit of the online experience, but some section of my soul refuses to partake of these false worlds.

But, again, to be fair, it takes time for the human brain to adapt, and perhaps one day, the experience of VR will be more akin to that of reading a novel, with entire worlds flowering inside your brain and flowing like electric currents up and down your nervous system. It’s simply not there yet.

If you would like to stage a retreat for a moment to a genuine life of the mind and the world of words, luckily enough, there is just such a film for you playing at the Reel 2 Real Festival. Director Stephen Cone’s film Princess Cyd has largely flown under the radar, but it is deeply deserving of a broader audience.

Tonally, Cone’s film reminded me of another unfairly neglected indie, Kogonada’s Columbus that played very briefly in theatres last year. While Cyd lacks the formal precision and cool elegance of Columbus, there is something in its slow flowering of emotion that is similarly rewarding. There is the same measured quality of joy and sadness, and a gentle, almost diffident approach to narrative. Princess Cyd is also fired by an unusual relationship at its centre — namely that of a young girl and her aunt.

Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), like any typical 16-year-old, is kind of obnoxious and kind of sweet. She is also emotionally clumsy, endlessly curious, and stumbling into situations that she barely understands. One hazy summer in Chicago, she lands on her aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a writer of some merit who still lives in the house where she and Cyd’s mother grew up. While an early trauma is alluded to in the film’s opening scene, the narrative gradually unfolds over a period of a few weeks, as the two women come to know and understand each other.

The film attracted early attention for a rather mundane scene of female masturbation. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Girls masturbate, no biggie! Soon enough, Cyd catches the eye of Katie (Malic White), a gender fluid young person, and a gentle romance begins to blossom. It is the more fluid and subtle aspects of female sexuality in the film that warrant a closer examination.

In this, Miranda is a much more interesting character than Cyd. Somewhere in her late 40s, Miranda has fully embraced the life of the mind and the pleasure and power of words. She has friends, close colleagues, an active career, and a big old rambling house, stuffed with books and art. The more physical (read sexy) aspects of her life have fallen away. As she tells her nosey niece, she has certainly enjoyed sex, but at this point in her life, she is content and comfortable in her solitary state. Sex, in all its itchy scratchy upheaval, has been banished to the distant past.

In full hormonal throttle, young Cyd doesn’t get that at a certain point in a woman’s life, biological imperatives fall away. I remember my former mother-in-law stating unequivocally that she would rather have a good bowel movement than have sex. Nothing quite that blunt happens in Princess Cyd, but Miranda is given a moment to slap some sense into her young charge in one key scene. When Cyd disappears upstairs, in the middle of her aunt’s literary salon to smoke pot and do a wee bit of dry humping with the neighbour’s handsome son, a frost descends upon the household.

To add insult to injury, Cyd says to her aunt, “If you had sex more often, maybe you wouldn’t eat so much.” Any normal person might have grabbed a fistful of bratty teenager and knocked the kid into see you next Tuesday, but Miranda is one of those saintly academics who wafts about in gauzy outfits, high on Miltonesque prose. The character might stretch credibility a bit, but the film is so easy and charming that it is easy to forgive such minor quibbles. To her credit, Miranda doesn’t haul off and slug her niece, but in a nice constrained fashion says, “Hear me now.” And proceeds to give her a firm lecture on the nature of choice, difference and mutual respect. It is a telling moment in the narrative, handled gracefully for all its direct confrontation.

Princess Cyd is more about tonality and atmosphere, the narrative is loose and wandering, like a long ramble on a warm summer afternoon. The only spark of drama occurs midway through, when Cyd’s new girlfriend is threatened by a drunken lout, but nothing terribly traumatic happens, and the incident sets the stage for the three women to set up house together. While Miranda writes in her study, the two younger women explore the pleasures of new love upstairs. It is all rather sweet and warm, with only the tiniest bit of treacle.

So, is there much more than that? Not really, but the film is a gentle reminder that the real world still contains multitudes — small pleasures and big ones. Cake, love, books, sunshine. It is mightily refreshing to see characters as fully fleshed out as these, filled with idiosyncratic detail, and a deep sense of interiority.

As Miranda talks about what writing and words mean to her, a species of nostalgia begins to unfurl. It is a gentle reminder of a time, when a book in the summer could immerse you so fully in another experience, another world, that it was like you’d led multiple lives.

Perhaps, it is this thing that is missing from so many VR experiences. They are interesting enough, and often visually stunning, but I have yet to feel any genuine emotion. Your brain looks on with bemusement, wonderment even, but your body knows the truth.  [Tyee]

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