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BERLINALE 2017: ULYSSES IN THE SUBWAY DE MARC DOWNIE, PAUL KAISER, FLO JACOBS, KEN JACOBS (ENG)

  1. Affect, or what happens

By Tara Judah

For every 1/24th of a second, there are 2000 audio samples recorded. Each frame, then, is built from these 2000 sources; constructed, that is, in 3D from more than 21 different ways of algorithmically analyzing and visualizing sound.
-Berlinale programme, Ulysses in the Subway

I only saw around nine or ten minutes of Ulysses in the Subway. After that, though I believe I experienced it, I didn’t see a thing.

Critics often joke about falling asleep in the cinema but there are times when I experience physical reactions that an onlooker might describe as sleep, but that I would situate somewhere between it and trance. I am not asleep, as I understand it, because I can still hear the film and I am conscious that my eyes are closed, though I am unable to open my eyes fully and watch the images before me, either. I am not epileptic or diabetic so far as I know. Let’s call it an ‘episode’ (for wont of a better term). When the episode is over, I feel groggy, dizzy, often have a headache and sometimes experience nausea. It seems to be induced by flashing images or persistently shaky camera work, repetitive and rhythmic aural tracks, heavy bass and constant dirge scores.

I can’t write much about how things progress in this film because I don’t know what happens – not even narratively in the audio track because, although I insist I was not asleep, I also experienced the sound in what I would describe as a partially lucid state, where screen voices sometimes became the aural bed for the amplified rhythm of my breath. What I saw, before the affect took hold, was the visualisation of sound. Not unlike, but also not quite like the animated, painterly and abstract works of Albert Pierru and Oskar Fischinger; maybe more like a blendered version of audacity’s sound wavelengths and 3D rendered geometric shapes.

For me, the affect of 3D holds a specific fascination, as it constructs real life dimensionality (between the viewer and the surface of the screen) from the images (the (re)presentation of something that exists) to create cognitive and theoretical interpretation. So, while immersion may be one way to talk about the affect of 3D, so too might the relationship between the aesthetic pursuance of the ontology of what it (re)presents: an historical, indexical real.

Much like the IMAX documentaries that use 3D as a way of fleshing out the paleontological bones or the ontological natural world of what it (re)presents, so too does this interpretation of 3D give visual (re)presentation to an indexical real: the happened sound. The 3D literally fleshes out the historically traceable object, it’s just that the trace that happened here is a soundwave. It’s intriguing as an experience because the imagery, though absolutely connected to the aural track, also seems completely incongruous to it.

The experience, then, for me, was how I imagine it might feel to be sucked into a black hole, where I was overwhelmed physically until I couldn’t see anything, even though I was conscious, and where what I did hear was distant and foggy and somehow combined with, yet unrelated to, my own physical ontology in space. I felt somehow secure, too, knowing that the film was still playing and other members of the audience, still watching and cognitively engaging with what they saw and heard, were having different experiences – more or less visceral, who knows? – at the very same time. When the auditorium lights came up, I was desperately scrambling for an exit, to step outside into the bitter cold of Berlin’s minus two-degree temperature to shock the experience out of my system and retain control over my physical being (my apologies to everyone in my row who I clambered over with apparent mania.)

Though some may argue that the experience is irrelevant if I am unable to review or discuss the film – well, in its entirety, anyway – I think it is only worth writing about at all because of the relative affect. Not every screening elicits such, or indeed any, response.

Most of the other films I watched at the Berlinale will escape my active memory in the months and years to come, but that is not why Ulysses in the Subway is remarkable. And it is not as though the experience I had makes this film ‘better’ or even ‘great’, either. I’m not interested in telling you if it’s ‘good’ or not, and I’m not interested in evaluating that for myself, either. But, if we remove the cultural currency and journalese that wants masterpieces, revelations or some other such empty words, then we can start to look at the space between screen and viewer, which is where everything happens.

The space where things happen doesn’t have to be evaluated in terms of positive or negative or any other such binary way. Instead, the space might be considered active insofar as it is positively charged with the capacity to affect, be that in the description of feelings or sensations for each viewer. And, if I think about the affect of this film – slippery as that term may be – then I can say with certainty that something happened. Something exciting, and a little frightening and definitely provocative.

For me, what happened was embodied but it was also like a portal; Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser and Ken and Flo Jacobs were there, and my body danced with their ideas.

Forum Expanded
Director: Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser, Flo Jacobs, Ken Jacobs
Producer: Paul Kaiser
USA; 59 min, 2016

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