Reality Check

Amy Taubin on virtual reality at the Sundance Film Festival

Gabo Arora and Chris Milk, Waves of Grace, 2016, mobile VR, color, sound, 10 minutes. Decontee Davis.

JANUARY 25: I am sitting in the ClaimJumper, once a dive bar on Park City’s Main Street and now the headquarters of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier section, which in 2016 is devoted almost entirely to virtual reality. Because I committed to writing about New Frontier, I scored VIP passes for the 11 AM to 1 PM slot on two mornings, when the wait-time for each piece is supposed to be short. Nothing doing. In the end, even with the help of New Frontier curator Shari Frilot and her staff, I managed to “experience” a mere ten pieces, most of them under five minutes long. Meaning there was a lot of downtime. Too much downtime, when nothing I saw answered the basic question of what VR is good for.

On the most obvious level, the pieces exist as demos for the gear. New Frontier wasn’t selling gear, although it was giving away a slightly upgraded version of those cardboard Google glasses that the New York Times recently delivered to subscribers, which, if you download the cranky app on your mobile phone, would “put you in the center of stories only we can tell: stories reported by a staff of award-winning journalists told through an immersive video experience.” (That’s how the NYT expects to make its readers feel cool—for example, by putting you on the road with Syrian refugees.) The NYT was a sponsor of New Frontier, so even if you didn’t make the trek to Park City, you could access some of the pieces on your phone, including one of the most sophisticated, Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s Waves of Grace. Shot in a Liberian village where Ebola was rampant, Waves of Grace is narrated by Decontee Davis, who, having survived the disease, became immune, and therefore able to nurse the sick and care for orphaned children.

Milk is a pioneer of VR and one of the people who is pushing the medium forward while defining an aesthetic based on the technology’s current possibilities and limitations. His belief—that in VR it’s impossible to edit within sequences—governs discussions, particularly when the issue of “storytelling” is involved. Given that the grammar and expressivity of the language of movies and television is based in editing, some VR pioneers are working day and night to prove him wrong.

Viewer experiencing Alex McDowell and Bradley Newman's The Leviathan Project (2016). Photo courtesy Sundance Film Institute.

The absence of editing, however, in every piece I saw in New Frontier made them seem closer to theater than film. The viewer is placed at the center of a 360-degree space in which people, animals, and/or objects move, thereby cuing one to look right, left, up, down, or behind. (Sound design also provides visual cues.) In some pieces (categorized as Tethered VR), you walk a few steps here and there while remaining at the center of the action. But regardless of whether you are seated or moving, because the depicted space remains constant within a sequence, and sequences can only be strung together by using blackouts between them, the effect is of a theater-in-the-round where the audience is center-stage.

In the pieces I saw, the most effective use of movement is when someone or thing approaches the viewer. In Waves of Grace, I was surprised that my actual leg recoiled when a body was carried close enough to have brushed against the place where my unseen virtual leg would have been. My reaction recalled anecdotes about audiences fleeing Paris’s Grand Café, panicked that the train in one of the first movies ever screened, the Lumières’ 1896 L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, was about to mow them down. But in both cases, one’s reaction is not empathetic (the VR promotional buzzword) but rather an involuntary flight response—move away from danger. Empathy is a matter of heart and mind, neither of which was any more engaged by Waves of Grace than would have been by a simple news report. Worse, the sympathy and admiration one might have felt for Davis, who explains that she believes that God allowed her to survive so that she could help others, is nearly obliterated by the kitschy uplift music poured over the sound track.

Alex McDowell and Bradley Newman, The Leviathan Project, 2016, VR installation, color, sound, 10 minutes.

During my two visits to New Frontier, I participated (is that a good verb?) in pieces that were basically documentary, basically fiction, or basically docudramas. Some were animations, some live-action. Among the most potentially interesting and disturbing was The Leviathan Project, Alex McDowell and Bradley Newman’s collaboration with the USC World Building Media Lab, in which your senses of touch and sight, for very brief moments, conflate the virtual and the actual. Presented as a workshop, Leviathan combines VR with AR (augmented reality) and is in part the result of an ongoing collaboration between USC’s narrative-oriented film department and its gaming department. The piece references a series of sci-fi novels by Scott Westerfeld that fantasizes a late-nineteenth-century merging of animals and machines to make war technology. (Never forget that the first big investor in new representational technology is the military, usually followed by the porn industry.)

The Leviathan of the novels is a whale mated with a flying battleship, or something like that. In the simple part of the piece, you walk around holding a tablet on which you see the Leviathan fly out of a virtual wall and circle the actual space above your head. (I think you can watch this in bad video on a big screen as well, but my sense of space was too deranged to remember exactly.) In the more complicated part, you wear touch-sensitive gloves along with your headgear so that when you enter (via your tablet) the virtual interior of the Leviathan, you can manipulate controls that allow you to create and finger small virtual sea creatures with your actual sensor-equipped hands. I find this extremely scary. People have enough trouble separating what’s real from reality TV. We certainly don’t need to add a kinesthetic element to the confusion.

Many pieces rely on basic kinesthetic disorientation to make you more vulnerable to virtual effects: placing you at the edge of a cliff or a balcony without railings. Either the effect loses its punch before the piece is over or you come away slightly nauseated. The most uncanny sensation was created by Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël in their Nomads: Maasai. Basically a short travelogue, thankfully without narration, it places you on solid ground in the middle of a Maasai village on an ordinary day. People go about their quotidian activities—eating, talking, dancing. But toward the end of the twelve-minute piece, a man walks from afar, right up to the [unseen] camera and stands looking straight into the lens. Meaning that it seems as if he is locking eyes with you, the viewer, reducing a spaciotemporal distance of half a planet and an incalculable number of years to a single, electrifying now.

Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, Nomads: Maasai, 2016, mobile VR, color, sound, 12 minutes.

There are precedents in the history of cinema for this breaking of the fourth wall: When Nicole Stéphane looks into the lens in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), it was probably a mistake that no one realized until the negative was developed and it was too late to reshoot. But then Jean-Luc Godard borrowed the mistake and made it intentional at the end of Breathless (1960), with Jean Seberg’s enigmatic stare as she inquires as to the meaning of dégueulasse. And Warhol, in turn, glommed onto Seberg’s stare and built some four hundred “Screen Tests” from it (costuming Edie Sedgwick in Seberg’s Venetian boatman shirt as well). Perhaps it’s that history which made the Maasai villager’s quiet confrontation with the camera so powerful, but I think VR had something to do with it too.

Sundance is going all-out in its support of VR, adding to the existing Sundance laboratory programs one that gives grants to VR storytellers. Many of the big VR companies were in Park City, their publicists inviting interested press to try out the technology in the privacy of their condos. But whether you put on the Oculus Rift or the Samsung Gear VR glasses in public or private, they are too clumsy and heavy to make the VR experience be about anything except wanting to remove the gear after the first minute. Still, Sundance gets points for adventurousness. And in honor of New Frontier’s tenth anniversary, there are plans to tour selections from the program around the country. Put your name on the waiting list now.

The 38th Sundance Film Festival ran January 21–31 in Park City, Utah.