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Berlinale 2017. Chromesthetic Delirium and Documentary Spontaneity

A chromesthetic delirium by Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser and Ken & Flo Jacobs, and Michael Glawogger's final film closes our Berlin dispatches.
Untitled. © Lotus-Film
A pretty amazing aspect of the Berlinale is that a lot of the festival venues are multiplexes usually devoted to blockbusters, meaning that smaller films from the sidebars are often screened in theaters with gigantic screens and state-of-the-art sound systems. It’s in one such cinema that I got to experience the chromesthetic delirium of Ulysses in the Subway by Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser, Flo Jacobs and Ken Jacobs. And, let me tell you, it was mind-blowing.
Describing the film is about as difficult as describing a drug trip—indeed, watching Ulysses in the Subway is what it might be like if you were to drop acid and ride around the New York subway with your eyes closed. With the intention of visualizing sound, the four artists took an audio recording Ken Jacobs made of a long subway ride home (Jacobs used the same recording in live performances of his Nervous Magic Lantern) and passed it through a computer, using algorithms to construct each frame of the film from 2,000 audio samples. Ulysses in the Subway is 59 minutes long, which at 24 frames per second means over 100,000,000 audio samples were given visual form. The result is like the most elaborate iTunes visualizer imaginable, and rendered in 3D.
The titular reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses suggests that the artists aimed to achieve something analogous to the sensory stream of consciousness of Joyce’s novel, which manages to convey intricate soundscapes—the cacophony of a crowded pub; the confusion of a newspaper’s editorial offices—through masterful manipulation of prose.  At its most basic, the image in Ulysses in the Subway is of a horizontal, neon-colored waveform stretched across the center of the screen over a black background. Each audio source causes the waveform to grow and shrink, swell and contract, multiply and diminish, hurtling it across the y and z axes in a seemingly infinite variety of furious contortions. It’s a relentless onslaught on the retinas, to be sure, but one that is absolutely gorgeous and transfixing. That your eyes inevitably grow tired and your ability to focus fluctuates only amplifies and diversifies the 3D effects.
On repeated occasions a sharp, sudden sound like the subway doors slamming shut will freeze the image right in front of your eyes, momentarily filling your field of vision with what looks like an electrified Pollock painting, and this abrupt intrusion of immobility amongst such commotion triggers hallucinations, giving the illusion of movement even when there is none.  At other moments, the waveform will expand and morph into a 3D rendering of a traveling shot following a subway down a tunnel and you unexpectedly find yourself in pursuit of the train, propelled forwards through a virtual profilmic space. These images are drawn from a film Edison shot in the New York subway in 1905 and through their inclusion, Ulysses in the Subway bridges the century-wide gap that separates it from the earliest days of cinema, looking to the future as it conflates cinema’s analogue past and digital present.
Another form of dialogue with the past underpins Untitled by Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi. Glawogger’s original idea for the film had been to travel the world for a year with Attila Boa and Manuel Siebert, his DP and sound recordist, and shoot a documentary spontaneously, without a concrete theme or plan other than an itinerary. The three of them set off from Austria and made it across the Balkans, Italy, Northwest and West Africa, until they reached Liberia, where Glawogger contracted malaria and died in April, 2014. Willi, Glawogger’s long-time editor, then took it upon herself to complete a version of the film using the 71 shooting days-worth of raw footage he had accumulated up to his death.
The footage is characteristically striking and Willi’s dexterous editing injects the film with propulsive energy, emulating Glawogger’s inquisitive zeal as it flits from location to location. There is no geographical logic to the sequence of scenes, which never include texts to indicate where they were shot. Rather, Willi orients herself according to serendipitous thematic and visual associations: a scene depicting people prospecting for diamonds in the desert, possibly in Sierra Leone, is followed by one in which groups of children scavenge through mountains of trash in another desert somewhere in Northern Africa; a series of fierce and beautiful outdoor wrestling sessions amongst West African men cuts to a Moroccan bathhouse, where a different group of men give each other violent massages in an equally savage display of corporeality. If there is one consistent thematic thread, it’s that of the cyclical nature of birth and death, decay and renewal: a donkey’s carcass lying on the side of the road, being devoured by millions of maggots; an adorable puppy found inside a ramshackle villa; several destroyed, bullet-ridden houses standing alongside brand new ones, bearing witness to the Bosnian War and its aftermath.
Untitled thus gradually builds up a mosaic and democratic portrait of life around the globe, taking the viewer on a freely associative journey that awakens a formidable range and mingling of emotions, from awe to horror and everything in between. It’s a pity that Willi didn’t trust the images to speak for themselves and decided to include a voice-over based on blog entries that Glawogger wrote for two newspapers during the shoot. Narrated in a woman’s voice and referring to Glawogger in the third person, it’s reminiscent of the voice-over in Chris Marker’s Sans soleil, though here it for the most part feels redundant. In some instances, it veers awful to close to cute, which is completely at odds with the severe style and tone that characterized Glawogger’s documentaries. That said, the device does allow Willi to close with a touching farewell, ending Glawogger’s tragically truncated final project with a show of love and gratitude from those who travelled with him over the years. 

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