My most powerful filmgoing experience at Cannes this year was arguably not a film at all.
Barefoot, fitted with a pair of goggles, headphones and a backpack, I was led into a dark 50-by-50-foot room, then plunged into a 360-degree aural and visual environment, finding myself all alone as dawn illuminated a vast, empty desert simulated by a sand-covered floor. Within a few moments, a group of migrants appeared on the horizon, clearly exhausted but following the orders of their guide chattering at them in Spanish. Then, with terrifying suddenness, a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter appeared, followed by a Humvee, with agents pouring out and ordering the migrants at gunpoint to drop to their knees.
Reader, I dropped. And, at another point under orders from a shouting police agent, I prostrated myself on the sand, hands over my head. I moved to be closer to what seemed to be a mother and her young daughter, impulsively shielding the little girl when the searchlights moved over her. When I reached out, I saw a brief surrealistic flash of a beating human heart, audibly thumping through the earphones.
“Carne y Arena,” a virtual-reality installation by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, lasted 6½ minutes. But even that brief running time was enough for the anxieties and dogged aspirations of its anonymous characters — based on real-life Central American and Mexican migrants Iñárritu interviewed for the project — to burrow themselves into my consciousness in a way that wasn’t just intellectual but almost cellular.
Like most of my colleagues, I emerged from “Carne y Arena” shaken, unsettled and deeply moved. Analogies to the dawn of cinema, when frightened audiences fled images of oncoming trains and gunshots, were obvious: Here was a new iteration of cinematic spectatorship that took its most cardinal properties — surrender, immersion, reflexive identification with the people up on screen — to a new and radically subjective level.
But had we seen a movie? “Carne y Arena,” now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a sold-out summer run, is still a rarefied, one-at-a-time proposition, its experimental aesthetic more suited to audiences familiar with the participatory conventions of performance art than the mass entertainments of the multiplex.
It’s just those erasures — between subject and spectator, between spectator and screen, between a stable sense of geographic and aesthetic location and otherworldly disorientation — that call into question whether “Carne y Arena” is the end of cinema or simply another new beginning within an ever-evolving medium.
Those questions surfaced anew last weekend, when “Dawson City: Frozen Time” screened during a week-long run at Baltimore’s brand-new Parkway Theatre. Originally built in 1915, the Parkway is the long-awaited passion project of Maryland Film Festival founder Jed Dietz, who has lovingly restored the beaux-arts movie palace, retaining layers from the six decades it served local audiences before closing in 1978.
With much of its fine plasterwork and detail still visible behind layers of chipping paint, the Parkway turned out to be the ideal architectural backdrop for “Dawson City,” which filmmaker Bill Morrison constructed from a cache of early silent films that had been buried in the eponymous Canadian community for 50 years before being discovered by a construction crew in the 1970s.
Amid the faded grandeur of a theater that conceivably could have shown some of those films during their first runs, seeing “Dawson City” on the big screen restored the sense of occasion with which they were surely greeted when they were new: During one deliciously meta sequence, Morrison held on a long shot of nickelodeon-era audience members gathering and getting settled in their theater seats; for an attenuated moment, as 21st-century filmgoers stared at our early 20th-century counterparts, two groups of spectators seemed to behold one another from across time and space, linked by mutual fascination with a medium that, to paraphrase the late critic Roger Ebert, remains “the most powerful empathy machine of all the arts” 100 years after its inception.
Is “Carne y Arena” a disruption of that continuum, or a part of it? As an “empathy machine,” it’s inarguably state-of-the-art and effective. As an event and spectacle, it’s of a piece with the kind of roadshow presentations that Dietz is resurrecting at the Parkway, where filmmakers will regularly appear as part of the films’ runs. Both efforts are attempts to lure viewers from their small-screen bubbles, which have profoundly destabilized the definition of “film.” From “Carne y Arena” at LACMA and Twitter’s endless supply of GIF-able memes, to David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, John Singleton and Jane Campion embracing peak TV, everything’s a movie now.
Until it isn’t. The silvery images in “Dawson City” form a testament to film as material object, a flickering human record of social history, cultural memory and translucent, transfixing beauty. It’s in this sense — film as artifact with a “thing-ness” all its own — that is absent in the eerie virtual simulacrum of “Carne y Arena,” which for all its uncanny immediacy felt ephemeral and, ultimately, unreal.
Just as Iñárritu’s installation ceases to exist the moment the viewer leaves the gallery, modern-day movies have become sets of digital information that may or may not be able to be played back on the equipment of the future. In “Dawson City,” old-fashioned photochemical film is revealed to be alarmingly disposable: Although its core footage survived by being buried under a local ice rink, hundreds more reels of film were either burned or tossed into the Yukon River. Around three quarters of films made during the silent era have been lost to fire, neglect or purposeful destruction.
But even at its most fragile, celluloid has proved to be a uniquely dependable format for preserving motion pictures, as well as the human expression and connection they make manifest. It’s possible to imagine the films in “Dawson City” outliving all manner of innovations and upgrades simply by remaining intact. Future audiences will be able to witness their riches without benefit of goggles, headphones or 360-degree technology. All they’ll need is a lightbulb, a bedsheet and the quintessentially human capacity to be astonished.