Brave new world in an X-Box

THESSALONIKI – In his 2001 horror film «Pulse» (or «Kairo», to give it its Japanese title) shown as part of a tribute at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, cutting-edge Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa builds his ghost story on the premise that the realm inhabited by the souls of the dead has, over the millennia, reached capacity, forcing souls to spill over into the tangible world where they become locked in a battle of wills with the living. The sole survivors of this battle are an outgoing and caring young girl and a ship’s captain sailing in the middle of the ocean who appears only before and after the flashback. The X-Box aesthetic of «Pulse» that permeates every aspect of the film from the characters’ appearance to the narrative pace, from the colors and scenery to the manner in which the action is structured, seems to be allegorical: On a superficial level, Kurosawa seems to be talking about the alienation of modern society. His main characters are all young, in their early twenties; they all dwell on their feelings of loneliness, and they all, save one, end up compelled by some strange, unexplained force, to kill themselves, one way or another. But, one must wonder. At a press conference the filmmaker gave at the festival yesterday morning, there was just one young journalist who asked him pointed questions about his work, questioning him on rumors that have been circulating on the Internet concerning his new projects, and prodding him to give up some of his technical secrets. Kurosawa was thrilled. «I am so surprised. In my country, hardly anyone knows my work. It is shown every once in a while in small movie theaters. And I never even knew about Thessaloniki until recently. To come here and find a midnight screening on a Sunday night packed with people and to hear that people actually know my work is fantastic.» Throughout the conference, he expressed delight at finding a kindred spirit in this small Balkan city – and this is a filmmaker who has made well over 20 films. For a moment, journalist and director were talking to each other in a language almost foreign to the other 50-odd people in the room. Another point Kurosawa wanted to make clear is that contrary to his growing reputation, he does not consider himself a director of horror movies. So, if «Pulse,» with its gruesome suicides, tension-building music, vengeful ghosts and abject pessimism is not horror, then what is it? Back to X-Box and on to another film. «Duck Season,» a delightful 2004 production by first-time Mexican filmmaker Fernando Eimbcke, slated for the International Competition, also features the popular computer game, but as the form of entertainment indulged in by two young boys, left at home alone on a Sunday. Their war game, with characters they poignantly name bin Laden and George Bush, has them so fully absorbed that they hardly notice the pretty 16-year-old neighbor who has come to the house to use the oven. The game acts as their mediator in a stalemate with a pizza delivery guy who is 11 seconds late and demands his money even though the shop he works for promises a free pizza if it takes over 30 minutes to be delivered. The deadlock between the two boys and Ulises is broken not by the computer soccer game they set as a wager to settle the money dispute, but by a power cut that forces them to talk. Their relationship evolves amid the ongoing power shortage into a friendship that encompasses the four characters in the house and leads them to make confessions of their most private anxieties, culminating in a big bang of release when they unsuspectingly consume a large quantity of hashish-laced brownies. The computer game is the link between these two films because they are both telling us something about a generation of young people who live in the cyber world. Maybe what Kurosawa is trying to suggest on a more abstract level to Eimbcke is not that there are too many dead souls to inhabit the conventional spirit world, but that the souls of the living that are marginalized today for not conforming to social norms are also being pushed into another realm, the one that exists in a microchip. The question of technology influencing and challenging the production of art is one that keeps recurring at this festival, though normally it arises on a technical, financial or aesthetic level. Are computers replacing actors? Can low-budget, technology-weak films compete with big-budget productions? Are special effects stretching reality to unreal limits? Is the real, sweat-on-the-brow artist being replaced by someone who just knows how to use a computer? The same question arises in music: Is computer-generated electro real music or just computer noises? Can you have music without instruments, without musicians? Like the journalist who knew the lingo to talk to Kurosawa on his own level, it is all about being in the loop. Art directed at the cyber-surfers and the computer whizzes does not represent a subculture. To Kurosawa, it represents an entire generation, one that is, most importantly, online and inhabits the space not between heaven and earth, but between the hard drive and the modem plug. Geeks’ revenge At the Electron Festival held in Lavrion last June, one DJ noted that electro music is the revenge of the geek. The computer is the tool of expression for the kid that gets bullied in school, is ignored by parents too wrapped up in their careers or in their petty wrangling, lacks the social skills to be the «cool» one, the athletic skills to be a «jock,» the slapstick humor to be the «clown,» the academic drive to be the «teacher’s pet» or the over-achiever. The computer represents a classless, border-less, ageless, endless medium of expression and it is manifesting itself as such on so many different, interesting levels. The Thessaloniki International Film Festival, as a forum of presentation, discussion and thought on the medium of cinema, is revealing not just how cinema is evolving but how, like the worms infiltrating and infecting our hard drives, it is also mutating in different directions and different forms. While the intellectuals of Generation X are leafing through their bibliographies, the intellectuals of Generation Y2K are plugging in their i-Pods.