Monday, July 4, 2016

Life Otherwise Unseen: A Critique of Mikko Keskiivari’s Wanderers

Mikko Keskiivari’s Wanderers is a film that seeks to “remind us about the significance of the things that have a huge impact on our lives even though we don’t normally notice them or pay attention to them.”  The piece was filmed through the eye of a microscope, featuring the movements of zooplankton in a petri dish.  Its audio is comprised of a layered collection of sounds that add drama to the mesmerizing movements of the starring microbes.  Wanderers is part of the Netherlands Film Academy’s 2016 graduation show.  The Netherlands Film Academy, located at Markenplein 1, Amsterdam, was established in 1958.  The graduation show, entitled Conditions of Possibility, features the final film projects of each Masters of Film graduate, totaling 10 films in all. The show is co-sponsored by the neighboring EYE Film Institute, located at IJpromenade 1, Amsterdam. 

Mikko Keskiivari is a Finnish media artist and filmmaker, currently living and working in Amsterdam.  He graduated from the Tampere University of Applied Sciences in 2011 with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree, which focused on cinematic media art.  Throughout the duration of the Master of Film program he explored ideas of scaling, distance, and perception as practical artistic tools, but also as “existential subjects.”  

The film Wanderers is a unique and engrossing visual experience.  Audience members lie on their backs and look up at the film, which is projected onto the ceiling.  The image displayed is circular, mimicking the shape of a petri dish.  Filmed through the lens of a microscope, the audience watches the movements of various magnified zooplankton they move through their environment. In turn, viewers viscerally feel as if it is they who are in a petri dish. 

The cinematography of the film mimics the movements of the zooplankton.  The lens focuses in and out rhythmically, so that the image pulsates.  In turn, the gaze of the viewer changes from pin-sharp to fuzzy.  In one shot, viewers can see the cells pumping through the veins of one microscopic creature.  The creature’s organs move rhythmically.  By virtue of this rhythmic change in focus, the camera’s gaze seems lifelike, almost as if the viewer is a creature whose seeing is obscured in time with its own pumping lifeblood. 

Each scene is comprised of static, continuous shots, similar to those used in documentary.  The organic subjects of the film move freely within and through the static shot. Thus, viewers experience the unfolding of the plankton’s movements organically.

Shots are sequenced to elevate the zooplankton from documentary subjects to characters in a narrative.  In the opening shot of the film, small white plankton float in a light blue background.  Their movements are peaceful.  Their bodies resemble small jellyfish, moving with the tide.  The viewer becomes acclimated to the peaceful mood of this scene.  But the tranquility is then disrupted by a cut to a different zooplankton creature, which resembles a large brown worm.  Compositionally, the worm-like plankton is centered and fills most of the screen.  It is brown and moves in jerky, aggressive motions.  It is has a dull, beige background.  Its presence is threatening.  After a continuous shot of the worm, there is a cut back to the blue, jellyfish-like plankton.  The compositions of the shots depicting each subject are in stark contrast. Whereas the worm-like plankton took up much of the screen, the jellyfish-like plankton are dispersed as small points throughout the screen.  Following shots show the worm moving through the environment, sucking up surrounding plankton.  It immediately becomes apparent that the jellyfish-like plankton are in danger.  It is a testament to the cinematography of the film that throughout this sequence, a viewer’s suspension of disbelief is not broken.  Instead, viewers are perturbed by, and invested in, the fates of these tiny microbes.  The worm-like plankton takes the role of a villain, whereas the jellyfish-like plankton become the innocent, unassuming victims.  The raw, practically scientific film is masterfully presented as drama. 

This drama is aided by layered sound design.  In the first shots featuring the jellyfish-like plankton, soft piano music plays.  Subsequently, cuts to the worm-like plankton are accompanied by deep dissonant chaotic sound.  As the worm-like plankton advances, the deep chaotic sound continues.  In subsequent shots of the jellyfish-like plankton, their light piano music is replaced by the chaotic sound, indicating that they are in danger, building suspense.  In a conversation with the Keskiivari, he identified some of components of the light, tranquil sound, which included piano and the singing of church choirs.  Meanwhile, the deep, chaotic sound that backs the worm-like plankton includes chains being rattled, garbage cans being dumped, construction sites, and by the distorted sound of an engine.  Together, the controlled sequencing of shots and its accompanying sound design result in a familiar battle between good and evil, played out on a microbial scale. 

In all, Wanderers is an accomplishment in the realm of experimental film.  Keskiivari took a documentarian’s approach when collecting film—he gathered water from Amsterdam’s canals, put it under a microscope, and filmed what happened.  His raw film was escalated to the realm of drama, gaining a plot and characters, by means of careful editing.  However, there are some caveats to his success.  For one, while the sound design was effective in establishing a plot, it was heavy handed.  The mere sight of villainous worm-like zooplankton was enough to inspire fear in the audience—blasting deep tones at a high volume lacked nuance.  In addition, there was a good deal of dissonance between the organic subjects and their associated inorganic sounds.  It might have been more interesting to imagine how sound is perceived on a microscopic level, rather than imposing the human-scale sounds of life.   However, overall, this film was a standout piece within the larger exhibition of films.  Its organic subject matter was novel and inventive.  By showing life otherwise invisible on the large screen, viewers gained the novel experience of watching and becoming a creature in a petri dish.

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