A man trapped in a room answers questions in Chinese without comprehending the language. Confused pedestrians wander the city streets, taking meaningless orders from a control center that guides their movements. A child tells the story of a mad scientist whose ubiquitous computer-eye threatens to take over the world.
These are just a few of the confounding twists in "You Are Here," the first feature directed by Toronto-based video artist Daniel Cockburn. It's safe to say that Cockburn delivers a more advanced rumination on the fragility of human consciousness than any of the dream levels in Christopher Nolan's "Inception." But fan sites won't delve into his intentions with similar vigor because solving the astute psychological puzzles of "You Are Here" would ruin the alternately frustrating and revelatory cinematic experience Cockburn has carefully built.
The puzzle pieces are manifested in highly sophisticated but somewhat obtuse narrative fragments. Cockburn opens with a video of rolling ocean waves matched to the voiceover of an anonymous lecturer (R.D. Reid). Discussing "the awareness of the self as a solitary construct," he dares his unseen audience to ignore a laser pointer that he directs at the screen, and instead focus their attention on the waves. With that broadly conceived mindgame, Cockburn launches a seriously heavy look at the elusive nature of identity.
Shifting to a new setting every few minutes, he makes it difficult to contemplate any given strand for too long, extending the laser pointer challenge to an endlessly boggling structure. Another voiceover narration introduces "a crowd of people named Allan" stuck in a cycle of transportation, nabbing cabs to random street corners when they're ordered to do so by a group of undefined office drones constantly working the phones. Yet before that premise has time to sink in, Cockburn moves on.
Somewhere else, an obsessive archivist (Canadian actress Tracy Wright, in one of her final performances before succumbing to cancer in June 2010), discovers a series of audiovisual materials around town (including a tape of the movie's opening lectures) and grows determined to assemble them into coherence. Wright's endless search clearly — at times too overtly — epitomizes a universal human tendency to decipher reality and repeatedly fail. "Things aren't staying where I put them," she sighs, "and I'm pretty sure it's not my fault."
With the exception of Wright, whose dazed expression reveals her character's internal confusion, "You Are Here" suffers from stilted, humorless performances and some clunky pacing issues. Fortunately, the ideas sustain it. Cockburn's use of pop philosophy yields an original form of heady entertainment. Steeped in a half-dozen sci-fi concepts, the director connects his engaging collage with the ongoing presence of a circular red object (the mad scientist's computer eye, a cryptic ball that Wright finds on the street, the laser pointer), not unlike — yes, again — the spinning top at the core of "Inception." But the stakes are fundamentally different.
Cockburn's narrative follows an elliptical path that forces you to think through his motives and then returns you to its starting point in a heightened state. I had to watch the movie a second time to appreciate the internal logic. Bits of story congeal over time, but the larger explanation mainly exists in the abstract. The answers remain purposefully vague. His lecturer seems to argue with skeptical viewers, noting that an inner voice of inquisitiveness "is still talking and you are still listening." It's a reasonable plea to keep probing the design for meaning.
Identified as a "Borgesian fantasy" in the original press notes and inaccurately compared to the "mind-games" of Charlie Kaufman, "You Are Here" is too cerebral for such lofty comparisons. But it's admirable for the ambitious way it encourages the continuous thought process that it aggressively interrogates. Whether it's a "meta-detective story" (those press notes have it all figured out) or just supremely dense science fiction, the movie primarily succeeds at instigating an intellectual headache. Only dedicated audiences will decide that the pain feels good. I'm fairly certain that I'm among them.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Now a couple of years old, experimental video artist Cockburn's narrative feature debut may land some strong notices with this limited release, but it will likely become a footnote as his career advances forward.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran during the Locarno Film Festival in 2010. "You Are Here" opens this Friday at the reRun Gastropub in Brooklyn.