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TIFF 2010: Daniel Cockburn’s “You Are Here”

TIFF 2010: Daniel Cockburn's "You Are Here"

You Are Here, the first feature from prolific Canadian video artist and writer (and full disclosure, occasional Reverse Shot contributor) Daniel Cockburn, is required viewing for anyone who’s ever felt that they’re living, as one character laments, “at the behest of a gargantuan fucking idiot robot baby.” Which should be each of us. Though essentially fruitless, many will try to name precedents for Cockburn’s daring, captivating treatise on the expanses and limits of the human mind (my own attempts while watching were Ruben Östlund’s Involuntary, a still unreleased 2008 Swedish film about the isolation that stems from groupthink, and Jacques Rivette’s obscure-even-by-his-standards 1981 Le Pont du Nord, which, like You Are Here treats its cityscape as though a labyrinthine playground for unwitting adults—so not exactly the most influential of choices). Even less helpful than describing Cockburn’s film by comparing it to others is trying to lay it out, plot-wise. For this is a greatly nonlinear film that eschews character in favor of one all-consuming philosophical voice. As a result, You Are Here is necessarily chilly and cerebral, yet within its folds are hidden sparks of warmth, of life and connection. Maybe we can find them if we are able to cut through the fog of our own consciousness.

When the film opens we appear to be watching shoddy, haphazardly captured video of an enigmatic seminar, in which a middle-aged man (R.D. Reid) lectures an unseen audience (us) on the importance of becoming aware of “the self as an entity that passes through time,” acknowledging each and every one of us a solitary construct. The presentation grows increasingly hypnotic as Reid encourages us to closely watch a film of wave patterns, on which he traces the red dot of a laser pointer. If we can look at the image without following the red dot (“your enemy”) than perhaps not all is lost; yet this is a seemingly impossible task. This introduction perfectly establishes the film as a mischievous challenge to the viewer, and sets the tone for a film in which characters rarely, if ever, interact, even as they affect, nay control, each other’s lives.

You Are Here proceeds to jump between many different narrative locales yet maintains an impressive atmospheric consistency throughout all of them. In a lengthy early sequence, a series of various people, men and woman, defined under the all-consuming name “Alan,” go about their day, each isolated in his or her own spare quotidian routine, united by an omniscient narrator. Their memory is weak, their grasp of their own realities tenuous—they see “a door where no door should be.” Are these the same people we see confusedly wandering Toronto’s streets, taking directions from a cryptic crew of phone-ready office drones, who try not to have them bump into each other, for fear of something being exposed?

Then there’s the archivist (the late Tracy Wright, terrific in a difficult part), lording, without direction or awareness, over a warehouse full of mysterious, discarded tapes and film reels. And the unidentified prisoner whose experiences decoding and writing in the unknown-to-him Chinese language represent a working model of the unconscious mind. Above all this perches, most ominously, Cockburn’s story of the eye, an ingeniously conceived science-fiction allegory that functions either as an integral piece of the puzzle or as another mere digression. Constantly we wonder, are we watching the waves or the red dot? How does the archivist fit into all this human geography? How does “Alan”? How do we? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that easy answers are not the order of the day. The cognitive loops that the film forces the viewer into are perhaps the journey and the destination. —Michael Koresky

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