Okay, I most certainly did not expect to be reminded of Subhash Ghai while watching a VR film at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Eliza McNitt’s Spheres: Chorus of the Cosmos describes the birth (and possible death) of earth, starting from the Big Bang, and when a Saturn-like planet begins to form and revolve around you, you feel like you are running on its rings. You feel like… Rishi Kapoor running on the giant LP record in Karz. (I know what you are thinking. You can take the boy out of India, but you cannot take India out of the boy.) The other filmic reference is more along expected lines — hurtling through a multi-coloured cosmos, it’s impossible not to recall the protagonist’s “trip” through the galaxy in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Invoking Subhash Ghai and Stanley Kubrick in the same paragraph — that’s something else I most certainly did not expect to be doing at the 75th Venice Film Festival.
Spheres lasts about 12 minutes, and it felt surreal to step into it barely an hour after watching First Man. It felt like I was having the same outer-space experience Ryan Gosling did. Up, down, left, right — everywhere I looked, there was infinity. But what could have been a profound experience was diminished by the twee voiceovers by Patti Smith and Jessica Chastain. (The other big name in the project is executive producer Darren Aronofsky.) We get facts, alright — say, this is how galaxies were formed, or that is what gravitational waves do. But the narration adds to these facts some New Agey layers (“our solar system becomes an instrument and we listen to its music…” “Fall into the darkness and you will find the light…”). Woozy, joss-stick mysticism amid hard science — imagine Carl Sagan with an Enya soundtrack, and you’re close.
The VR section is situated on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, close to the Lido. (I love saying this. I love saying, “Oh, I saw this film here, and then I took a boat to see that film there.”) Among the more ambitious offerings is Steve Miller’s The Great C, which runs close to 30 minutes. Miller told me that this was an attempt to get close to a “cinematic” narrative — as opposed to the documentary-like feel of Spheres. The Great C is based on the Philip K Dick short story of the same name, about a post-apocalyptic world ruled by a malevolent computer. At the end, I felt the way I did after watching The Polar Express. You appreciate the groundbreaking leaps in imagination, but you wish the narrative had kept pace with the sensory experience. Even in VR, it all boils down to the writing, the script.
But the sensory experience is really something. Even when I was zoning out of the “story,” there was always an image that caught the eye: a VR “tour” through a diner out of an Edward Hopper painting (the protagonists stumble into the location), or being eye-level with crows swooping down on humans (like in Birds).Because of the 3D nature of the movement, you feel like you’re the cinematographer, seated on a crane, capturing these visuals at the shooting spot. The most startling image was when I saw a man’s head on my lap, only to realise it’s actually his girlfriend’s lap, and the reason I felt this way was that I was “in the boat” with the both of them. Have VR developers taken a shot at porn? If this is the level of “you are there” experience they can provide, they’ll end up ruling the world.
Fresh Out, an animated film directed by Wey Sam and Tao Fangchao, looked like something kids would really enjoy. (It’s billed as “the cutest horror story in VR.”) It’s about underground plants — carrots, potatoes — talking about (and fearing) the “monster,” who turns out to be a human child that uproots them for food. The perspectives, especially in VR, are fun — compared to a carrot, we see how a kid can really look monstrous, and you can see how this sort of format (without the all-consuming monster, of course) could lead to fun ways of teaching children about soil and tubers and how vegetarianism is not all that it’s cracked up to be if plants look so adorable and can talk and, above all, have real feelings.
1943: Berlin Blitz was the last VR film I saw. (You can’t do too many of these at a stretch. You get dizzy, a feeling I’m told people like me, who wear prescription glasses, are especially prone to.) As per the press notes, it’s an inspired conceit: In September 1943, BBC war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas boarded a Lancaster bomber with his recording engineer and a microphone. They documented a night-time bombing raid over Berlin. Using this recording as the soundtrack, director David Whelan creates a fantastic you-are-there experience. I was inside one bomber, then inside another, now over the North Sea, now somewhere over Amsterdam. I could “lean out” of the windows, like in a sports car, and, with the propeller whirring inches from my nose, I got a ringside view of what it’d be like to be the protagonist of a Commando comic. More archive material should be recreated this way. It’s quite something when the past becomes the present.
What do you do if you are not in Venice, but want to be one of the first in the world to watch one of the festival films (in the original language version with subtitles in English), the very evening it is premiered? The Web Theatre is a delightful option, featuring a selection of 18 films from the Orizzonti, Biennale College – Cinema, Sconfini and Out of Competition sections. Sale of tickets and digital passes (at the La Biennale di Venezia website) began on August 21, so there’s no saying if you still stand a chance — but maybe next year?