Immerse Yourself

New York

at Whitney Museum of American Art and New Museum

Billy (Joe Alwyn) on stage wth dancers and Alabama State Marching Hornets in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

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Only a handful of movie theaters around the country are equipped to screen Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as acclaimed director Ang Lee intended it to be seen. Centering on an Iraq War hero’s ambivalence about participating in a souped-up patriotic rally at a Dallas Cowboys game, Lee’s sardonic allegory of twenty-first century America is meant to be, as the press material states, an “immersive” experience.  The film’s 4K high-resolution and compelling digital 3D effects are standard blockbuster fare. What’s unprecedented is Lee’s decision to shoot Billy Lynn at 120 frames per second, a rate five times higher than the celluloid standard; that means there’s simply more visual information appearing on-screen, resulting in a picture that remains sharp and detailed through even the fastest camera movements.

Lee has called Billy Lynn a “kind of an experimental movie,” a claim that belies the project’s $40 million budget and cast of A-list Hollywood stars, including Vin Diesel. Critics have called the film “unwatchable.” “High frame-rate is a fucking crime against cinema,” tweeted Bilge Ebiri of the Village Voice. Many reviews compare the film’s superb clarity to the “fake” look of cheap soap operas that rely on flat lighting to expedite changes in camera angles.

Lee’s true “experiment” with Billy Lynn is to employ a cutting-edge filmmaking technique in the service of dramatic realism. Immersion in the visual field is meant to reinforce immersion in a narrative that is far more complex than a good-versus-evil tale of robot aliens. Flashbacks to traumatic combat scenes are truly spectacular, with bullet casings appearing to cascade into the theater. But the introspective moments when Lynn (Joe Alwyn) wanders the football stadium, or has heartfelt conversations with his sister (Kristen Stewart), or struggles with the naked greed and corruption of the football team’s Trumpian owner (Steve Martin) are different. The character types are familiar and the dialogue is fairly predictable, but these scenes unfold on a scale and through a type of image that has, in a literal way, never been seen before. When the halftime show arrives, headlined by Destiny’s Child, it’s presented as a spectacle within a spectacle—we feel alienated from it just as the protagonist does. Lee has created a cinematic experience that holds in tension feelings of immersion and ironic distance; the film’s hyperbolic frame-rate underscores the empty excess depicted on-screen.

To call this achievement a “crime against cinema” is to essentialize a medium that has always been variable. What such critics are really pining for is a convention that has come to seem natural over the past ninety years. Billy Lynn embodies a moment when celluloid has been all but phased out for current releases and new digital standards are up for grabs. Distributed around the world, the film is available in an à la carte menu of viewing formats, from the usual 2D 24FPS all the way up to full immersion. Many viewers might be more comfortable watching Billy Lynn at the former rate, since we’ve come to associate its subtle haze with emotional experiences in the theater. But as cinema enters its second century, it’s very likely that we’ll look back on the days of gauzy motion blur as a historical anomaly, having learned quite well to emote along with characters crying or laughing at 120FPS.

Yet changes in cinematic form are not always driven by technological progress. “Crimes” against cinema have been perpetrated throughout the history of the medium, using whatever tools are available. “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016,” at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, surveys a long history of polymorphic approaches to moviemaking. Though most of the works on view are by individual artists operating with limited means, the overall presentation feels like a big-budget experiment approaching the scale of Billy Lynn, with light-locked “black cube” screening spaces breaking up the galleries, elaborate installations featuring analogue and digital projectors of every type, and more screens than you can count.

No one’s going to lose themselves in the 3D films here, such as Trisha Baga’s Flatlands 3D (2010), a lo-fi projection of travel footage and abstract graphics meant to be viewed through old-fashioned red-and-blue cardboard glasses. Ben Coonley’s Trading Futures (2016) is a sophisticated digital 3D video screened on the interior surface of a geodesic dome. Though the 3D is more effective than in Baga’s work, the point of Coonley’s film is to toy with and dismantle the illusion. Whimsical digital graphics and videos of children at play appear while a voice-over directs viewers to close one eye at certain moments, so that, for example, a box floating inches from your hand suddenly flattens into a polygon just as a child taps it with a magic wand.

To be immersed in “Dreamlands” is to experience an environment that is saturated with moving images without ever losing sight of the mechanisms that are doing the saturating. In some cases, this foregrounding of the “cinematic apparatus”—as generations of film theorists have been taught to say—expresses a liberatory ambition. In Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie Mural (1968), a dozen projectors sit in the center of a gallery, casting still and moving images—industrial stock footage, psychedelic motifs, and fragments of science fiction films—on an array of overlapping screens. The DIY look of the piece is consistent with VanDerBeek’s prescient calls for individuals to take control over the media landscape that was rapidly defining political and social realities in the ’60s. In other cases, the self-reflexive presentation of cinema foregrounds a physical encounter between viewer and machine. In Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), a sliver of white light is projected in a fog-filled room. As a simple line forms a circle on the wall, a luminescent cone becomes visible, hovering in space.

This kind of embodied, haptic experience is an organizing principle of the exhibition, according to the show’s curator, Chrissie Iles. Iles refers to the figure of a cyborg body that recurs throughout avant-garde cinema, from the ballets conceived by Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus in the 1930s to Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson’s stylized performance depicted the four-screen installation Easternsports (2014). This mechanized body is also represented in drawings by Lynn Hershman Leeson and a sculpture by Ivana BašiÄ?. Immersive cinema is more than simply a function of a huge screen and images of perfect resolution; it is an internalized experience, not only engulfing viewers but transforming them.

 “Dreamlands” offers a fully anti-essentialist view of what cinema can be. Far from a matter of celluloid and light, cinema here expands outward to giant installations, contracts into mobile devices, and ultimately inhabits the sensorium and psyche of viewers. Iles describes cinema as a “discursive site,” a lens through which to understand the world. The question of “What is cinema?” on these terms easily spirals into a theory of everything: cinema is bodies, technology, vision, urban life, movement of any kind. In alluding to all of this, the exhibition felt undisciplined, replicating the dynamic, unfixed, polymorphic nature of the medium without committing to a framework for understanding it. Immersion in this sort of intellectual project can result in drowning.

It’s easy to feel drowned when viewing Pipilotti Rist’s work as well, though the experience is saved for seeming more deliberate and consensual. “Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest,” the New Museum’s retrospective of the Swiss video art pioneer, offers immersion as complex pleasure. The installation 4th Floor to mildness occupies an entire floor of the museum. Viewers are invited to immobilize themselves by lying down on beds while staring up at the ceiling as sensual images of water (a pun on the concept of the immersive?) play on giant amoeba-shaped screens. On another floor, viewers prostrate themselves on a carpeted floor to gaze at giant wall-size projections of jungle plants and other botanical imagery. If you’re looking for critical distance and liberating irony, this is not the place to find it. What Rist offers instead is a kind of totalizing sensuality achieved through an idiosyncratic version of technological mastery. “I have a very sentimental relation to machines,” Rist says in an interview published in the catalogue. “I try not to approach machines from a critical distance. On the contrary, I have always thought that if I can get close to them, I can melt together with them.”

This melting together is an apt description of what happens when watching Rist’s videos for a sustained period of time. Give in to the high-key colors of her videos, the cheesy decor of her installation furniture, and even the contrived eccentricity of her wavy screens and the pay-off is a bodily experience that would surely fit into the Whitney’s theoretical cyborg framework, were it not so goofy, fun, and actually pleasurable—exemplifying an “erotics of art,” as Sontag might have it.

Rist’s early videos from the 1980s and ’90s, when she was part of a Swiss punk-feminist scene, are presented on monitors housed in angular boxes attached to the wall. Viewers duck their heads inside the sound-proof individual mini-cinemas for a peep show of nudes running through the forest, half-naked people dancing to crazy versions of pop songs, and long close-ups of flowers—the basic image repertoire that Rist would return to repeatedly. Rist’s most widely celebrated work, Ever Is Over All (1997), features a woman in a long dress blithely walking down a European street, smashing car windows with what appears to be a giant flower. She looks like she’s in heaven. The two-channel installation pairs this exuberant, anarchistic fantasy with shots of bright flowers. This one-woman riot offers a vision of resistance and defiance that is over-the-top joyous.

So does this show amount to a psychedelic spa? An escapist delusion? Some advertisements for the exhibition on social media have offered it as a place of retreat and healing after the trauma of the election. Without diminishing the notion that art might be, for some, part of a self-care regimen, it seems facile to reduce Rist’s project to sensual indulgence. Her installations have expanded into epic proportions as her renown has grown, but her work has remained decidedly—and deliberately—non-epic. Billy Lynn speaks in a high-register about grand themes and shared public experiences. The public that comes to bask in Rist’s light is sharing something as well: pastoral imagery and evocations of embodied pleasures, historically minor themes that are easy to dismiss and jettison from serious aesthetic conversation, especially in times of political reaction when the stakes seem too high. By projecting these themes on a huge scale, making them immersive, Rist refuses such a position, and the space of aesthetic possibility feels enlarged for it.