PROTOTYPE: A 3D Avant-Garde Experience

January 16, 2019 - 4:09pm
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Blake Williams' Prototype were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. Prototype will be screened in its original 3D format on Friday, January 18 at 7 p.m., the opening selection for 2019 Cinematheque programming. The screening will be held in our regular venue at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. 

By Tim Brayton

To say that Blake Williams’ Prototype is about the hurricane that nearly eradicated Galveston, Texas in 1900 is useful only insofar as it gives us something to hold onto. In fact, what we have before us is a film without a story, without incidents, and frequently without any sense of physical representation at all – a genuine avant-garde film.

If this is your first time watching an avant-garde film, don’t panic! There are a few tricks to get you through the experience, the most important of which is to not try to figure it all out. Williams has suggested in interviews that the “meaning” of the film may lie in its presentation of impossible technology. In Prototype, you’ll see many examples of archival footage being displayed on eerie, floating screens, reclaimed from old cathode-ray television sets. To Williams, these evoke the Space Age of the mid-20th Century, offering a means of mediating our visual history twice over: an old technology depicting even older footage. One goal of this was to present an alternative of the Galveston that never was. The city might have become one of the most important in the United States if not for the devastating effect of the hurricane, and part of what Prototype is aiming for is to suggest a futuristic Galveston from the perspective of that critical event. So much of the film is basically set in the 1960s – just not the 1960s we’re familiar with.

That’s just one filmmaker’s interpretation of his own work. You’re certainly welcome to try out another, or none at all. Part of the pleasure of watching a film like Prototype is simply in enjoying the audacious visuals that Williams has prepared, manipulating film in some very cunning ways. But also some not-so-cunning ways. One of the film’s most striking early images is achieved simply by filming ocean waves from a high angle, and flipping it upside down. The result is the curious bending feeling of seeing the unstable water loom overhead and seem to bend away impossibly in the distance. Is this meant to evoke the feeling of being in the heart of a hurricane? Or is it simply allowing us to look a relatively familiar sight from a dramatic new angle, asking us to reconsider what we see when we see water?

Elsewhere in the film, Williams does more than just change the angle of shots. He also dissolves one image into the next, creating overlays in which we see two or three different layers of an image all moving in different directions (including that same upside-down shot of waves). The complexity of this image creates a playfully chaotic viewing experience: we can’t see everything all at once, and what we can see is hard to resolve into one single object, so the film turns into a game of picking out the details we can see, tracing them to the point where they blend into other layers. Once again, the film invites us to rethink how we look at movies, by shaking up our sense of what the movie even is.

Of course, the most dramatic and obvious way in which Prototype creates new viewing experiences for us is in its use of stereoscopic 3D. Unlike narrative films that use 3D to enhance our sense of realism and the physical presence of the movie (when they’re not trying to make us jump by sending objects flying out of the screen), the dimensional effects in Prototype are only rarely about creating an illusion that “we are there.” Williams uses exaggerated wide perspectives inside a house to make the rooms seem to bulge in the middle; he also lingers over the rounded surface of the television tubes, making us notice how they, too bulge, even when they’re only depicting blank grey screens. Early in the film, there are 3D still photographs of Galveston in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, giving us a stark feeling of history popping out into reality. But even here, note that the effect is imperfect. Frequently, a scratch or smudge will only appear in one eye, creating the impression that it’s floating in space, simultaneously present and not.

The trick of sending incompatible images to each of our eyes becomes a major visual motif in Prototype as it develops. One of William’s avowed inspirations was Jean-Luc Godard’s 2014 film Goodbye to Language, which (in)famously split the two camera of the 3D filming rig apart, meaning that two entirely distinct scenes were being beamed to the viewer’s eyes at the same time. Prototype never does anything quite that aggressive, but there are multiple places where the film sends incompatible signals to each eye. For example, there are abstract geometric shapes that appear occasionally: one eye sees the shape as black-on-white, the other sees the shape as white-on-black. The result is a shimmering grey like nothing in nature. It can be a little bit disconcerting the first time you see it, but once again, the best way to think of it is as a challenge to normal perception. The film’s goal is to make you think about what you’re seeing by presenting images that, in a very real, physical sense, cannot exist. The great achievement of Prototype lies in creating these impossible images, and perhaps the best way to watch it is to simply let those images wash over you. Think about what you’re seeing; think about how it feels to look at the movie. It’s certainly an experience like none you’ve ever had.