One cannot simply write a review of Blake Williams’s immersive, hypnotic experimental film Prototype (2017). It is more appropriate to comment on this film as the description of an experience. Whether taken in as a 3D experience or as a standard, 2D film, Protoype attempts to create an environment with the very idea of cinema itself. Cinema in its most primal form is a collection of images, rushing one after the other, weaving a tapestry. Williams’s work has a kinship with the early avant-garde cinema which experimented with the marriage of image and narrative, producing works which today have a dreamlike intensity. This intensity comes from the passage of time, because now these films can feel like a transmission from some other age or world. Herman G. Weinberg’s 1931 “film poem,” Autumn Fire, is such a film, with its silent black white imagery of nature, a wandering man in silhouette, a daydreaming woman and breezy waters. As modern pop culture came to be in the 1960s, artists like Andy Warhol would push the very boundaries of what cinema as an art form even meant. His 7-hour Empire is simply one still shot of the Empire State Building.
Protoype is part of the avant-garde tradition, so much so it can be connected to an obsession with fragments by early critics such as Walter Benjamin. Over the last year I’ve tended to drift towards Benjamin quite a lot, but we have entered an era in mass media quite suited to his focus on history in pieces, the ruins of civilization and destructive forces that bring about transformations. Blakes’s official site summarizes Prototype as thus: “As the deadliest natural disaster in US history strikes Galveston, Texas, taking between 6,000 and 12,000 lives, a mysterious televisual device projects images of unknown origin.” The film begins like an otherworldly signal from an era long gone. Sepia-toned photos from a place we can assume is Galveston appear onscreen, documents from the late 19thor early 20thcentury. Buildings stand near the sear, distantly on the sand, like a mirage. A two-story home sits next to a dirt road, long before the idea of paved streets became a stamp of civilization. Two men sit on a boat, gazing ahead at a larger port where bigger ships are docking. A narration would be obscene for this project, so the “soundtrack” is a wave of sound, reminiscent of the sound of the sea. When writing about the work of Marcel Proust, Benjamin reflected, “most memories that we search for come to us as visual images. Even the free-floating forms of the memoire involunataire are still in large part isolated, though enigmatically present, visual images.” Thus Williams’s film begins with a sense of the involuntary, of the mind’s random collages of imagery which still center around a key idea. In this case, the serenity of order gives way to uncertainty and chaos. Images soon follow, one after the other, of a destroyed cathedral, twisted and blown vegetation, destroyed homes and rubble with individuals sitting and searching amongst the debris.
After this early collage, Williams slowly transitions into a physical world of imagery — the lonely interior of an empty home, a lone white column, like some leftover from an aristocratic age. Then a series of screens appear, monitors which have a classic, almost 1950s feel but within a quite gothic setting, draped in deep shadows. Williams will use these screens as projectors of strange visions which seem taken from another age, at times melded with our own. The footage in the screens weaves an effect again to a hazy dream, or a foggy, eerie memory. Through tree branches two figures appear to be walking together, in another shot someone brushes their hair, a strange, contorted sculpture decorates the background. People walk, almost like zombies, amid a room. At times Williams provides close ups of small figurines, some with strange faces, apparently on display. It is civilization as pure material, imagined or remembered as a near hallucination. The televisual device is projecting for someone, and we don’t know who. Unless it is us. When the world ends, when capitalist society finally devours itself in a final cataclysm, what shall be left? Our dreams and objects, immortalized on film and video? Or will our transmissions, beaming out into the cosmos, preserve the memory of who we were when some distant civilization catches the signal? One of the images playing on the device appears to be a car ad, now made melancholic by the film’s stark black and white. Other shots show mechanical objects at work, detached from any human contact or warmth. There are scenes of nature on the television devices, fields and hills, with barely discernable figures toiling about. But nature is contrasted in a stark way with Williams’s patient, almost anthropological gaze at steel, vehicles and even chairs.
The aesthetic of Williams’s approach in this section of the film produces an overwhelming, hypnotic sense of the ominous. He intercuts the televisual moments with images of what appear to be waves, as if the sea of time is growing restless, threatening to overtake the endless sequence of material imagery we are experiencing. While Williams’s approach is quite minimalist in tone, Prototype produces the sense of hidden things within the shadows similar to another master of ambiance, David Lynch. In particular I am referring here to a short film Lynch made in 1995 entitled, Premonitions Following an Evil Deed. The short was part of a wider selection of projects made by major directors using the original cameras utilized by the Lumiere Brothers in the earliest days of cinema. Like Williams, Lynch is marrying the old with the new, fusing a time past with a time present. Police officers approach a body lying in a field, a woman in a living appears to be listening to someone, strange humanoids in dark suits walk around a room where someone appears trapped in a vat. Filtered through film that looks over a century old, with grain that nearly dissolved all clarity, it is one of Lynch’s sharpest visions of civilization in decay. There is no sound except for a threatening, droning soundtrack. With his own wave of sound William too creates what amounts to a score of impending destruction and renewal.
The images on the screen begin to distort, as if the transmission is being interrupted. Steady, yet violent waves become more prominent on the screen, as if security cameras were capturing the final storm. The images distort and become deformed because the cataclysm has arrived, and the world shall be made anew. Williams’s vision is almost anarchist in nature, or in harmony with the views of Greek surrealists such as Yorgos Makris, who wrote in a fever, “within us we contain the cosmos, and without it we are nothing. Our days are a fire and our nights a sea. Human laughter echoes around us. We are the heralds of chaos.”
Williams’s final images are a return to a new serenity. Black and white gives in to color, and no longer is the world seen through the detached coldness of a televisual screen. Instead a blue sea glistens under the sun, and a bird stands vigilant on steps of stone. The old world has been washed away, and now Prototype promises a rebirth. Williams’s project is far from a political statement, at least in the explicit sense. Instead his vision is grander and all encompassing. For we are living in a prototype, heading towards apocalypse, which hopefully means a new dawn instead of a final flicker, leaving the past as memories to be recalled like distant images on a screen.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.