Kubrick, the reverse tracking shot and the enigmatic fluidity of identity

© Toby Dye, still from four channel film installation, The Corridor, 2016 with the writer John Allison in the foreground

One evening in 1970 spent at the Brighton Film Theatre became etched onto my impressionable teenage psyche.  It was a devastating double bill: Stanley Kubrick’s scabrous satirical comedy, Dr Strangelove with Peter Watkins’ documentary on the aftermath of a nuclear war, The War Game, judged by the BBC to be “too horrifying” to be broadcast. I was left haunted by the delusional absurdity of political and military thinking about nuclear warfare and amused by the Freudian link between male sexual anxiety and military paranoia. The phallic “riding the bomb” sequence at the climax of Dr Strangelove beautifully distills this idea.  In this simulated forward tracking shot we feel as if  we are riding piggyback behind the US Major as the missile drops to ground zero.  Tunnels and corridors were famously endowed with a female sexual connotation by Freud. For directors hooked on sexual symbolism like Kubrick, the tracking shot in an enclosed space was perfect in creating a claustrophobic tension reminiscent of our arrival through the birth canal.

With terrific ingenuity Toby Dye has applied this lesson to produce a gripping, continual looped, four-screen installation,  The Corridor.  Our natural perceptual point of view is in forward tracking mode as we usually have to watch where we are going. On screen it converts the viewer into the omniscient voyeur following the movement of the protagonist. In contrast, viewing a reverse tracking shot creates the unsettling sense of backing away from the interminable advance of the action with less awareness of the terrain than the actors. But in this installation Dye ramps up the tension and disorientation by offering us no escape from the four distinct narratives bearing down on us from all four sides in the cramped 3 metre square screening room.

His next masterstroke is to allow the narratives to develop independently from the same start point when the protagonists crash through dark swing doors into apparently identical brightly lit corridors. After a while the characters, most having some link with Kubrick films, begin to leak into neighbouring screens and the narratives begin to seep into each other. I was particularly taken by the swaggering gas-masked figure in a paramilitary jacket (see above) who had the mindless savagery of a droog from Clockwork Orange.  His violence is finally curbed by an attack by our hero in an ox-blood red shirt emerging from another screen who then puts on the gas mask and jacket, picks up the cosh and continues the rampage. Meanwhile the stunned droog, revealed to be wearing the red shirt of the hero, goes off in hot pursuit of his attacker. This Russian doll iteration where the  villain and hero swap roles in an endless loop is not only visually mind-blowing but addresses a philosophical theme that Kubrick was often drawn to. Human identity is so malleable that under different circumstances any of us could become a psychopathic killer. The distinction between good and evil is wafer thin.

In Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s bleak World War One film about the barbaric treatment of French soldiers charged with the military crime of cowardice, the famous trench sequence uses alternate forward tracking and reverse tracking shots. As the soldiers await the order to go over the top we see their reactions as the dolly camera tracks forward between them as they press back against the walls of the trench. Then a reverse tracking shot reveals that they are responding to their Colonel who is acknowledging them as he walks down the line. As these alternate throughout the sequence we switch empathy between the emotions of the soldiers and those revealed on the face of the Colonel who is about to lead them into the battlefield.  

The fluidity of identity and the nature of violent psychopaths were enduring fascinations for Kubrick. In the 1990s he begun to develop a film concept, The Aryan Papers, that followed the fate of a Jewish woman shedding her identity for a Gentile one during the Nazi purges. After his death the Kubrick archives were raided by Jane and Louise Wilson who were inspired to make a film based on interviews and recreated costume shoots of the Dutch actress who would have played the lead. Unfolding the Aryan Papers is screened in a mirrored installation which reflects infinite receding projected images on both sides of the main screen. We are confronted with the visual parallel of the mutiplicity of identities. I  originally saw this film at the South Bank on a single screen when it was first made in 2009 and looking back at my notes it did not impress me then. I had been a huge  fan of theirs since they were Turner Prize nominees in 1999 and had followed their careers avidly. At the time,  I wrote:

“Their glossy production values feel rather passe and were at odds with the content. The focus on costumes and the actress were too distant from the initial source to feel much emotional impact.”

Seeing it again I realise that I had not really understood the content because I had focused on the visuals at the expense of the actress’s narrative. It is not so much about the disappointment of the actress at Kubrick’s decision to drop the film. It is more an exploration of the fluidity of personal identity. The actress is unsure about her suitability for the part and so for her first meeting with Kubrick she positions herself  with the sun’s glare behind her so she can see him before he sees her. Like the role she is auditioning  for, the actress wants to present a blank canvas. She wants to hide like the Jew in Nazi Germany. Her unplaceable accent which suggests she could come from anywhere is the key factor in Kubrick’s decision to cast her.

All the artworks in this exhibition were linked in some way to Kubrick. The other MI  artworks that impressed me were:

Matt Collinshaw, Alpha-Omega, 2016: Inspired by 2001, this work comprised footage of primates projected onto the visor of a spaceman’s helmet. Is it impossible to reconcile the animal and technological sides of aspects of human nature?

Pink Twins, Overlook, 2016: Digital animation is here deployed to present a condensed  vision of a civilisation imploding. A veneer of solidity slowly disintegrates as a grand furnished room shears off into shards and finally dissolves in a pool at the bottom of the screen.

Copyright Doug Foster, still from widescreen digital film, Beyond the Infinite, 2016 courtesy of the artist

Doug Foster, Beyond the Infinite, 2016: A widescreen digital animation mimicking a tracking shot entering a black hole (see above) surrounded by a constantly changing kaleidoscopic tunnel accompanied by a digital soundtrack composed by Phillip Shepherd. A potentially hypnotic experience marred by sound leakage  from a nearby exhibit.

Norbert Schoerner, Das Problem der Befahrung Des Weltraums, 2016: A VR recreation of the classic tracking shot from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You feel you are jogging around the endless loop of the circular space station as centrifugal force generates the artificial gravity.

The exhibition was curated by the musician James Lavelle whose track, Lonely Soul, adds considerably to the tense atmosphere of Toby Dye’s The Corridor. His choice of artworks  was excellent but he could have done with a bit more help on some of the sound installation. The failure to give duration times for the MI works must have been an oversight.

Overall though, this gave an absorbing and varied overview of the current state of moving image art. This is perhaps not surprising given they were inspired by the virtuoso genius. The theatricality of the installations here typified by Toby Dye and Doug Foster gave a reason for spending time in a gallery.  As so many MI artists upload their work online, this has got to be the way forward for public MI exhibitions 

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