Art Documentary Features Live Action Movies


Director – Gary Hustwit – 2023 – UK – 83m

**** (on this occasion)

Musician, artist and activist Brian Eno has been at the cutting edge of creativity for 50 years, and this generative, AI-programmed film plays in a different version every time it is shown – out in UK cinemas on Friday, July 12th

Disclaimer: This film is being touted as a film that’s different every time it screens: thus, I need to declare that I saw the version shown to press in London on 03.07.2024 (which was prepared as a file for viewing on 26.04.2024). Things included in that version might or might not be in the one you see. So, in a sense, you have to take this review with a pinch of salt. The version I saw ran 83 minutes. Officially, it’s supposed to be 90, so that exact running length may vary too. Or not. I really don’t know.

Brian Eno hasn’t made the film himself, yet clearly he’s the perfect subject for it. He talks about “accidentally” getting involved with Roxy Music after being asked by band member Andy Mackay to help them record (as in, do the work required to record them at a recording studio) some pieces and realising that recording and performing with the band would help him pursue his interest in exploring emerging new technologies and their creative possibilities. There is footage of him both playing onstage with Roxy (early 1970s videotape, not great picture quality, but nonetheless compelling and of serious archival value) and working with other musicians at various stages of his career – in this version, these included David Bowie on Moss Garden and the title track of Heroes, and U2 on The Unforgettable Fire.

Eno has been working in music and other art forms since the early 1970s, and has allowed the filmmakers access to his own extensive library of recordings as well as allowing them to film interview material of him working on music, pottering around the garden and goodness knows what else. The version screened this evening had much in there that would satisfy Roxy Music fans or admirers of Brian Eno the solo musician, a little about his art and virtually nothing about his environmentalist (or other) activism. Rightly or wrongly, people primarily still think of Eno as a musician and the version we saw tonight is in keeping with that idea of him; perhaps other versions of the film will cover other aspects of the man in greater depth.

Eno’s legendary Oblique Strategies (a series of cards displaying simple directives developed with painter Peter Schmidt) are used, with various people (here, multimedia and sometime recording artist Laurie Anderson – apparently the huge store of edited footage from which each version of the film is generated contains another 13 such guests) displaying particular cards which then (apparently) directs the proprietary AI software developed in the making of and for the exhibition of the film to go off in the direction it does on each particular unique screening.

More about that AI software, or generative software as it is called: you actually see it working in the film as momentary images of verbal computer language appear for the minute fragments of time in which the AI decides what to show us next. (In the press version, this was a specially prepared, unique one-off recording to file – perhaps to be wiped by the makers after use? – but I believe when the film has a commercial run in cinemas, it will generate different sequences of footage when screened. Presumably this involves the use of proprietary receiver / projection equipment.)

Conventional film form hasn’t been abandoned altogether: an opening scene and closing scene are locked into place, but everything else moves around. That’s not to say a considerable amount of editing of the material hasn’t already taken place, and from one viewing I couldn’t tell you exactly what the parameters are, except to repeat the makers’ claim that every viewing of the film will be unique.

The film may arguably be a landmark in cinema (are there other films out there that change form on each screening via AI?) without otherwise being particularly remarkable (itcertainlydoes the job as a serviceable documentary portrait of a musician or an artist). One wonders what else is possible with the technology in media such as cinema, television and elsewhere. (One shouldn’t forget computer games, where this technology has obvious applications which are probably being developed as you read if they aren’t already out there waiting for you.)

It would make a fascinating, second film on a double bill with that other provocative documentary Fantastic Machine (Axel Danielson, Maximilien Van Aertryck, 2023).

As for a portrait of Brian Eno, I was as delighted that this particular version threw up his marvellous nonsense song Babies on Fire as I was dismayed at its lack of any discussion of Ambient Music. And I would have liked to have seen more material about his environmental activism too. Nevertheless, as an experiment with the parameters of cinema and what might be possible, it’s a fascinating early (if not first) foray into a largely untested field.

Eno is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, July 12th.

(This review is of the version shown to press in London on 03.07.2024 which was prepared as a file for viewing on 26.04.2024)


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