During the TIFF premiere of Blake Williams’ quasi-narrative, 3D experiment PROTOTYPE, a woman seated a few seats to my left quietly applauded throughout the short pauses that divide the film’s multiple movements. While this reaction would be disruptive and disrespectful under almost any other circumstance, something about PROTOTYPE and its vaudevillian spirit invites this kind of outward adulation. The film, a pure spectacle of image and sound, is somewhat similar to the work of foundational pioneers like the Lumière brothers or Thomas Edison; it’s what Tom Gunning might’ve referred to as a “cinema of attractions,” a catch-all for the late 19th and early 20th century non-narrative works that captivated audiences for their sole ability to project everyday life with the illusion of movement.
PROTOTYPE takes us back to those beginnings. Its opening images are repurposed from stereographs captured in the aftermath of the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane that utterly devastated the coastal town. Williams’ use of 3D creates the illusion of a vanishing horizon across the flat surface of these jaundiced black and white stills. It’s an affect I hadn’t previously experienced: the image doesn’t leap outwards but recedes sprawling back into itself, pulling our eyes along with it.
While this might add verisimilitude to the film’s opening stereographic slideshow, the film’s subsequent sections further distort these found materials past the point of immediate recognition. Television-shaped frames-within-the-frame divide the screen with various three dimensional arrangements that are completely surrounded by black, negative space. These audio-visual prisms are not laid out in a single row but below, in front of or around each other. Inside these floating “TVs”—shot using an actual Philco relic from the ‘50s—warped images are obscured by feedback and transform into sculptures from a completely different dimension. These visuals are far gone from their original incarnation as physical evidence of a natural disaster. That’s only, of course, if we’re even still looking at distorted photographs. They may very well be something else entirely by this point.
The tools used to heighten the image’s documentational power are the same ones which fully abstract the visuals beyond physical recognition.The film’s development from one fluid chapter to the next implies a visual vocabulary that oscillates between science fiction and a ghost story. If one wished to, the film could be loosely read as a soul’s journey from one life until the next; but, to be clear, this is not the death of any individual person or even group of people but the death of a certain kind of image. As the film passes into an afterlife of pure abstraction, PROTOTYPE becomes a cinema of attractions where this attracting element is no longer entirely tangible. This is precisely the point where the film’s greatest aesthetic and thematic tension arises: the gap between one’s affective response and the act of interpretation that seeks to justify emotion through intellectual analysis.
And the best way we know how to order this stimulus is by making it into a story; we transform a chain of unlinked events and images into something that can be tracked from its beginning to its middle to its end. There’s even a title card that confirms this linearity: “some weeks later,” reads an eventually arbitrary ellipsis. But as the film descends deeper and deeper into a timeless subconscious, the causal connection from one chapter to the next is increasingly elastic, and the viewer’s subjective response to the swirling phantasmagoria is given primacy.
PROTOTYPE returns us to the awe of the earliest, premature interactions with moving photographic images. It’s as though the solution to the still unanswered question about what makes cinema different from theatre, painting, or literature had been supplanted in its origin all along, and every subsequent film became a perpetually more distant copy of this first contact. Watching PROTOTYPE, I imagined my experience as analogous to what the early audiences of George Méliès must’ve felt. We can almost conceive of a virtuoso magician orchestrating it all from behind the screen with various tricks and contraptions. It’s the greatest magic lantern show never filmed. Applause is indeed due.