Cinema, as a medium, more so really than any other form, is built on exploring the human face. It is a canvas and a landscape, capable of vehement and beguiling emotional shifts and stoic concealment in equal measure. The capacity to capture this is specific to the art of film because it is able to explore at length and over time. And this reaches back to the beginnings of the form—“Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. Something is being decided. A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds…”—solidified by Carl Theodor Dreyer with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Ever since, human expression has proven to be an endlessly fascinating unsolvable enigma.
Which explains why, this week, many were entranced by #AllMyMovies, and why it sat on in browsers, eating up bandwidth for days on end. Shia LaBeouf suddenly turned his penchant for lax provocation and tendency for posturing alienation for productive ends with his latest navel gaze, perhaps even more so than he is aware. Over the course of three days, he sat in New York’s Angelika Film Center and watched all the movies he has ever been in. He live-streamed himself watching. We never saw the movies, mind you, just straight-on shots of him watching them and reacting to what was happening outside the frame on the screen. It ended up, as so many things do in modern times, stoking the age of the GIF—an increasingly obsessive following obliged, reacting to his reactions in kind, clicking over periodically to assess his demeanor and get a fix of the lulling effect, and amplifying this through the echo chamber.
Successful art installations are often absurdly simple while harboring the power and inconspicuous scope to reorient brainwaves—a sort of hyper-mundane that explodes into universality. Watching people watching movies, that’s the hook, and I’m all about it. Soon enough, people were lining up outside the chosen theater for the installation for hours for the chance to be background players in this live-stream piece. What should we make of all this? There’s a lot to read into it. Foremost, it reverses the perspective of the cinematic viewer—it reminds me, just offhand, of the opening shot of Amour where we watch an audience watch a performance without seeing the performance ourselves, or a reduction of the late Alain Resnais’ experiments in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, but really the cinematic referents are innumerable. We are reading a face, and picking up silent reactions, and creating meaning. We cannot see the screen, but we know what he is watching, but not specifically what the action is, and our mind fills in the space and colors our interpretation of the reactions.
As Tasha Robinson notes (in her own fit of feverish inspiration in the wake of this thing), “strange things happen to people’s faces when a film really entrances them…their faces go a little slack, and their emotions come through clear and raw.” This is an uncanny transformation to behold—witnessing people running through a gamut of emotions while immobile, attuned and focused, the world around them slipping away. With #AllMyMovies, this effect is amplified and stretched out. Essentially, we are watching a person sit stationary and feel in many different ways while staring in a single direction for long periods of time, not just feature length time—the burden of the stretch adds to the effect and alters the experience. There are controlled reactions to be sure, concealed impulses and pleasure, but also uncontrollable micro-flashes of emotional response. In these vulnerable nanoseconds of emotion, cinema remains alive. It’s a testament to our knowledge of film that we can read so much with so little information, and relate it to our own reactions.
Thinking of #AllMyMovies as a recorded, composed piece, it also destabilizes the way movies are shown in movies. The suture between the diegetic watcher and the film-world cinematic image is typically clear. Here, it is untethered, vicarious, even; we cannot see what he sees and vice versa, and we are stuck in this rigid, artificial gaze. And #AllMyMovies was broadcast without sound to fully strip away this contextual layer. It’s redoubled voyeurism and frustratingly denies our innate desire, or it forces us to fulfill it on our own, seeking out the LaBeouf canonical texts to complete the loop. Here, too, the presence of the camera is deliberate and known, set up by the watcher with the intention of being watched. His being aware of being watched undermines the cinematic position, which is often understood as one where we are subsumed and anonymous, hidden in the dark of the theater, a sea of variable reactions shrouded.
As LaBeouf watches, we are lured into his perspective, forgetting that his is much different than ours. Yet, he is also the only “traditional” cinematic viewer in the scenario—seated in a theater, viewing movies in the dark. It’s these types of anomalies that make #AllMyMovies spark. Concepts like oeuvre and public opinion creep in. The films no longer just exist on their own but rather as a cluster, hinging around a single individual who just happens to be in all of the works, no matter how big or how small the part, extrapolating on an absurd hinge exigent of attendant notions of theme and style and tone. We are offered an opportunity to study the crowd surrounding him and appreciate the shifting context of each presentation as its own separate entity, and to witness how the oft-forgotten surroundings of the theater setting influence. Collective likes and distaste—conflated in the frequently rotating off-hand background compositions—bias our readings of that which we believe the viewer to be feeling, with little by way of validation.
A new mode of information seeking guides the moment by moment shifts in observation and makes observation itself the draw. It changes our understanding of the movies and adjusts typical focal points—plot specifics and style dissolve in favor of reading this one person’s involvement and opinion, and how this opinion may have changed in the interim. It isolates a single component of the process and expands its significance and meaning, suggesting even further that all the other pieces around it have similar depths in the overall tapestry. It transposes the understanding of story arcs to a linear continuum of reaction and emotion, basically providing an irreducible baseline template for the way film is meant to work, a rollercoaster of feelings broken down to a sensation-machine eliciting a series of affects. But, there is still the elephant to account for, the lingering, overlookable caveat: #AllMyMovies as performance art. And this kinks many of the already knotty undercurrents here. In reading the works through his expressions, we are susceptible to manipulations again from an actor acting, performing the act of watching a movie and keenly aware of being watched in this process. In this respect, #AllMyMovies condenses and inverts the concept of acting, moving the actor from the screen to the audience—the line between feigned and genuine is relentlessly unclear, which brings us back to that fundamental enigma.
#AllMyMovies generated a network of watching that is fascinating, habituating postmodern dissociation and transference. Based on the comments, it seems many felt a lot of joy in watching someone feel pride and enthusiasm for their work, and empathy relating to that same person finding unease and displeasure in elements of their past—and, he did it in reverse-chronological order. And, fittingly, #AllMyMovies opened up the cinematic theater through streaming—melded and mangled the two, really. But mangled in a way that was apposite, where we are made aware of the act of watching and where the two arenas remain separate in their scope and perspective. Through this fracture, the opportunity for customized participation emerged. Streamers could bask in the paradoxical accessibility and warmth of the cinema as we know it, while contributing to its systematic defamiliarization. What is typically understood as cinema—a closed theater with boundaries and the potential for asylum (just how many movies have you seen where characters seek refuge in a dark movie house?)—was split open, negated and reinforced simultaneously by our invited tapped-in voyeurism.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.