The upshot of this has been that many of us who, for some time, have been quite used to feeding our film fix via our smaller domestic screens with screeners and streamers and (if you’re old school) the occasional DVD, suddenly found these other screen experiences competing for our eyeballs – works that we would ordinarily have seen live in theatres and concert halls and galleries.
So, what’s this got to do with the Taub Brothers’ film EXTERNO? Well, while watching this visually rich and highly conceptual film I found, quite often, that I had to remind myself that this was indeed a film and not one of these interlopers - a virtual version of a kind of hybrid performance-visual-art installation piece that I was accessing on my flat screen in lieu of the actual experience. It’s out of this dichotomy (of my own making) that my two minds about the film formed and, by the time the end credits rolled, left those two minds with opposing feelings about how the film affected me.
Externo is the first feature outing for Argentinian brothers Leandro and Jonathan Taub. Whilst they share the producing and directing credits, Leandro picks up an extra couple of nods as both screenwriter and actor. Between the two of them, what they come up with resonates with Jonathan’s background in works that rely on an immersive experience heavy on visuals and music and Leandro’s extensive work as a novelist. But it’s not so much a story they tell as it is an idea or a response to the big issues that face the world.
Leandro plays Joseph, a driven and focused but somewhat spiritual man who is presented to us as a solitary and hermit-like figure rattling around in an abandoned and cavernous structure somewhere in an isolated wildness of bushland. Joseph has a plan for the world, a mobile phone and two thousand dollars in capital. With seemingly benevolent or well-meaning intensions, Joseph’s goal is to leverage the cash into a personal commercial fortune that provides him with global power. He achieves this one transaction at a time with the aid of Zeta (Christian Bargados) a disembodied voice on the end of his mobile phone. Into the endless routine of commercial transactions comes a woman (Elisabeth Ehrlich) known only as She, who interrupts Joseph’s focus on the accumulation of wealth and power by reminding him how his success can impact on humanity and the havoc his plan can easily wreak if he allows himself to deal only with the end goal, rather than the means by which he gets there. Joseph’s progression towards world domination is marked by title cards with ‘chapter headings’ and single, provocative words projected onto surfaces in both the internal and external spaces as well as visuals intrusions of stock imagery of the human impact on the world and environment.
It's here that I found myself alternating between seeing this work on the one hand as a film and on the other as a multi-media artwork. If I view it as a narrative work with some semblance of a beginning, middle and end, then I find it very quickly makes its point about global corruption and abuses of power and the influence of wealth and then has little more to offer than the same point repeated over and over. In this sense, I was engaged early but soon tired of the sameness of pace and setting and dynamic in the way it kept me essentially the same thing in slightly different ways. However, when I released myself from narrative expectations and started to consider the visual, performative and artistic aspects of the film, I found I engaged with EXTERNO on a very different level. I could imaging being immersed in the environment of this decaying structure surrounded by lush vegetation and encountering the performers as living visual elements of a highly conceptual installation (not unlike Punchdrunk Theatre’s astoundingly good, site-specific, multi-sensory installation-promenade-performance Sleep No More based in New York – if you’ve never heard of it, look it up).
The thing with this latter interpretation of EXTERNO is that it gives you permission to drop in and out of your artistic engagement and, to a large extent, make of the work what you will. For me, this kind of relationship with what the Taub brothers have created – like setting your iPod to shuffle mode – can still achieve the overarching goal of the concept without having to work your way through the plodding narrative. Viewed in this way, EXTERNO works a lot better for me than if I view it (as, no doubt, intended) as a more traditionally structured film. Either way there are provocative and interesting ideas embedded in EXTERNO, even if they don’t successfully coalesce around a narrative thread.