Since receiving 1,2,3, Whiteout I’ve watched this picture many, many times. I’ve struggled to get to the heart of the film and while that created a delay in analysis, Whiteout is a very thought provoking movie that I didn’t feel comfortable with discussing until I could make sense of it. I’ve come to the consensus that James June Schneider’s lo-fi science fiction outing is one of those movies you either get or you don’t, and with its cataclysmic dreaminess, words tend to fail – the strongest thing about the film is the feeling it evokes – and after witnessing The Bunny Game’s brutal karmic darkness, Whiteout seemed to be straight from the flipside.
“I am working to give the capacity to dream again – to bring all that is dark and calm back into the cycle, where the night can return you to a place in the universe. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing, just know that you’re part of something larger – part of this movement to make the cycle true again – to make the night night again.” – The Scientist
Veronique (Karine Adrover) is a twenty-something who wanders an unbearably bright future where she comes upon an inventor (Lou Castel) in the midst of creating experimental technology to drive back the forces of man made light. The reasoning is simple – in this grainy yet dazzling retro-futurist utopia, our lone scientist dares to ask “can we shine when we are faced with blinding light?” The rest of the movie isn’t wrapped up as neatly as this manifesto – described as a “tone poem for darkness”, Schneider’s heavy mix of archival footage, documentary-like cinematography and compelling ambient sound is at once cerebral yet elusive, and rewards the viewer for sticking with the dreamy, buoyant pacing by introducing more questions and philosophical quandries. One of the first things I felt about this film is that its triumph is the creation of a hungry mind, and that in itself is reward enough.
In Veronique’s bi-lingual world, we’re not witnessing a society in decay quite so much as a society in denial of reality – and thus the order of the day for the masses seems to be the vague pursuit of leisure inside of a spacious, neon metropolis. More vague is her brother Alix (Renaud Martinez), an agent working for an even vaguer agency dedicated to halting the Scientist’s work in its tracks. Ironically situated in an arcade, he prods at the populist conscious in pursuit of this positive darkness.
Here we have the absolute least-threatening dystopia in all of filmdom, and I couldn’t mean that in a more positive way. On the surface, we watch seemingly happy people drift through a life in the state of constant illumination. There’s not much physical confrontation to speak of in that regard – the only real crime or transgression we witness is Veronique applying a small machine to an arcade unit in order to get free plays, and the arcade itself seems to be the only bastion of any type of incendiary violence as we witness war games played through VR headsets in a type of X-Ray/Sonar view. Man’s dependence on technology abounds, albeit imagined from a 1970′s/1980′s standpoint, and this dependence has seemingly taken man out of his own existence enough to even reduce conflict to an imaginary state. Political afilliation be damned – if the ruling class may create any sort of ideal society, what’s to be gained if it’s at the cost of independent thought and a life based on distraction from itself? Schneider eloquently makes us look at the state of a world in which man has achieved what we think we all desire the most – in a state of light and peace, we are left to simply drift through vacuousness – and at this point the biggest question remaining is thus: once we’ve seen and done everything and there’s nothing left to feel our way through, what will become of meaning?
The film underscores this many times over – there’s a subtle repetition of images and sounds that makes the viewer feel as though they’re actively participating in the cycle and the movie on the whole has a very lucid presentation. The lush brooding of the soundtrack with archival shots of architecture and lighting begins to take on a life of its own and is at once welcoming yet sinister – I think Mark Mothersbaugh and Neil Young coined the phrase Rust Never Sleeps, however, light never STOPS. It’s this lack of fade and relentless skitter that tends to bring the tension. Light is a natural occurrence, darkness its absence – of all the things man has tampered with and rerouted to its own means, I think this is quite possibly the only time I’ve re-considered the creation of artificial light to be anything other than sensible. In Whiteout, it’s not only viewed as hubristic, but a detriment to the soul and mind.
This is conjecture though – the film remains elusive and abstract enough to warrant its own individual interpretation by each viewer. This is one of the hallmarks of the film, as Castel’s scientist often takes such utilitarianism to task and the insistence on the individual’s experience of life drives him to take action in the name of civil disobedience. The only end for the means of Alix’s shady agent to seek the inventor out is because he merely stands opposed to society. Veronique’s corner of the tri-fecta is that of willful test subject and co-conspirator torn between herself and those around her. She never stands formally opposed to Alix but is engaged in conscious subterfuge of the society he works to maintain. The understated relationship of the three is effective yet still bonded strongly through Veronique’s treatment of each. In the scientist she finds a marginalized kindred , someone at odds with society yet not quite in contempt of it. Alix is her brother, they share the bond of sibling and although politically and diametrically opposed, though not entirely conscious of each other’s actions, they are there for each other. It’s a strange, unfortunate warmth Veronique imparts on each man – they are highly skilled, capable people doing what they believe in for the greater good – each struggles to succeed against the other, and are predisposed to become mortal enemies. Veronique is attached to both and her interactions with each character define the strength of the scientist’s risks and the humanity beneath her brother’s predatory singularity.
This is a subtle film, slowly and purposefully drawn and felt out. The performances are beautifully aloof and instinctive – there is a balance that must be maintained, and one gets the feeling that if the characters were more focused or forcefully reflective, their fragile reality would collapse into a ruined chaos. This assertion of the automatic only enhances the structured nuance of the film – it is indeed tonal, and if the melody isn’t just so, it wouldn’t be as good. There is also a wry humor in spots that provide the viewer with the most telling points of origin to begin to slip inside the world on screen – but it’s as warm as the rest of the film, which helps to get through to the density of the larger concept. The presentation of the least life-threatening dystopia in film helps to further endear the concept of positive darkness – 1,2,3, Whiteout is a very fulfilling work and remains sensitive to a facet of humanity that oft goes underplayed. Its extremities lie inviolate – we observe man at its most passive, and it speaks volumes within the structure of surreal calm and stillness. Schneider created a penultimate act of subversion through his treatment of a sleepy, subdued existence, and at the end of the light age, those that care to will revel in dark enlightenment.