Walking in Space
By Lawrence Garcia

NYFF 2023:
The Human Surge 3
Dir. Eduardo Williams, Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, Netherlands, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Peru, no distributor

To get right to the point: there is no Human Surge 2. Argentinean director Eduardo Williams’s latest globe-trotting whatsit, The Human Surge 3, arrives seven years after his debut feature The Human Surge (2016), leaping across the void of a non-existent sequel. Like its predecessor, the latest Surge follows itinerant groups of twentysomethings across several different countries, trading in Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines for Sri Lanka, Peru, and Taiwan. And, similarly concerned with questions of connectivity in an increasingly globalized world, the film retains not just the loose, hangout vibe of the first Surge but also its errancy, unpredictability, and roving drift.

Befitting the false continuity of its title, however, The Human Surge 3 also differs in one crucial respect. With its triptych structure and strict segmentation between locations, the first Surge maintained the assumption of a spatially extended world—a stable “frame” in which its disparate movements could be located and unified. The new Surge, by contrast, dispenses with even this. No longer confined to their home countries, its characters practically teleport between locations, their paths crisscrossing in ways that quickly become impossible to track. Across the runtime, individuals relate dreams, hallucinations, and memories of things that we’ve already seen or will see. At one point, an entire exchange unfolds in two different languages. Cumulatively, these sights and sounds become impossible to assemble into a coherent narrative timeline. Despite their ostensible physical continuity, the film’s scenes continually challenge one’s ability to unify them in extended space. If the first Surge could still be structured around the viewer’s sense of anticipation—around the question of what comes next—The Human Surge 3 often leads us to ask what we are even seeing.

On a technical level, the answer is straightforward enough. Like Williams’s 2019 short Parsi, The Human Surge 3 was “shot” with a 360-degree VR camera, the Insta360 Titan, a spherical device which captures video using eight lenses radiating outward from its center—I use scare-quotes because the film is neither framed nor composed in any traditional way. The nature of the VR camera and its workflow permitted Williams to frame scenes in post-production rather than during the shoot. It allowed him to trace a particular trajectory through each 360-degree space long after the moment of capture. The implication, of course, is that he could have framed things differently. Each path through the footage comes with a heightened awareness of the potential paths, infinite in number, which we are not seeing. If we take the situation before us to be actual, then the latent possibilities form a totality we might call virtual. The experience of watching The Human Surge 3 thus becomes a process of sensitization to these virtualities.

It is not entirely surprising, then, to find that The Human Surge 3 resembles nothing so much as an open-world video game. The people in it function less like traditional characters than “avatars” whom we follow across disparate locations. Williams even goes so far as to include obscure narrative elements—such as mysterious blue eggs that need to be taken somewhere for some reason—suggestive of possible side quests. Although Surge 3 does not generally lend itself to easy points of comparison, the films that came to mind were those that explicitly engage with the aesthetics of video games: for instance, the later films of Phil Solomon, such as Rehearsals for Retirement (2007), one of several shorts the artist “shot” within the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto, as well as Kurt Walker’s more recent s01e03 (2020), which cuts freely and fluidly between IRL interactions and the space of an MMORPG. What Williams here demonstrates, though, is that while such aesthetics may have a ready connection to certain technologies, they are not necessarily confined to them. Indeed, The Human Surge 3 arguably points to the contingency of its own production, showing how the effects we may call “virtual” cannot, in the end, be limited to the technical operations of VR.

What are the consequences of such virtual explorations? In an essay titled “Griffith’s Butterfly,” the French filmmaker Jean-Claude Biette distinguished between those filmmakers, such as Kubrick or Visconti, who would on principle wait for a butterfly to pass out of the frame before shooting, and those filmmakers, such as Rohmer or Rivette, who would welcome such intrusions. This dichotomy is at bottom a variation on André Bazin’s famous distinction between “those directors who place their faith in the image and those who place their faith in reality,” and like him, Biette has an evident preference for the latter group, whose films, the thought goes, leave room for contemplation of the real world. As always, though, such preferences presuppose an ontology—in this case, one that takes the essence of cinema to lie in the moment of capture, the instant when the camera faces the so-called “real” world. And it is precisely this theoretical assumption that The Human Surge 3 challenges. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, the characters find themselves gathered around a large tree amidst the dense tangle of a rainforest—at which point the camera leaves its human subjects to follow a buzzing insect, perfectly framed in close-up for a few seconds. To Biette’s dichotomy of butterfly or no butterfly, the scene offers the confounding alternative of a butterfly found and framed after the fact. And if it does not fit into either side of the opposition, this is because the film ultimately rejects the presuppositions of such a split.

In this respect, The Human Surge 3 picks up and develops the consequences of Michael Snow’s 2002 masterpiece *Corpus Callosum. Subjecting live-action sequences of an office interior to the manipulations of a team of animators, the film presents space as endlessly malleable, clay-like, prone to all sorts of warping, twisting transformations. This renders the moment of capture all but inessential, revealing the camera to be little more than just a recording mechanism. The aesthetic transformations brought about by the digital age are routinely overstated. Nevertheless, if Snow’s film represents a genuine break, this is because his inspired use of digital technologies pushed the Bazinian dichotomy of image and reality to a point of collapse. One can of course still make distinctions between different cinematic modes. The salient point is that whatever distinctions one draws should not be traced back to the moment of capture. Toward the end of The Human Surge 3, Williams offers as close as the film gets to an explicit statement of this principle. A lengthy shot of a jungle tree, which holds long enough for a monkey to slowly amble into frame and then fall into the water below, gradually pans away from its ostensible subject, executing a series of 360-degree rotations. As the camera picks up speed, it also tilts upwards, until it is pointed straight at the canopy above, the seams of its eight lenses rendering the image into a kaleidoscopic blur. As the camera zooms in and out, the screen pixelates. The distinction between image and reality dissolves into a vortex of digital noise.

Soon after this dazzling coup de cinema, a flash of lightning transports us to the top of a mountain somewhere in Brazil. Surrounded by mist, the figures we have been following converge onto this remote locale, trekking along a sloping path while in the distance looms an opalescent lagoon. The location has something unreal, uncanny, almost alien about it—and indeed it functions less like a conventionally realistic expanse than a kind of digital oasis, a space of instability and ceaseless overturning. Sky and ground curl and distort in unfamiliar ways. Faces and bodies threaten to disintegrate into streaks of digital artifacts. Even gravity becomes optional, with figures floating about and executing zero-g somersaults. Evidently, we have dispensed with any semblance of realism. To abandon realism, however, is not at all to abandon reality. Indeed, in The Human Surge 3, such an act serves not to turn one away from the real but also to reveal its virtual possibilities. In this sense, the film, especially during this mountaintop climax, functions as a veritable play space, where rule systems are not so much abandoned as transformed, and where the real is not denied but transmuted. Turning the screen into a zone of displaced tactility, it offers the viewer the opportunity to feel one’s body anew.