Moving Pictures: Two recent projects grapple with the Internet’s impact on storytelling

Early this week, the New York Times reported that the eggheads at MIT have launched a institute called the Center for Future Storytelling. After referring to “21st century storytelling”–a slippery concept if there ever was one–project founder David Kirkpatrick explained that part of the function of the new initiative would be to “keep meaning alive.” Scholars, graduate students and members of the film industry will use the center to expound upon the changes that technology has wrought upon Homer’s territory. It leads one to wonder, what would Manny Farber say?

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Continuous City, a part of BAM’s Next Wave festival, might provide a fairly good primer on what “21st century storytelling” actually looks like. Providing a very of-the-moment commentary on the way the internet is not only changing artistic expression, but also basic human interaction, the production made me think about Antonio Campos’s NYFF selection Afterschool. Both projects employ the vernacular of user-generated video in all its artlessness, but, as it turns out, to very different ends.

What was so enlivening about Continuous City was how it enlarged three distinct traditions: that of film, theater and installation art, in the service of telling its three intersecting stories. J.V. (Rizwan Mirza) is a familiar character, an internet mogul with a can’t-lose pitch: his Xubu will connect the inhabitants of a increasingly fragmented world via videophones.

But this story really belongs to J.V.’s globe-trotting chief evangelist Mike. It’s through Mike’s video dispatches to his daughter Sam that the production finds its central means of commenting on how the internet both defines and facilitates communication. That these videophone dispatches played so convincingly as document was a real testament to Harry Sinclair’s performance. I truly never expected to encounter such documentary-style verisimilitude in this kind of environment. But the fact is, Continuous City probably owes more the tradition of cinema than to theater. The use of video screens allowed the three story to unfold in a kind of kinetic montage that borrow from cinema while transcending even those limitations, because the spectator here is free to select his or her own lens on the spectacle in the way they divide their attention between the live action and the video footage.

I came away from Continuous City impressed by the way the production tweaked all of these traditions and managed to challenge the viewer. Just as with Afterschool, I think I was probably less impressed with what was said than how it was said; the medium really is the message here. Still, by showing how fresh, vital and genre-bending the theater can be, Continuous City provides living proof that the heart of “story” still beats in fresh new forms.

Continuous City will be performed tonight through Sunday as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival.

True to the form they appropriate, the production invites regular internet denizens to become a part of Continuous City.

Photos courtesy of The Builder’s Association.

Moving Pictures will be an occasional series on the far reaches of film as art in the city and beyond.

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