Another quick reflection on something screened for the Film Studies Center’s so-far excellent “Troubling the Image” series. This time, Arash Nassiri’s video Darwin Darwah (2016), screened as part of their “Tales of Sound and Vision” night, last Friday. The screening was full of great stuff—including The Inner World of Aphasia (Edward R. Feil, 1958), which I would recommend to anyone who always wished Sam Fuller and Owen Land had made a film together—but Nassiri’s piece left me with the most coherent thoughts.
“What am I looking at?” is a question that I typically ask myself only when watching purely abstract films. The work of Jordan Belson, for instance, has frequently succeeded in eliciting this question for me. But watching Darwin Darwah was one of the few times I asked myself “what am I looking at?” when faced with what seemed to be straightforward representational imagery.
The video’s program notes made it quite clear that Nassiri had made use of 3D scans of Paris catacomb tunnels, so I suppose I should have guessed there would be CGI trickery involved. Still, for the life of me, in during the first half or so of the video I found myself being utterly lulled into the lie that what I was actually watching was video footage, captured with a night-vision camera. The way the video grain softens and camouflages the more overtly CGI bits of the image, while at the same time providing a visual cue that what you’re watching is some recorded reality, just completely turned off my ability to critically view. For a few precious minutes, I really just thought that I was watching a Steadicam shot, plowing down a catacomb tunnel.
And then I noticed that things had gotten weird.
To its immense credit, the video’s weirdness had taken hold at an unsettlingly subtle pace—shades of that old “frog in boiling water” myth. By the time I noticed that things were entirely too weird, it was too late. It was too late for me to realize that I shouldn’t have trusted what I was seeing for a moment. I had been sucked in like the sucker I was. And, frankly, I was glad to be made a sucker of. I had no idea that Iranian-French video artists had at their disposal CGI that could genuinely trick me for a few minutes. It’s nice to know what artists have the budget for these days.
It wasn’t until I realized how weird the video’s imagery had gotten that the relationship between its soundtrack and video track clicked for me. On the soundtrack, a narrator drones on, delving deep into aliens-built-the-pyramids pseudohistory. And, eventually, it hit me: the video track captures exactly the syrupy attraction of conspiracy theories. There’s something about the snail’s pace at which we creep away from reality that makes our narrator all the more intoxicating.
As the formulation “alternative facts” has entered our lexicon over the past few days, I’ve been considering the seeming truism that no amount of media fact-checking will ever cost Trump any supporters. The best guess I can put forward as to why this is would be that people don’t like being told they’re being lied to. No one likes to consider the possibility that they may be a rube. There’s a knee-jerk projection that kicks in as a basic defensiveness when this happens: “no, it’s you who are lying about me being lied to!” Those exposing the lie must themselves be liars. Or, worse: filthy nitpickers, hung up on data and language and blind to emotional truths staring everyone in the face.
But I don’t know. Certainly the popularity of conspiracy theories provides weighty evidence against the idea that people don’t like being told they’re being lied to. If it’s done right, people love to be told they’re being lied to. They love the idea that there’s a basic truth that’s been hidden from them all their lives, and that they’re about to join the enlightened echelons of society, privy to the truth beyond the misinformation.
I have no idea how the news media might be able to leverage some of the pleasures of conspiratorial thinking to get Trump’s supporters to realize and acknowledge that they’re being lied to. I have no rubric for assessing those pleasures. I have no lesson to give. But we could all do worse than watch Arash Nassiri’s Darwin Darwah. It has much to teach us right now.