Film: You Are Here
Director: Daniel Cockburn
“Our tools are extensions of our purposes, and so we find it natural to make metaphorical attributions of intentionality to them; but I take it no philosophical ice is cut by such examples.”
– John Searle
In a scene inspired by philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room experiment, a slovenly prisoner in a blue jumpsuit is sitting on the floor of a brightly lit room when a piece of paper bearing Chinese writing slides under the door. He picks it up and takes it to the desk, where sits a solitary red volume bearing the title What to Do if They Shove Chinese Writing Under the Door.
He opens the book and follows the instructions he finds in it, instructions that sound a lot like those found in bureaucratic forms, i.e. endless lists of contingencies (e.g. “if this character doesn’t look like this, go to number 1590”). A shelf on the wall holds an encyclopedic row of these red volumes.
Later we see this same man, clean-shaven and wearing a business suit. He’s holding a small model of the room he’d been in and calmly discussing the experiment he’d conducted on himself?coming off as a bit demented, as can be expected.
This is science fiction of the near future, so near in fact that it looks a lot like now. But then looking like now has long been a winning characteristic of the best science fiction, that small fraction of science fiction that can actually be classed as serious art and whose purpose is ultimately to tell us about ourselves. I say it looks like now, but That’s a bit of an exaggeration. It actually looks like the 1970’s, with big clunky cellphones and video players, analog everything, and no computers except one laptop that obviously doesn’t belong.
Why set your film in an era known for tasteless clothes and cultural vapidity? It turns out to be quite appropriate, if only because this was the decade in which all the technology on which we now depend was slowly emerging, including, significantly, surveillance technology and archiving software.
You’ll see surveillance, archiving, or both happening in every scene, and these are among the few elements tying all the subplots together.
The subplots are varied and interconnected but It’s really hard to figure out which is the main plot or even if there is one. The film’s official website suggests the main plot is that of the woman who archives data that appears almost magically in her path, but I have my doubts. You could say that the subplots form a kind of collective which makes up the main plot; in the end everyone is having the same experience, like characters in a dream.
And the scenes have that strange quality of emotional coldness we often encounter in our dream characters. What’s immediately striking is the degree to which all of these characters are cut off. Cut off from the people around them, from the past, from the future, from time, from their own true selves. One character, Allan, is actually a large number of people with the different identities but the same experiences and awareness.
As in dreams, consciousness here presents itself with a story, a story That’s the product of both the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. But is the story believable? And can we trust consciousness to tell the story truthfully? Or to understand the story once It’s told? And how do we define consciousness? If consciousness is awareness, does lack of awareness signify an absence of consciousness? Are we truly conscious if someone (or something) is deliberately keeping us in the dark?
It really doesn’t matter if someone or something is keeping us in the dark because reality as a whole has blinded the human race since opening day. But a big part of the message of You Are Here might be that uncertainty is not the existential dilemma we perceive it to be, not something to be recorded, understood, stored, and used to make predictions and avoid all mistakes. Perhaps reality is like Rilke’s princess disguised as a dragon, something beautiful That’s waiting for us to act with truth and courage.
You can hardly listen to the radio these days without hearing something about how truly effective Big Brother has become in observing and chronicling our every move. When you hear about all the espionage going on, openly or covertly, you can’t help but ask yourself, “What can they possibly do with all that information?” In the end, does recording and archiving every little event even serve any useful purpose?
But what if the system itself were self-contained? What if we could feed it enough information to make it intellectually independent, capable of deciding matters on its own? This is similar to the question as to whether computers can develop consciousness. To both questions the answer, for any thinking person, must be a resounding “no.” Rooms and computers are both created by humans beings as tools for human beings. they’re not conscious, nor can they ever be except in science fiction where they serve as metaphors for reality.
So what do these metaphors say about reality? Basically the message is the same as in The Matrix: we’re prisoners of any deception we choose to accept as true. In You Are Here the deception might be belief that once we get enough technology we can all be safe in our plain, dry little worlds. The passage to the world outside this environment, the world that can free us, the world we need to get to, has been taken away. But the door is still there. You can still pass through it and take what comes.
You Are Here manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing:
It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
It stimulates my mind.
It’s about attainment of the true self.
It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.