Amir Motlagh’s double feature, the movies MAN and Three Worlds, screened to a small audience in the Chicago Filmmakers new headquarters on North Ridge Avenue. Everyone in that room became the first to view his experiment with film in form and content.
Or, was the experiment in how the audience viewed the films?
MAN opened with some very long shots on scenery outside a California home. Very long shots, so long that people began to squirm in their seats, to whisper, and to cough. These are signs of human discomfort. For several minutes, the breathtaking shots of cityscape and closeups of the outside of a home took over the screen as a conversation about telephone problems filled the room. There was no rhyme or reason between the two. They ran in parallel spaces, playing out in their own time as the audience showed more signs of discomfort.
The story switches to a first-person point of view, a single camera filming a day in the life of Arman (played by Amir Motlagh), an Iranian man who worked from home and lived with his dogs. Nothing escapes the camera’s view, as if it were plastered on the subject’s forehead. It is hard not to watch and look away, because at some points it feels like voyeurism, like there is a chance that the camera will reveal something no one was meant to see. It is very uncomfortable. Later, a few audience members reported motion sickness due to the jostling of the first-person angle.
That same audience has to bear his every musing, bodily function, and chore, including his reluctant talk with his father in Farsi and his silly dialogue with his two dogs. There is even an awkward date with a woman named Des (Rachel Sciacca) and, after the date, awkward sex with a girl that he really likes. Post-coitus, the camera separates from the man and the audience gets to see this man who no longer has any secrets left to shed. Then, MAN ends.
“I didn’t give an introduction to the film,” producer Charles Borg tells the crowd in intermission before launching into his and Motlagh’s aim. “We want you to wonder why the shots take so long…to ask, ‘why am I watching’…We wanted to make something that, love it or hate it, you have never seen anything like it before.”
This was a film that turned the job of “watching” back onto the audience, forcing them to reflect on the things seen, heard, and felt. In this age of YouTube and Facebook Live, where everyone is filming everything, how much of that is entertainment and how much is just plain empty, uncomfortable viewing?
The man is question is a subject that can only be considered after the evaluation is done. The woman is the only real human contact he has in a day. There’s the “asshole” who ignores him on the street, parents on the phone, the tech person in the film’s deliberate opening, but these are not real contact. This man only has the woman and his dogs. The desolate content and discomfort in viewing makes this film a true reflection on what “watching” truly entails.
Magic hour rooftop shooting for “Three Worlds”
The second film, Three Worlds, was more of a film and less of an experiment. It looked at the concept of memory from a near psychedelic angle (there is a talking cartoon raccoon at one point). A man played by Amir Motlagh is undergoing some experiment that causes him to have some memories that segment his life into three sides. There’s his Iranian heritage told from the stories his parents, cousins, and family relay. There’s the haunted artist whose best friends are the same boys he knew from school. There’s a Serbian prostitute. Then, there is the boy who grew up in the empty home he now inhabits since his family has gone back to Iran. Along the way, the audience is introduced to his girlfriend and a deranged therapist who is suicidal and sees the cartoon raccoon.
This life comes in pieces, fractured by some sci-fi procedure so horrific that reality sometimes breaks the fourth, wall,pulling the audience out into a documentary-style look at yet another function of memory and film.
Three Worlds is more of a traditional film than MAN, but both are experimental looks into the limitations of the art of filmmaking. While MAN places the audience on trial, Three Worlds struggles to push the boundaries of form in order to enhance an already terrible tale. These unique experiences are made even more exceptional for their Iranian-American perspective. Thus, the memory in Three Worlds traverses continents, and the discomfort in MAN traverses ethnic experience.
Despite the motion sickness, the experience of both films is one that any film connoisseur must have. To sit with an awareness of the film, and also an awareness of how you are watching it, is a surreal act that can only be described as “art.” Motlagh’s work is definitely a piece of art in the medium of film.