Words and interview
The documentary maker on the deep existential concerns at the heart of his latest project.
Rodney Ascher makes haunted house movies inside the human mind. Playful and unsettling, his horror documentaries filter subjective experience through pop-culture psychology, studying the art we consume and how it consumes us.
In Room 237, Ascher spoke to obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, charting the gulfs that can open up between artistic intent and individual interpretation. The Nightmare examined sleep paralysis, restaging eight participants’ darkest dreams and documenting their search for answers through cinema, faith, and sociology.
The LA-based filmmaker’s latest, A Glitch in the Matrix, which premiered at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival and hits digital platforms on 5 February, plunges us into an existential rabbit hole of ‘simulation theory’. It questions whether we’re living inside someone else’s computer – by introducing a group of experts and so-called “eyewitnesses” convinced we are.
“Whenever something crazy happens in the world – and crazier things appear to be happening at an ever-increasing rate – someone on Twitter is making the joke that the simulation is buggy,” says Ascher. “It’s becoming a shorthand to explain a common feeling. But if a hundred people are making jokes about it, a thousand people are thinking about it and not saying it out loud. For some of them, it’s not a joke.”
The film traces simulation theory’s existential concerns back to Plato’s cave and Descartes’ evil demon hypothesis, though it credits the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy, literary giant Philip K Dick, and Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom (who wrote the 2001 article ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’), as well as other public figures, with popularising such notions in modern times.
“When Elon Musk talked about simulation theory during a press conference,” adds Ascher, “that idea seemed to catch on in a way that was far beyond the train of ‘people who spend too much time watching science fiction movies or on the internet.’ One of the most successful people on the globe believed in it, or at least took it seriously.”
But Ascher’s film – comprising digital reenactments, footage from ’90s sci-fi movies and video games, and Skype interviews – spends less time with thought leaders than it does everyday people who suspect reality is less than real. Among the accounts: a pastor’s son, altered by a crisis of faith; a Harvard-educated engineer, convinced the numbers back up simulation theory after a string of unexplainable events; and a New Yorker, tracking synchronicities in his life, who utilises a sensory-deprivation tank.
To offer such subjects anonymity, 3D avatars are imposed over faces and upper bodies. Despite this artifice, Ascher approaches interviewees compassionately. “These projects are about letting an audience look at the world through another person’s eyes,” he says. “I remember sitting on my parent’s carpet in a sunbeam, looking at dust motes, struggling to understand some element of the world. I find those moments infinitely relatable.”
The film’s scariest story follows Joshua Cooke, who speaks from prison about the night his obsession with The Matrix crossed a horrifying line. His testimony is accompanied by a haunting walkthrough of his house and basement that Ascher heightens using animated photogrammetry. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t soliciting stories that I hoped would have a certain effect,” says Ascher, who first approached Cooke after learning his lawyers had considered attempting ‘the Matrix defence’ at trial, arguing he hadn’t known what was real at the time of his crimes. “I tried to be as true to his story, and to my reaction to hearing it, as possible.”
Might the Matrix defence have worked? Ascher’s films challenge audiences not to discount the ways art shapes our psychologies. “Previous generations that memorised the Bible would be able to compare their problems to Job’s,” he notes. “Now, [pop culture] is the language we all speak fluently.”
Ascher’s directorial choices dictate all his audience sees. Making movies that interrogate perception, the irony of that responsibility isn’t lost on him. He accounts for it by demolishing the wall between director and subject, appearing on camera and employing conspicuous edits to remind viewers they’re watching a movie. “Shooting a little off the edge of the sets, revealing the artifice of the recreations, is important to me,” explains Ascher. “I want to show my hand, to show that there’s a man behind the curtain.”
By dealing in psychological phenomena, Ascher steers away from objective truths. And in the case of A Glitch in the Matrix, that’s likely wise. Given that any evidence gathered in pursuit of simulation theory could itself be simulated, does he consider it possible to prove either way? “It’s an unanswerable question. But all these projects are much more about the questions than they are about the answers. Room 237, for me, is asking the question, ‘Who decides what a piece of art means? The artist, the audiences, critics, academics?’ And sleep paralysis in The Nightmare is asking the question of, ‘These things people see, these twilight experiences: do they come from inside, or do they come from outside?’”
A Glitch in the Matrix, meanwhile, captures people earnestly struggling with reality and their roles within it, simulated or not. “The question of ‘Are we all living in the [same] world, or are we all living in individual worlds?’ might be one this film is poking up against,” says Ascher. “Is there a way for us to find a consensus reality?”
Published 1 Feb 2021
By Al Horner
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