A young man is recounting to me—he is recounting to someone, but as I am indissolubly present to hear he is talking to me—the precise location of where he grew up, and as he talks, he makes indications on Google Earth, zooming into the location of a house, a parked trailer, the porch of a cottage where with his friend on a hot evening he looked up to see shooting stars. It’s amazing how at once for him two things are happening: he’s having an ecstatic experience, since gazing at the computer screen where these places “are” he stands outside the self who actually experienced that childhood, the self that moved from place to place with a memory and with no insight into the future. And also, he’s looking down on his whole life from some position in the stratosphere, some ideal position, pointing out this house and that trailer as though arranging a target practice or as though giving a geography lesson. Any of us with a computer could do this at any moment, jump away from the screen and the room, the fingertips, the cup of tea, to the map that gives delicious proportion and detail, that pinpoints, that fixes us in bounded and measurable space. “My house.” “The house where I lived.” “The room where I am writing you this . . .”
The owner of this voice plays a game called Second Life, which is, as I contemplate it, both a dream and a nightmare, both a challenge and a retreat. Essentially, one conceives of a reality one would like to inhabit and creates it on the screen. Then one spends time there, in habitation. Now our young man and his girlfriend are recounting their “house,” which has two large television screens. We actually peek into the living room, which may be in Hawaii; on the television is a hockey game and outside the surf laps into a delicious little beachhead with waving palms. Another player now, a middle-aged woman, admits she fell in love with a young gentleman, who was married—but she didn’t care, she was in love. One day, out of the blue, yet in real life, not in the game, he drowned. She tells us it was the most horrible thing that ever happened “in her life,” and also that she never met this person, knew him only online. Part of her imagination is gone forever, perhaps not.
What space and time are we occupying when we consider the accounts these users are giving in Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita’s The Cat, The Reverend and the Slave (2010)? The hockey game is on a television screen, but it’s not a real television. The woman who now wants to plant a tree for her lost love never met that love. Tom, a young husband from Kansas, is running what he doesn’t want to admit is a porn site, but in a private phase of his second life he wanders onto a huge stage—a stage lit with gaslights from the front, as in the late nineteenth century—and sits at a piano playing Chopin. In the program he has the body of a man but the head and tail of a cartoon lion.
As we listen to the waltz, a familiar lovely tune that goes up and down and ultimately nowhere; and as we then cut to the fingers of Tom’s wife Vanessa–one of those obese American Midwesterners who’s evidently been overconsuming high fructose corn syrup, that (poisonous) additive of choice in mass produced food in the West—as she peeks into his business to see whether his virtual “escorts” are subverting her moral code (which moral code, her code here in this house in the middle of America or her code in some second life she is living out while she keyboards?); as we make this jump, suddenly we realise the art in those fingers of hers. Vanessa plays that keyboard like a pensive virtuoso, searching to capture her husband in his filth, just in the way his screen lion plays that Chopin, delicately, with beautiful phrasing, a real virtuoso, searching to capture the simplicity. Of course at his own keyboard the husband is touching computer keys to make that lion touch piano keys. Keyboarding as life. From the street, we see the house, perfectly serviceable but not particularly lovely, and realise that it sits in an ecology that is slowly going to waste. Second Life makes it possible to dispense with the gravity of a world that is holding us back, a world in which, as one of a group of young women complains, we’re asked to feed the poor, save the whales, do this, do that, so much that finally we do nothing. The game offers a simpler solution: migrate to something better, migrate by way of the fingers. And then it becomes clear that, of course!, the man who would like to be a lion cannot play the piano at all. His “keyboard” is as far from a piano keyboard as the blips in Google Earth are far from the room in which I am typing this sentence. We can even keyboard beyond the gravity of inability and powerlessness.
Second Life is programmed. Which is to say, it has been programmed. Programmed by Them, Then. Every moment of delirious “spontaneous” existence in the world of one’s dreams, one’s virtual space, is a gift from and an enticement by Them, They who are and were invisible but always present, the gods. Those who came before, the Hinterweltlern. A macro-close-up of the face as Tom works his lion, blue light twinkling in his feverish eyes. The eyes are feverish not for Chopin, not for sex (which is undoubtably somehow accompanying Chopin), but for simply being there, for the attachment to that world. For being there but not here, there as well as here. Not paying the mortgage, not tasting one’s food, not looking up at the stars, but decorating the “house,” looking at the “veranda where I looked up at the stars.” The lion avatar is blue with lust now—Chopin slips on in the background, since spaces online can be merged—and has a throbbing nymphet spread over his lap. “Feed me grapes” floats in the air in a text bubble. Who is saying this? Is the lion asking for grapes? The girl? Our young husband, programming all this or playing it? “Hands, hold you poison or grapes?” Dylan Thomas once wrote.
It is night. There is a moon, but not only do cinematic moons look like real moons, virtual moons might look like cinematic moons. Moon, at any rate. The perfectly imagist extraction of a thing in its manifestation from the context or placement through which we give it meaning. “Moon,” without the meaning of moon. Un-moony moon. Second Life is part of this man’s animal being, his very body. He wakes at 3:30 in the morning and logs on immediately for an hour before even having his coffee, before showering, before preparing to leave for work. Friends around the world, different time zones. He has many “friends.” It is worth saying that his marriage appears to be empty, his wife even inimical. The virtual world he has created is richer and more replete with adventure and form than the world he is forced to make that coffee in.
[Excuse me for a moment while I interrupt this writing to visit my Facebook page and check with my friends, one of whom is the editor who will publish these words, thus closing a kind of loop. How I would love to believe that my online interfaces are not the same flirtations with the psychotic that I believe I am watching in this film!]
Tom and Vanessa have been fighting about their relationship, by the way, or about their “relationship,” it’s hard to be certain, and she is beginning to wonder whether she has married a pimp. Indeed, whenever Della Negra and Kinoshita give us a glimpse of the Second Life world it is filled with bodies excessively nubile, thrusting, twitching, gyrating hungrily in very skimpy garb. We surely need a break from this. Cut to an ordinary-looking man mowing his lawn. Back and forth on the green grass. Yes! What’s he thinking, though? That he should hurry to finish so that he can get back to his keyboard? . . .
We are in Shepardville Kentucky with a person who is sometimes a man named Kris (who pumps gas) and sometimes a woman named Lisa (who meditates on the sex slaves she would like to own). Kris walks home, past bungalows lit by the late afternoon sun. Every one of these places, the quintessential font of the everyday, is suddenly now a haven for strange beings clustered around their computers, eating as they type, ejecting themselves from our world.
Is there room for purity in Second Life, or in this film? We move without warning to Harrisonberg Virginia to meet Benjamin Paltz, who goes online as the Reverend Benjamin Psaltery in a church that he has built. Superman worships there, among others. Paltz preaches to his congregation that they need truth and peace and the love of Jesus. Certainly he desires cleanliness, and we briefly see him with his wife doing the laundry at a magnificently post-Bauhaus Clean ‘n Brite laundromat, all gleaming aluminum and brightly painted plastic, and not a speck of dust to be seen. The illumination is a flattening, purifying fluorescence emanating from some unquestionable capitalist-industrial nirvana that will provide all things to all people in all ways at all times.
As they speak to us, all of these people have a delicious self-consciousness before the camera. Rather than rendering the moments false, this little spice heightens and sharpens each phrase they utter and makes us desire intensely to be close to them. The Reverend is frying something in a large pan in his kitchen. With exquisite matter-of-factness he drawls, “My mother was driving through Pennsylvania, which was when she got saved.” His wife: “I had mine in the shower.” That shower really changed her because thinking of it even now she’s getting goosebumps from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, and admitting that she talks in tongues, “Something in a second tongue that I don’t know, but God knows.” They have migrated to the real church now, to talk to their real spiritual leader, a man who appreciates the undertaking these two young parishioners are committed to. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” he tells them, with great seriousness. “That’s where I want to be. That’s where I intend to be.” He says, too, something perhaps a little obvious, but no less chilling for all that: “This is like, to me, like in Star Trek, a new frontier, someplace where no man has ever gone before.” Now, with a movie-star smile, all teeth, he swoops off in his own spaceship, an apple-red convertible suitable for this master of the commercial impulse.
As this film winds on, the situations become at once more philosophically precarious and more banal, which is one of the reasons the experience of watching it is so electrifying. In Anatole Beach, California we meet a man who is certain that he is a cat, especially since cats are so ADHD. He leads us to a dance where a few dozen folk, devoted to the idea of being furry, have dressed in animal costumes. As they parade down a sterile hallway, a maintenance worker walks the other way in his t-shirt, and in a flash we understand the t-shirt as a costume, too, and the stolid face the worker wears as only his mask. Everyone everywhere costumed and masked. And everyone everywhere wanting to be someplace else.
What is utterly remarkable about cinema—and this film somehow brings this fact into stunning clarity—is its ability to proliferate images, to extend a demonstration, to keep us watching while it shows more and more of something we had never expected to watch. While it can glimpse, that is, cinema can also gape and devour. Here, spread out for us, a vast array of thrilled participants to a macabre and unholy ceremony of some kind, their hands spread upon their keyboards, their working lives all spent in grinding out a paycheck to support them as they enter their new worlds. Pennsylvania, Virginia, California, wherever. The dutiful but patient and very receptive form of the camera, waiting, listening, hearing without fulfillment, not straining to grasp but only standing to witness. The sense of otherworldliness that has permeated to the depths of the culture, that is behind every door, that every polite face conceals. The buried desire: for orgasm, for Christ, for truth, for vision, for something else. And the sense always as we watch that we are both here and not here, that everyone we are seeing is with us only provisionally, and not in the way that we would most conventionally assume. Also, a stunning thought: all of our civilization, our art, our politics, our geography, our history—insufficient and discardable, or only the substance out of which some newer and greater universe is being imagined.
For a finale we move to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, and a Burning Man cult. This is clearly millennialism, apocalyptic longing. There are so many participants that their tents, fanned out, make a circle two miles in diameter and expanding. We see it from the air, but not in Google Earth, in real space. The vast shifting sands, the howling wind, the white tents making a city of the future. “In the future,” a man informs us, “our technology will reach a point where we will have the capability to be here, physically, and also be there.” But more than merely huddling against the cold, this film suggests, we gather into unity, by projecting our desire in to virtual space. We are living in wish fulfillment, therefore in dream. And the Internet has made possible a gateway to a future we might never have considered possible, one where we can all, at once, and beyond ourselves, in dreams awake.
There are also mysteries that riddle this film from start to finish. We will never solve them, and so they are a pleasing affront to that morbid principle of knowing and understanding which underlies so much documentary film and makes it essentially unwatchable. Kris letting his hair down and turning into Lisa. The Reverend’s almost miniscule little chuckle at the moment his wife admits she found Jesus in the shower. And here in the desert of Nevada, at twilight, in the middle of a revel that would tickle Mikhail Bakhtin and Timothy Leary—in a shot that lasts only a few seconds before dying, becoming the past—this: Upon a spit, a man is turning a nude woman wrapped entirely in cellophane. She wears sunglasses, her mouth is stuck into a fat breathing tube. Under her is what looks like a brazier. Is she having fun? Is she hoping to lose weight? Is she being tortured by someone who commands her, as Kris wishes to command his slaves? Is she acting out a fantasy in another “world,” being in actuality only a timid secretary or housewife or dental assistant from Minneapolis? It takes a moment as she turns—a man is cranking her around and around: her mate?—to realise that inside the cellophane she is truly there, breathing as the world spins round. As here, also in the whole film: the experience of Second Life is presented as lumpen and hopeless, the users we meet all trapped in one-way fruitless jobs, preaching to those who aren’t listening, fantasising their power, managing “businesses,” gathering and spending “money.” We don’t see the university-educated using Second Life, or the aristocracy, both of which groups have found other escape hatches, to be sure, or feel no need to be anywhere else.
The Burners are circling through the night now, around a colossal icon that is in flames. The red fire radiates into the night, a pyre on which our conventional first life is going up in smoke or else the signal of a new world being born. Perhaps archaeologists in the future will discover in this beautiful film the first seeds of their own powerful techno-heaven, unimaginable now to us except through these rough rudiments, these games, yet in itself and finally a way of being for the human race exactly what some of our futurists have always thought we needed: a transcendence of humanity. The Cat, the Reverend and the Slave is thus science fiction at its best, perhaps heralding a world in which, if pollution is everywhere, the forests razed, the cities crumbled, the oceans gone sour, the farms foreclosed, the intelligentsia drugged, still mankind, always hopeful at its interface—keyboard, cerebral implant—daydreams itself off to its private theater, a place at once both here and there.
The French version of this piece, “Donne-moi du raisin,” appeared in Capricci from Éditions Capricci (Paris, 2010).