“There is no such thing as possibility”
I am not the target audience for a film like Isiah Medina‘s debut feature 88:88. It’s not simply because the 65-minute kaleidoscope of imagery and sound is an avant-garde experiment in formalism either—although that is a factor. The real reason is my never knowing poverty. I’ve never experienced living paycheck-to-paycheck or needing to choose what I can do without this month. To me a scene depicting a couple cutting their donut and Whopper in half is about love, compromise, and maybe even health consciousness. But once I read interpretations of the film that delved into Medina’s artistic intent I discovered the real meaning of that scene was survival. It’s about having only enough for one meal and making do because you have no other choice.
Because I cannot enter the film from that mindset it all becomes surface aesthetic and jumbled words. Passages read aloud from some textbook about time as told through mathematics cuts in and out along with rap lyrics, heartfelt soliloquies, and noise. For me it’s a collage to stimulate the senses—a cold, calculating rhythm to experience removed from meaning or intent. And on that level it works. I loved a moment where white birds are superimposed above a purple sky before fading away into the light-refracted glow of dust particles dancing where wings flapped a second earlier. I love the abstract strobe of black and white images with negative sprockets intact as red spark lines flicker in the corner. It’s beautiful and challenging and concrete.
What it wasn’t for me is emotionally deep because I couldn’t see the experience onscreen beyond that formalism. There’s only one moment where I felt something in my soul and it’s the somber existential rant of a voice breaking down as he relays the suffering of his life. Hearing him lament about his mother’s poverty, his father’s death wish, and his brother’s excess while he questions his purpose, his love, and his identity is a remarkably powerful segment. Here is this broken young man of whom we hear the tears well in his eyes juxtaposed against visuals of two friends laughing and teaching a group of neighborhood kids about some unknown topic. It’s the perfect expression of internal tumult versus an exterior façade’s false promise.
But this occurs 25 minutes into the whole and by that time I had already checked out from trying to understand the message behind the sensory adventure I wanted to envelop me. I had already given up wondering who the characters were, what their relationship was to one another, and whether or not the scenes were present-day or distant memory. I stopped listening to the layers of words being spoken and abruptly cut to pieces as anything worth cognitive function. I began treating the text as melody, the staccato words as beats for the possibly random comings and goings of video footage fading in and out, overlapping, cropping, and blowing up to fuzzy square pixels of agonizing screams. And then the repetition commenced.
The synopsis tells me this maneuver depicts the idea of suspension, of impoverished citizens struggling to get by who find themselves caught frozen in the blinking light of an alarm clock’s reset 88:88 to –:– display. We hear conversations and see images already seen—albeit filtered or monochrome as though distressed copies disintegrating under the futility of anguished defeat—and it’s apparently an abstract homage to Groundhog Day‘s never-ending cycle of crisis. Sure it makes sense now that I read the description, but I’m sorry to say I didn’t get it at all from the work itself. That’s okay, though, because experimental art should be held by subjective means. One man sees himself onscreen and another merely home movies made into an attractively animated canvas.
I’m the latter. I see the surface and appreciate its beauty. Could it have been 30 minutes and achieved the same result? Yes. But to others every single second of carefully manipulated and combined footage captured on various mediums is necessary to fully understand the emptiness within them and know they’re not alone. This is art’s transcendent potential—to touch someone so deeply that he believes it was made especially for him. 88:88 very obviously has that capacity and it’s succeeded for many viewers. Because I’m not one of them doesn’t mean it failed. It just wasn’t made for me. I’m okay judging it purely on aesthetics alone and enjoying Medina’s ability to buck convention to do his thing. But I do wish I felt more.
courtesy of TIFF