Kinetics of Distraction
Simon Locker

This week the Loeb Art Center screened Supersymmetry, a new short film by Denise Iris, an accomplished filmmaker and Vassar professor. Video projections fracture the Arctic across two adjacent screens, assembling mirror images and wide-angle landscapes.

Supersymmetry begins with drifting ice interrupted by frames from within a wave, where water curls and warps in rapid motion. The two shots of this opening sequence stand for the film’s success as a whole: Iris gives us recycled images of the earth that are redeemed by momentary investigations of its elemental complexity. Supersymmetry is a reproduction of the media’s stagnant language of the Arctic punctuated by lucid moments of visual experimentation that isolate and transfigure the inner life of water and ice.

The film’s protagonist tells us that he has lost his partner (along with his food and supplies) while traversing the arctic. His voice is heavily distorted and drawn out, a vocal effect that immediately struck me as out of sync with the Arctic world that Iris had begun to represent visually. The character’s groans are low, slow, and grating, like the kind of horror movie creature that is more comic than abject.

After a few lines, it is clear that the film’s dialogue will remain in tension with its visual strength. While at times the camera breathes new life into the forms of the Arctic, the protagonist’s narration rests in overplayed ideas conveyed in less than imaginative language. Stranded, the man heads towards the coast in the hopes of being discovered by a passing ship. Death seems certain, and he asks “Have I given enough? Have I loved enough? What have I done with my life?” These baseline reflections seem flat and out of touch with the immense ecology captured by the camera.

The film is broken up into six chapters, whose titles try to imply the protagonist’s precarity: “Fifth Hour Before Last,” “Fourth Hour Before Last” and so on. Only, Iris’s narrative doesn’t need this kind of segmentation, and it seems arbitrary to divide the film into six parts. At each division, the chapter transitions break up whatever momentum the camera had begun to generate on its own. This feeling that the chapters are superfluous is doubled by their inconsequential subtitles: “On the Wings of Maybe” or worse, “Manunkind” and “Halluminations” read like the episodes of a Netflix docuseries and are forgotten shortly after their title cards.

As he walks across the ice, the stranded man descends into a kind of madness that pushes questions like “what have I achieved,” into meditations a little more unmoored, yet still lacking in real density, in weight. He says that he is “all the forms of water,” enamored with the “crystal beings” that surround him. He witnesses a vital life in the material of the Arctic. It is in this state of trance that Supersymmetry begins to reject the BBC template of a remote and impossible earth, and chart new ways to imagine the Arctic.

Iris’s camera excavates the inner life of crystal beings. These moments of madness are the film’s greatest accomplishment, creating striking experiments with ice, water, and sound, moving images that are interesting enough to stand alone as Supersymmetry, without the contrived narrative and dialogue. The mountains and coastline give way to microscopic shots of water in transformation, and the lens begins to digest the kinetic properties of the Arctic. Assisted by the projection design, Iris presents warping, kaleidoscopic slides that bend, crystalize, and dance with light. Water agglutinates, sublimates, and fizzes into minute pockets of air. Lattice-works of ice become infinitely complex, protean surfaces that fluctuate under the pressures of heat and current. The temperature drops, and the viewer is provided with an new way to see these everyday forms.

One shot zooms in on a melting piece of ice, a clear nod to the waning polar ice cap. For our entranced protagonist, the annihilation of the crystal beings is an “infinite pity.” The West’s destruction of the earth surely is, but does Supersymmetry really understand the scope and structure of that sorrow?

When the stranded man is rescued by a passing ship at the end of the film, we learn from the vessel’s mast and furled sails that the narrative takes place during some period of European presence in the Arctic that predates the steamship. Like much of our contemporary moving-image culture, exactly when in the past remains uncertain, the text unfolds in the field of quasi-history, where jumbled historical attitudes and characteristics mystify actual processes of historical transformation. What was our protagonist doing in the Arctic, and who sent him? Iris provokes these questions, but their answers inevitably tie into the politics of global warming. To fully arrest the dominant narrative of climate crisis, we need to recollect a historical pattern of degradation in which the earth suffers for the benefit of Western capital.

Our image culture conjures specters of climate crisis without ever representing the material and political conditions responsible for destruction. Netflix gives us lone polar bears swimming desperately between slivers of ice, but we never get an indictment of the system of mass consumption which actually imperils life on earth. The annihilation of “crystal beings,” the end of ice, in the last instance, is a casualty of modern global capitalism and the extractive mechanism of Western empire. The liberal iconography of the earth absolves capital and the state of its central role in triggering climate crisis, and instead offloads the responsibility for destroying the earth on to individual viewers.

In its best moments, Iris intervenes in this iconography, giving us fragments that erode and undermine the images of the Arctic that circulate in the media. Yet, for all its visual experimentation, by leaving unpacked its own historical domain and crowding out its crystal beings with a comparatively ineffective narrative, the film remains subject to a territory of distortion which has already been well charted. Supersymmetry is a kinetics of distraction, whereby climate crisis becomes a tragic but elusive phenomenon played out not on the level of real life, but as a metaphysical fascination along the borders of reality.