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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 10.13.10] Canada movie review thriller mystery experimental

Year: 2010
Directors: Daniel Cockburn
Writers: Daniel Cockburn
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 9 out of 10

[Editor's note: I have to chime in here because I really loved this film.]

OK, everyone here? Let’s get this out right up front: You Are Here is a very clever, endlessly fascinating, ultimately enigmatic mystery story you’ll have the immense pleasure of experiencing, but not really understanding.

You read right. You’re not going to really get it, no matter how much fun you have trying, because, oddly enough, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Sure, you can come to a conclusion – this review does – but how you think this mystery operates is basically a function of what you bring to the party. According to writer/director Daniel Cockburn, You Are Here is a kind of “meta-detective story” insofar as “the audience has to decide how to deal with the clues. The audience is a detective in a sense. I didn’t really clarify things.”

That is one heck of an understatement.

You Are Here is designed to baffle yet amuse you at almost every turn. Even the form is disjointed, as Cockburn decided to tell his story as a sort of collage-on-an-unnamed-theme, a series of unexplained and intercut scenes of characters involved in various activities of a social or personal nature, in what appears to be a futuristic urban society. Yes, there are elements of science fiction involved. Each of these mini-stories, as Cockburn suggests, represents a series of “clues” – wacky little playlets of absurdity beefed up with a concealed intelligence – which appear to circle some kind of empathic black hole of meaning that finally culminates in the form of an obsessive archivist of castoff communications, a hoarder of undecipherable bits of too-subjective ciphers from the lives of others.

When you don’t know what the mystery is, everything is a clue. So everything seems to take on enhanced meaning, especially what we learn first. Obviously a literary man, Cockburn tosses us into the deep end before the water is even calm, kicking off with what appears to be some kind of philosophic or self-help lecturer showing a film of some waves… contemplate the motion, he tells his audience… are you watching one spot? Or are you following a certain wave? Or are you following the red dot of the laser pointer as the lecturer moves it over the screen? “For your sake, I hope you’re not following the red dot”, the lecturer warns, “because it’s your enemy. Oh yes, it is your guide, but for that very reason it is also your nemesis. So you must follow it, but ignore it as you do. And if you can accomplish that impossible task, ignoring your guide, even as you follow him, then you will go where you need to go. If you can accomplish this… then you will have arrived.”

I’m betting that’s the key to this story, all wrapped in a nice foreshadowed nutshell. Look at the Big Picture, but still see the little Red Dot. At this point you think it’s all Zen for Men, but as the stories progress you realize in almost all the setpiece scenes there’s a red dot of some sort, and most of the time it’s too apparently central to the meaning of that little story, and therefore pretty well impossible for us to ignore as well. Howso? Well, once we’re aware of it’s symbolic value, we tend to notice and analyze it even if we don’t know what it symbolizes, even if we’ve been told we shouldn’t. It’s enough to give you a headache. One surmises the red dot means something central to the theme, but to discover that we have to ignore its siren call and enter the world of the meta, and try take in the largest picture possible while whatever is flicking that little red dot around tries to dominate your attention.

The problem with this approach is Cockburn’s devilish decision to express his very large ideas in the most miniscule way possible. By looking at a quanta he can explore the universal and still keep his enigma factor high enough to obscure the message. And what absurdly self-contained ideas they are! Two have already been described elsewhere, so I won’t count these as spoilers. The first, and funniest, is an experiment a scientist runs on himself to study consciousness. He’s locked in a cell-like room with a desk, pencil, paper, and a bookshelf of large, red books. A piece of paper appears under his door. It’s in Chinese, which he doesn’t understand. However, the books have all the answers. They’re hilarious! Book one starts with: 1. Does the first ideogram look like this? Ideogram is shown. If it does, go to step 10,845… and so on thru every possible permutation… The books identify all the symbols, translate them and create a correct response in Chinese. It takes the scientist months of endless labor. Finally, his experiment is finished: Is there any consciousness in this system? No. Would the scientist try it again? No.

Well, what to make of that? Fascinating. There’s more, but you have to see this clean, so just one other example, as we enter the world of the obsessed female archivist, who walks every day until she finds some castoff junk – cds, tapes, writings, dvds, video, maps – which she takes home, scrutinizes, carefully catalogues and stores away in her shelf-filled apartment. She’s trying to piece something together and she doesn’t know what it is (Mr Jones), but for some reason she feels the answers will appear when the vast amount of “other lives” flotsam she’s collected is not researched and understood, but merely properly arranged. In many ways, she represents us watching this movie, as the communications she collects are wonderful little surreal non sequiturs begging for meaning, but remain impervious to the reach of her mind. In the face of the mystery, her main concern is not in trying to understand these snippets of information – even though some seem directed at her -- but in keeping track of where she’s stored them. I know, seems silly. But then they start to move. Is it them, or her? She doesn’t know. But this revelation of uselessness changes her. Her organized hoarding is useful to us, however, as amazingly she finds and takes in snippets of the other stories in the movie. What she finds is all part of the greater collage, and the basic fabric of the mystery of what’s going on.

And on it goes, with many other fantastically clever and surprising twists in other clue segments that also all seem to be veering to or circling some central idea. This must be the meta concept holding these pieces together, yet ignoring them at the same time. Cockburn has created a sort of book of linked short stories that explore a number of futuristic aspects of modern-day western culture, cleverly symbolized in highly imaginative creations, all of which, when taken together, reveals the inanity or insanity of our lives. But in the nicest possible non-clarified way. Is this a clever anti-capitalist rant? Could be. But it could be all sorts of other things, too. It could represent he loss of ego in a society dominated by the superego, resulting in personalities minimalized or warped by external, irrational forces. But that’s the beauty of these open-ended mysteries. If they’re good, everyone will be able to plug themselves in and get their own jolt. For me, You Are Here is a sort of Ballardian shot across the bows, a red warning flag that those without the intellectual ability, the imagination to ignore the guide while still being led, will tend to tribalize into Mindless Followers, with apparently unhappy results. But hey, it’s a job.

Shot for an estimated $75,000 in Toronto, Canada, You Are Here far surpasses its meager budget in impact, mostly probably entirely due to the cleverness smarts of Cockburn, whose script and vision give us the sheer fun of pondering the many or few connections between and among all these disparate yet similar thought experiments, and wondering about the actual meaning of the guide that should be followed, yet ignored. I can hear one hand clapping, too.
You Are Here. It’s like a big map and you’re where the arrow is. Unfortunately this map has no identification marks, just a series of connected buildings in no particular order. And you’re at the edge. Time to step on the moving platform. But no matter where your mind ends up, it’ll thank you for an amazing journey, and hopefully you’ll have the opportunity to wander through this mystery… more than once. I give You Are Here a full Wayne Montana.

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Pierre (11 years ago) Reply

I didn't want to read the whole thing and spoil any more of it for myself, but the red dot lead off sounded fucking great.

The set up sounds very Jarmuschian.

Can't wait to see this and RIP Tracy Wright.


Kurt (11 years ago) Reply

Although not for everyone, those who like YOU ARE HERE like it a lot, myself included. This film is awesome, smart and above all, very very funny.

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