The Movie that Watches You

by David Kordahl

The evidence that mass media can cause physiological responses in humans is so evident in our everyday experience that it’s easy to ignore. Subliminal muzak makes our fingers tap lightly on our grocery carts. Billboards with sexy models flush our cheeks during our daily commutes. But not all such stimuli are subtle. For those media products whose main purpose is to cause a physiological response, genre labels serve as warnings—e.g., we label items that make us laugh as comedy, items that turn us on as pornography, or items that trigger our fight-or-flight response as horror. Modern people have complex attitudes toward media that invoke a physiological response, and practitioners of such genres alternatively experience intense celebration and intense censure.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because two weeks ago I attended an experimental film that flipped the script on this model of physiological causation. And when I write “experimental film,” I mean the phrase literally. The Moment is edited in real time by an algorithm, responding to the signals from an EEG strapped to someone’s head. In this way, The Moment is an intriguing curiosity: a mass media object whose output not only causes physiological responses, but which is caused by them.

Now, I was skeptical about this approach even before I arrived—but these skeptical thoughts can wait. What needs to be addressed first is the mode of arrival, which will be familiar to most readers, post-2020.

I watched from Shreveport, Louisiana, sitting behind my laptop. The writer/director Richard Ramchurn introduced the film and fielded questions from Manchester, U.K., where the day’s EEG-wearers were also stationed. My old college friend Matt Voigts, who had invited me to the screening, and who was once a doctoral student at the University of Manchester with Ramchurn, logged on from the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the score was performed live by two musicians, Hallvarður Ásgeirsson, who joined from Iceland, and Scrubber Fox, who was also in Manchester.

Though the attendance numbers were low (when I checked, the counter on Twitch pegged the number of viewers at six), the underground theater vibe of the event was appealing. When I first heard about The Moment, I had been most interested in its technological aspect, but watching the musicians mess around with their electronic instruments—including, for one of them, a flickering oscilloscope—it really felt like a live show.

The movie itself was short, around a half-hour long, and the first time through it was hard to tell what was going on. This was partly due to my local ISP (it’s not Manchester’s fault if the internet lags in Louisiana), but even with the best possible projection I suspect viewers may be confused. Despite Matt’s explaining it to me more than once, I hadn’t appreciated beforehand how the academic R&D connected to the final experience.

What I understand now, having read the film’s website after the fact, is that The Moment is basically a straightforward science fiction movie, beneath its art-installation aesthetics and psych-experiment execution.

In story terms, The Moment is something like The Matrix without the pod people, the story of an individual consciousness rising above the collective mind. The synopsis on IMDb gives you some idea of what to expect:

The very near future. The interface between mind and machine has been perfected. […] This has led to an internet of minds called THE MOMENT. A perfect distributed network. But some of these nodes, like all data, are Outliers. And so they are rejected, pushed out of the network by the ‘valid’ minds.

These concepts are easy enough to see after watching the movie, and perhaps I should have done my homework before I arrived. The story begins as a militia of Moment-associated baddies takes out a family of Outliers, but one of them escapes to the forest. She is befriended by a lapsed militiaman, as the rest of the militia continues to stalk her. Meanwhile, a disembodied consciousness who has developed within The Moment has been secretly backing up the Outlier data sets, and this consciousness (whose voice emanates, heavily distorted, from a facelike swarm of pixel dust) works with the goodies to bring down the baddies.

Or something like that. As the filmmakers describe in a conference paper, three video tracks run simultaneously, and throughout the screening the EEG data mediates how often one flips between the possible tracks.

After the first viewing had wrapped, with the baddies bleeding out of their eyeballs, Richard Ramchurn fielded questions. The Twitch crowd mainly had questions relating to the process, rather than the movie itself. Are there story points that are always hit? Ramchurn considered. “Yes and no,” he answered. Is the aim to provide a more engaging experience for the viewer? Again, Ramchurn considered. Again, “Yes and no.”

Then we watched the movie once more—except of course it wasn’t the same movie. (In their conference paper, Ramchurn and collaborators claim The Moment has 101 trillion possible variations.) I enjoyed watching it better the second time around, as I could better follow the jumble of hallucinogenic imagery and conventional storytelling.

Once the show was over, I kept thinking about what I had watched. On the one hand, it was an impressive project, with a look (bisexual lighting, abstract animations, distorted visuals) that made canny use of its £50,000 budget. On the other hand, the callbacks to earlier science fiction films seemed pretty on-the-nose (cf. the red pill/blue pill imagery throughout), and it wasn’t clear to me whether the use of the EEG data had a significantly different effect from injecting another type of random noise.

I mean, let’s say that you watched the movie and hated it. Could that be blamed on the headset’s wearer? Some people are better readers than others. By the same token, are some people better suited to EEG editing?

Over a decade ago, the film critic Roger Ebert opined that video games could never be art, an opinion that branded him as out-of-touch by many young readers. But I sympathized with Ebert, since, like him, I was most interested in those artists who defined themselves as individuals, and whose art was in some way an expression of their atypical consciousness. My worry going into The Moment was that it might prove Ebert wrong, as an artwork whose algorithm might eliminate the need for creative vision. I’m still interested in such possibilities, but am relieved to report that The Moment isn’t like that. It’s a humanistic enterprise that brings cinema closer to the possibilities of live theater, incorporating new methods while retaining the traditional pleasures of the movies.

Tickets for upcoming showings of The Moment are available at the film’s website: