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Colin Marshall

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16. Doug Aitken's Electric Earth (1999)
[View Film]

I happen to have just read about this piece in Michael Rush's Video Art, an informative if somewhat stiffly-written and -designed tome on the form. If memory serves, the "proper" way to view Aitken's work would have been in a gallery, surrounded in all directions by screens playing different segments of the protagonist's lonesome wanderings. That is, not as a compressed web video.

But a compressed web video is what we have to work with, and so a compressed web video we shall discuss. I must say, though, that even thus hindered, Aitken's got one sharp cinematic eye. He has the film's lone character, after emerging from a static-staring daze in his hotel room, stroll and then dance through a variety of dimmed, empty urban environments, each seen more strikingly than the last. (Most of these shots qualify as eminently stealable.)

Aitken's own commentary on the piece reveals that the kid's walkabout takes him through not just one city, but a seamless patchwork -- if that's not an oxymoron -- of several. The resulting invented metropolis presents an equally forbidding and strangely welcoming (or at least non-threatening) landscape of 99-cent stores, laundromats, brown barren stretches, car washes and barbed wire. The protagonist doesn't stop to examine; he just keeps moving. And occasionally busts some moves.

This guy and his reactions (or lack thereof) to his subtly unusual surroundings are interesting enough, but I personally took more notice of Aitken's mastery of what Ozu called "pillow shots," pieces of transitional imagery meant to connect two parts of a narrative without its own connection to that narrative. If the narrative thread in Electric Earth is the kid's walking/popping path through the city -- and frankly, that's about as much narrative as I want these days -- then the pillow shots are all the details, closely observed, of the built environment: harshly angular streetlamps, blinking brake lights, rotating satellite dishes and security cameras, car wash hoses that move on their own, some kinda gnarly water tower.

Like Autumn, this one eventually turns unsettling. The trouble seems to start when our carefree hero can't convince a Coke machine to accept his crumpled dollar bill. (Cokes in 1999, by the way? Only 75 cents. Yeah, I couldn't believe it either.) Soon, he's shirtless, jittery and hyperventilating as a disorienting streak of city lights surround him. By the end he's back to what I assume is his normality, casually heading down a tunnel in silhouette. Whether he's returning to stare at static for a while I can't say.

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