Part historical revue, part sociological examination, co-directors Axel Danielson (Kneg) and Maximilien Van Aertryck’s (Kneg) documentary And the king said, what a Fantastic Machine (also referred to simply as Fantastic Machine), premiering at Sundance Film Festival 2023, takes the audience through the history of photography from the very first still image all the way to the methods in which billions around the world upload stills and video each day. Though modern life contains an expectation of living within the frame thanks to the popularity of social media and the shift into content creation, the technology of photography is still new, barely 200 years old. Yet, its impact on society in the last 200 years is enormous, so much so that each new generation is given a different threshold to clear earlier and earlier in their lives as photography and cinematography pervade every aspect of life.
Narrated by Van Aertryck, Fantastic Machine slowly presents a case that, perhaps, the ways in which we use still and moving photography is, not so much a problem, but should be a concern. Using old footage, news reels, and other archived material, Danielson and Van Aertryck demonstrate the connection between photography as a newly discovered process with incredible capabilities and the ways in which humanity opts to use it. They show us a recreation of a coronation, a sequence which provides the generation of the documentary’s name; they show us footage of the early uses of moving pictures upon monetization; and they show us both the incorporation of broadcast technology by a country (Ireland in 1961) and the response to the first intercontinental broadcast by an audience in Wisconsin. Each time, there’s something marvelous and wondrous, full of possibility, and then there’s the turn toward unease and financial gain. For instance, in one sequence, we’re shown how, once still photography was mastered and turned into moving images, films became something of a side show experience where people could pay in order to be titillated. In another, how, over time, as the business of entertainment arose and the power of broadcast was evaluated, television sets became ubiquitous to households around the world. It’s not just that people became more educated by having television sets in their homes, it’s that, for some (as featured in the examples they use), television sets became a must-have, always-on device when home.
Though Fantastic Machine doesn’t come out and explicitly state its perspective, it presents its evidence in such a way that one can infer a certain cautionary look at the ways in which people use technology that has shrunk from a living room box set to fit in your pocket. The pivot from still images to video, not just for businesses in marketing, but for people as well, encourages everyone to record moments and upload them for enjoyment. Here, Danielson and Van Aertryck pull out examples of U.S.-based news organizations’ advertisements of election coverage (bombastic and intense as a means of inciting curiosity), one of the earliest viral videos of a woman injuring herself singing on a table, other videos of people injuring themselves, and clips of YouTuber Belle Delphine as examples of how corporate and individual broadcasting exists now. I may have felt quite uncomfortable watching the woman fall in the same way that the photo shoot with Viktoria Odintcova instills unease, but I’ve also spent time in marketing and PR and understand that people often seek out thrills. This is, of course, a way to look back at the early days of cinema when it was a side show, highlighting how far we’ve come in terms of technology, but our use of it is the same. In the Delphine segment, she discusses how she worked on developing her online personality so as to get views. It’s specific, it’s calculated, and it’s designed for her to profit. Fantastic Machine does not pass judgement (nor this reviewer) on Delphine for her work or Odintcova for her gumption, yet they are two examples of the ways in which people have taken a device that captures only what’s in front of it and used it to manipulate a narrative to fit how they desire to be seen. There’s a great deal of power and a great deal of danger there.
Not much time is spent in Fantastic Machine identifying the ways in which always-online or video culture risks damaging those who use it. There are, however, two examples they do utilize that do, quite effectively, make one’s blood run cold. The first is the historical footage during World War II of the arrival at a concentration camp and the disposal of bodies. In the footage utilized, it’s explained how the footage is shot specifically so that anyone who watches it can’t poke holes in it, can’t deny it, can’t find ways to imply or suggest that it was made up. It’s something, the speaker says, that is important in making sure that, as time goes on, people don’t forget about the atrocity. Listening to the specific technical approach to shooting the footage, I couldn’t help think of director Sam Mendes’s 1917 (2019), a World War I film shot to appear as a single-tracking shot. It’s an incredible achievement in cinematography, so much so that the film won three Academy Awards in the categories of Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing. That the techniques utilized to provide concrete evidence of pure horror could be replicated through precise cinematography and editing means that we’ve advanced to the point in which conspiracy theorists may have the means to deny historical fact. In the second, we observe anthropological footage from 1969 of the reclusive Biami tribe in Papua New Guinea seeing photos of themselves and hearing recordings of their voice for the first time, and the reaction by the individuals is extreme joy for some and incredible shame for others. Neither the anthropologist in the footage nor Danielson and Van Aertryck offer their interpretation of what either response means within the greater exploration of photographic technology, but one can certainly infer a meaning (though it will be directed by the audience’s own perception on the impact of images on the personal psyche). But, one doesn’t have to scroll far through Facebook’s video section before finding a video that offers instructions on how to hide your stomach in a photo, so — yeah — perhaps capturing one’s self permanently in a still or moving image does come with a psychological cost.
One thing that is brought up that’s worth spreading is the reinforcement that what you see online is being catered to you. Unlike television (which has its own methods of monitoring who’s watching what and how they feel about it), the internet is far more advanced in its broadcast measurement, utilizing algorithms to put in front of the audience exactly what they want to see, data-mining in real-time in order to provide the perfect thing to keep the audience in place. Are you dissatisfied with your TikTok experience? Upset that all you see are some version of partially nude individuals doing silly or sexy things? They aren’t showing that to you because they want you to see it, but because you’ve demonstrated an interest in those things. (Likely why my TikTok FYP is full of cosplayers, mental health advocates, and film-related nonsense.) What we have, what we carry around, what we use often without thought, it’s so ingrained in our behaviors now, is a fantastic machine, but it’s one that we could use to give more conscious thought to how we use it.
To that end, in our house, we don’t post photos of our children online, partially on the advice of my stepmother who works in protecting children from abuse and partially because we want our kids to own their digital identity. There aren’t photos or videos of my best and worst days online that will follow me until well past my death. I got to be embarrassing or embarrassed without lingering proof. There is no cultivated or curated life online for me and there isn’t for my kids. This doesn’t mean that I don’t talk about them or share things, but they get to decide for themselves who they are first and will take the reins on their digital existence later when they have a better chance to wield it with some manner of sense. I’m not sure if Danielson and Van Aertryck would approve (and I do not seek approval, theirs or others’), but I do think that they would, at the very least, appreciate the consideration of actions with the camera. One can always take a photo, but they can’t control anymore how it will be used or the story that is created with it. It’s truly a fantastic machine, but in the hands of the nefarious, it can be devastating, too.
Screening during Sundance Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantastic Machine Sundance Film Festival webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.