Monday, September 23, 2019

Pulse (2001)

I recently watched a long, unedited clip of footage captured by a CBS news cameraman who was caught beneath the WTC when the North Tower came down in 2001. 

I have such vivid memories of that day that I find it hard to comprehend that it is now a generation away. 

I was on the phone to colleague working from home with the news on in the background when the second plane hit. Shortly afterwards another colleague seated beside me was on the phone to her mother who was fleeing north along Broadway on a bus, describing people jumping from the windows. 

There appears to be a sort of fixed nowness to these moments. 

But a viewing this week of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001) has reminded me just how distant 9-11 really is. 

One can watch the footage and reflect on the absence of smartphones and their cameras. But Kurosawa’s movie is set in a time and place where the online world was literally a very different realm altogether. 

Japan was perhaps always a little behind in this respect. On my first visit in 2010 I struggled to get online in hotels requiring cables and adaptors and there was almost no easy access to wifi out on the streets. Some knowledge of Kanji (or above-average ability at guess-work) seemed to be prerequisite for logging on to any ISP, just as it was for taking out cash from an ATM in Kyoto. 

Watching these young Japanese students wrestle with dial-up and obscure chat rooms and bulletin boards has reminded me of the innate mood of social isolation that was an unavoidable part of the ‘anonymous’ digital experience throughout the 90s. This Internet is almost completely different to the one we have now. For one thing, it was optional. And there was no clear distinction between the dark and bright webs; it was all a bit crepuscular. 

The supernatural contents of this ultimately apocalyptic movie are an open-ended metaphor for real-life loneliness and deadening effect of urban routines. The after-life is finite, one character speculates, and now these surplus lost souls are leaking back into our world via our devices. The affected young people first find a floppy disk which leads them to a place online called the Forbidden Room where limbo is awaiting its moment of infiltration. 

"On the Internet nobody knows if you are (really) alive"...

I cannot say I fully understood this film on a rational level, but it has left me suitably disturbed. 

One of the most unnerving questions it transmits as an aside is this. If death could be cured by a pill, how would you choose to lead your eternal life? 

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