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“And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine” is a kaleidoscopic meta-selfie about how we see ourselves through photo and video images. It is sometimes dizzying, sometimes dazzling, sometimes barely touching on the issues it wants us to ponder more thoughtfully. The most compelling point may be made by the clip-after-clip format of the movie itself, as though writer/directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck are convinced by their research that none of us has more of an attention span than a mayfly.
And yet some of the film’s most memorable moments give us a little breathing room to absorb the information. Leni Riefenstahl watches the iconic “Triumph of the Will” propaganda film she made for Hitler, insisting that it had “nothing to do with politics” and that all she did was shape the material before her so it would have “a beginning, a middle, and an end” and “a thrill.” But as she looks over the footage of Nazis marching to the powerful music score that most people today find horrifying, she smiles, and her eyes glow with pride and pleasure.
Later, there is a segment on people who stream their lives, sometimes 24/7. An astonishing note as the images whiz by: a gamer who live-streamed his plays fell asleep at the console, and somehow, his viewers increased ten times. I’m guessing it was not because they wanted to watch him sleep—the few seconds we see of him sleeping in his chair are as boring and uncomfortably intrusive as you would expect. They wanted to see what he would do when he woke and found out how many people had been watching him. One of the longer segments in this section follows a live streamer as he gets into trouble, being threatened by a self-described gangster and ending up in a police car. Later, we see him confessing to his followers that the experience was traumatic.
This, probably his most authentic moment on camera, underscores one of the film’s core themes, the difference between the way we present ourselves, the way we hope to be seen, the way we are seen, and the way we are, often overlapping, never the same. This is glimpsed early on, as a young woman lets herself breathe and relax her stomach muscles after taking several photos in a pose she thought made her look more appealing. We see representatives of different countries presenting their votes in a Eurovision contest, apparently each on camera in his own country. But it turns out they’re all in the same studio, in front of a green screen. And then, it gets disturbing. We see outtakes from an ISIS propaganda video, a young man on camera trying hard to sound tough as he keeps forgetting his lines and their prop, a bird of prey, keeps squawking. He finally advises the off-camera people filming him that they can fix it in the edit.
The history is fascinating, as we are taken back to when people were enchanted by seeing photographic images just about 200 years ago. The title comes from a comment made by British King Edward VII on seeing the film of his coronation, the first ever filmed. Except it wasn’t. The great Georges Méliès, a brilliant filmmaker who pioneered special effects for his delightful fantasies, was commissioned by an American producer to film the coronation in 1902, but the British authorities would not allow him to have access. So, he hired French actors and filmed his own version of what he imagined it would be. Thus, it was able to be released the day after the real-life coronation took place. King Edward is reputed to have said, “The fantastic machine even found a way to record parts of the ceremony that did not take place.”
Throughout the film, there are questions about what is revealed and what is real. The Riefenstahl section is followed with a short excerpt from interviews with filmmaker Sidney Bernstein and editor Peter Tanner, who were charged with documenting the Nazi death camps so thoroughly that no one could ever say it was not true.
Is that even possible? So much of what we see in the archival footage here is about the importance of questioning what we see and the increasing sophistication of those monetizing our attention with whatever technical and psychological tricks they can think up. The whirlwind of clips and soundbites goes by very fast, asking questions that each deserve a full-length documentary or miniseries. It races from a how-to about defrosting your freezer to an ISIS tutorial on making a bomb. Netflix founder CEO Reed Hastings explains that he learned not to rely on customers’ responses about what they want: “People rate as their aspirational self.” They say they like “Schindler’s List,” but then they watch Adam Sandler. Similarly, in an interview with Ted Turner about his first superstation, he explains that it was intended to be “escapist ... We show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and let them forget their miserable life.” When asked what he’d do if other stations copied him, he smiled, “I’ll do the news.” And later, of course, he founded CNN.
The film is fun to watch and occasionally illuminating, but is over-packed and barely touches on the problems of scammers, the murky world of “influencers,” copycats who engage in dangerous or harmful behavior, or the infinite regression of people filming their reactions or their friends’ or children’s reactions to what they are watching. What kind of parent not only films a very young child seeing the death of Simba’s father in “The Lion King” but then posts it online for public consumption? Hmmm, hang on while I film and post a reaction to that reaction, and then someone else can film their reaction and post that.
Now playing in theaters.
Maximilien Van Aertryck as Narrator (voice)
Chris Anderson as Self (archive footage)
Joe Biden as Self (archive footage)
Tom Brokaw as Self (archive footage)
Edmund Carpenter as Self (archive footage)
Belle Delphine as Self (archive footage)
Park Dietz as Self (archive footage)
Adolf Hitler as Self (archive footage)
Kim Jong-un as Self (archive footage)
Xi Jinping as Self (archive footage)
Reed Hastings as Self (archive footage)