Cinema is an Open String: Two Early Shorts by Isiah Medina

by Ruairí McCann

Isiah Medina is chiefly known for two features, 88:88 (2015) and Inventing the Future (2020), whose simultaneous symbioses and differences put his uniqueness as a film artist in sharp relief. 88:88 is a constantly mobile, semi-docufictional chorus depicting a coterie of young, working-class Winnipeggers, their day in day out grinds, pleasures, frustrations, sorrows, discourses, tunes, fictions and aspirations. Inventing the Future is an adaptation of a 2015 programmatic left-wing text, authored by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, whose visions of a progressive, post-capitalist society hinges on the erasure of the capitalist work ethic and an embrace of automation and universal basic income. It’s a film that both relays and proselytises the book’s vision and materialises in many different forms—not through a particular social network in a particular city, but in a wide range of spaces, many of them abstract or even fantastical. 

These are two very different films and yet they are fundamentally entangled, beyond the fact that they’re made by the same filmmaker. Both works are diverging and dependent responses to the same set of lived experiences and thoughts about the exhaustion and alienation of living in a capitalist world while hoping for a better alternative. One (88:88) is a posteriori, largely concerned with present-tense problems and, to a degree, concerned with realism with its mix of documentary elements and quasi-naturalistic performances. The other (Inventing the Future) is a priori, projects itself into ‘a future’ and a series of abstracted and imagined scenarios, and many of its ‘performances’, for example the two figures engaged in a recurring Socratic dialogue, are decidedly non-realist. 

Inventing the Future (2020)

At risk of being reductionist, Inventing the Future is the treatise film and ‘solution or proposition’ posed in the wake of 88:88’s philosophical novel and ‘set of problems’. It shows Medina’s rare and deep commitment to cinema as a great philosophical toy and as a conduit for a radical political thought, with montage or ‘the cut’ as the engine for this visionary, intellectual potential. The stylistic variability and wealth of these two films also shows that while Medina rejects the dominant modes of narrative driven drama and realist representation, he hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bath water. Constituent parts of both modes can be found across cinema and made fresh by the new framework. 

The heady development of this young, singular artist can be tracked at New York’s Spectacle Theater across the month of August, with the retrospective ‘ISIAH MEDINA 2010-2020’. The programme includes both features, as well as a series of shorts ranging from 2010’s Semi-auto colours, completed before Medina left his teens, to Log2 (2020) and its hyperdense, rhyming swirl of matrices. Looking at his earliest work, specifically Semi-auto colours and Time is a sun (2012) reveals much of his ambitious form and preoccupations already set in motion.  

Semi-auto colours (2010)

Medina’s cinema frequently synthesises from his prodigious and elastic manipulation of digital imagery and editing, yet Semi-auto colours (2010) sees him fermenting his kaleidoscopic style (the maelstrom of images, with life presented as the headlong rush and persistent re-emergence of moments, and the non-synchronisation of sound and image) but not through digital gymnastics. Instead it’s shot on night-drenched 16mm. It’s a philosophical work and a hip-hop movie. Its soundtrack is a series of call and responses, of self-expression and observation, of rapped verses and (seemingly) unstructured utterances and dialogue. Visually, the film adopts a similar structure of vacillating between different degrees of overt stylization and performativity. Vignettes of Medina and friends fucking around and sounding off, captured seemingly unplanned and unvarnished, are plaited with overtly fictional sequences, like a stick-up of a corner-shop, or mundane moments that otherwise seem pre-planned than others. 

The prominence of rap hints that Medina saw an explosive potential in hip-hop. A medium not only capable of great pathos, emotional force and texture, but a kinetic cerebralism akin to what he sees and aims to forge in his chopped and screwed, thinking cinema. They’re peas in the pod, two phrenic arts, in that they situate the mind not only between our ears but close to our hearts, and vice versa. Hip-hop was the late 20th century’s most visionary new form. A folk music for a new day, which offered young Black and Latinx Americans in the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond, an artform which was DIY and social, yet also offered ground-breaking degrees of formal and intellectual freeform. This combination of quickness of mind, tongue and technology allows for advanced political and philosophical thought, bounteous plays between realist, futurist and symbolic representation and the critical and creative reappropriation from the reservoir of recorded music. Semi-auto colours then sits alongside Hype Williams’s sole feature film Belly (1998) in crafting a cinematic aesthetic for hip-hop that corresponds to its visionary qualities, rather than try to reign it in and make it fit a Hollywood, or a white European realist framework. 

Time is the sun (2012)

Another early work, Time is the sun (2012) is a whole-hearted embrace of digital cinema, with its scorched shards of distorted imagery and stacks of multiple exposures. The use of the verb and noun ‘cut’ to refer to editing or montage is more than a tad oxymoronic since it suggests discontinuity, severed relations, and terminus, when the cut not only means the end of a shot, a scenario, or an idea, but the birth of a new one. Medina bestows this embryonic quality to his approach to cinematography, not only in his cavalier layering of images—where at risk of confusion, a single frame can contain an abundance of different possible compositions—but in how he wields his camera, handheld, close-up, actively or potentially mobile rather than fixed. The film also sees Medina experimenting more with creating multifarious verbal amalgams; the piecing together of fragments of different conversations, from the ontological to the deeply emotional, which then reflect on each other.

Where Time is the sun stands apart is in its pacing. Most of Medina’s work moves spasmodically and at a breakneck pace, with the quality of someone with so much to say and show, racing against the clock of a fixed-length work. This film, however, moves at a relative crawl. Its pace accentuated by the soundtrack, primarily composed of a piano composition which has been slowed down into a yawning cluster of lo-fi frequencies. Its overall effect is still dizzying but also rueful. A collage that depicts living with the theoretical capacity for limitlessness. Yet actual living is a string of epiphanies and confusions, where intellectual life can be bracing but still must contend with the physically draining and time sucking powers of capitalism. 

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer, curator and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He has contributed to various publications, such as photogénie, Electric Ghost, aemi online, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]

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