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Systematic Abstraction: The Live Generation of 'Eno.'

Last night, I watched a live iteration of the generative film Eno. at the Miracle Theater in Washington D.C. This experimental documentary tracing the artistry of musician Brian Eno boasts a special quirk: each screening is completely unique. Thanks to the design of a special anamorphic software, each “rendition” of the film-slash-art-installation pulls different scenes from the immense footage bank compiled by director Gary Hustwit and his team.

The film’s first generation was shared at Sundance Film Festival back in January, and since then has sparked discussion about the future of specialized viewing. Unlike the “choose-your-own-adventure” style of the interactive Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, this project, aside from the minor controls set by the filmmaking team, is left entirely up to the software. Hustwit, who was present at the film for a Q&A, acknowledged that there is not currently a program to accommodate the project for streaming.


To boil it down, the film is composed of a series of edited assets from different periods in Eno’s life. Some are home videos, some are TV interviews, some are talking heads conducted by the director in present-day. There is also an explanation of Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” – instruction cards that Eno used to provoke creativity in his collaborators, such as The Talking Heads and David Bowie, while serving as their producer. The cards say anything from “destroy the most important thing” to “ask your body.” Hustwit arranged for figures from Eno’s life, such as David Byrne, to read the instruction cards directly to the camera. The software randomly selected one of the card readings and programmed it into the film. In this live iteration of the documentary, Byrne simply read “take a break,” and the film responded accordingly: the entire screen went black for 15 seconds. 

There are infinite combinations of footage for the film to take in its roughly 90-minute frame – Hustwit admitted that the runtime is also subject to variation. The tape rewinding, morph cut transitions between scenes drive home the notion that you are watching something organic in creation. It also evidently plays into Eno’s reputation as an artist. Hustwit and Eno had previously collaborated on Hustwit’s 2018 documentary Rams, for which Eno provided the score. Hustwit shared with the audience that the idea for the generative documentary preceded the desire to make a film about Eno, as many other filmmakers had tried and failed on that quest. But Eno seemed like the perfect subject for the experiment, and he was ultimately convinced after Hustwit presented a sample of the generative technology using clips from his concerts. After the interruption of the pandemic, they were able to make the idea a reality.


During the Q&A, Hustwit invoked David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) as an effective film to be put through the software, which drives home many of the guiding ideas of the documentary. Dreams, as explored in Lynch’s film, are subject to seemingly random turns when considered in the confines of reality, but somehow move fluidly from idea to idea during REM. The same is true of memory. Eno kept extensive diaries, in words and pictures, that helped him to rediscover old ideas during the film’s archival process. Outside of deliberate reminiscence, humans are also able to involuntarily recall things based on their senses, and one recollection might indirectly lead to the generation of another.

Eno declares that “feelings are the beginnings of thoughts.” Those feelings can be both familiar or new. In an interview from the ‘90s, he admits that he became famous for musical abstractions, not because he was the first person to feel them, but because he might’ve been a little more gifted in articulating them. Such ideas include “the space in between,” to explicate his fondness for androgeny in the ‘70s, or evolutionary theories that prove that something simple can become much more complicated as a result of its surroundings.


Eno notes a hue of watercolor purple, the impulses of nature, and the jazz doo-wop of African American musicians as opening up his sense of sensory wonder. He gushes over all the little details that made him tick and question and build his passion. And he is still discovering today – he explains his recent decision to stop eating breakfast as an effort to focus purely on mental output instead of input first thing in the morning.


There is only one sequence that I felt this version of the movie stumbled over, and it was an attempt to explain Eno’s engagement with the political world. His interest in climate change is self-explanatory, but the film’s selected B-roll of this scene (which showed him walking alone in a park, pondering) felt cheesy and out of place in comparison with the rest of the movie’s nuanced engagement with the creative process. It was just by chance that the program selected this clip – and that the main problem with it seemed attributable to human error. Hustwit shared that his editing team is still locating and refining clips during their national tour. A scene in the first iteration might be re-edited before it is prime to be selected in the fifteenth version. 

Eno shares sentiments about accepting mistakes and relinquishing control in his work, should a misstep take him down a different path. Hustwit indirectly echoed these ideas in his reflection on the film, when he explained that a “director’s cut would defeat the point.” Like Eno’s work in concert, the originality is the appeal. Beyond the basic frame of the film, the juxtaposition of its components must be discovered and appreciated instantaneously. 


Hustwit doesn’t see any need to do his next project in the same way – in fact, he’s still not totally convinced that he’s supposed to be a filmmaker – but he is open to others using the software. The idea of a specialized theater experience in the hands of a director like Christopher Nolan, he suggested, could have incredible effects. His experience as an artist is as freewheeling as Eno’s; he described his process as stumbling upon an obsession, and then feeling frustrated that no one else has documented it. 


Toward the end of the film, Eno similarly ponders his own “why.” Should all artists be in the game of changing the world? Is he doing enough? He relegates himself, as is his tendency, to being an explorer of feelings. Feelings that can be felt by the masses, of course. And isn’t that enough?


Find a screening of Eno. near you.


-Lydia

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