Daniel Cockburn Is Very Much Here
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Daniel Cockburn Is Very Much Here

According to our handy-dandy five-star rating scheme for films playing at TIFF this year, the best we’ve seen is Toronto-based film and video artist Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here, ranking a full half-star above arthouse darlings like Quebec’s Denis Côté and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This modest decoration (we can practically see the post blurb: “FIVE STARS!”—Torontonianist.com) is made all the more remarkable by the fact that You Are Here is Cockburn’s debut feature.
You Are Here initially seems like a series of shorts—fitting since Cockburn’s made a handful of them. But then it becomes apparent that its vignettes overlap and connect in thought-provoking, often sinister, ways. Perhaps the best film yet made about the cumulative effect that internet-saturation, YouTube, and Google Mapping have had on our world (sorry Atom Egoyan’s Adoration and George A. Romero’s George’s A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead), You Are Here is an intellectually and emotionally exciting film that is very much of the present.

That Cockburn buries this present in dated technology and nostalgia only reinforces the skill with which You Are Here diagrams the contemporary flattening of time, space, and identity. (In one sequence, Cockburn has a single character played by dozens of actors, as if he’s taking Palindromes to the exponent of I’m Not There.) It’s an exceptionally intelligent film that doesn’t fall victim to a case of clever-itus. There’s warmth beneath all the wit, and that’s what distinguishes You Are Here from some alienating gallery installation.
Torontoist talked to Daniel Cockburn about You Are Here, which eventually became a conversation about a suburb shaped like Jayne Mansfield’s head.
Torontoist: It’s kind of apparent watching You Are Here that, structurally at least, it’s indebted to your experience making short films and video art. And I heard through the grapevine that the film was originally conceived as a series of video installations.
Daniel Cockburn: I wouldn’t say a series of video installations. Even though I’d say I conceived it as a series of shorts, the intent was always to create something that felt like a series of a shorts, but over the course of watching it [have] the audience realize that it’s turning into a feature-length movie. The tension between “Is it a bunch of pieces?” or “Is it a single piece?” was the inspiration. I wanted to make something that straddled this line. If a program of shorts is a mixtape, then this is a concept album. And over the course of writing and shooting and editing. it did become a single feature film, albeit one that is fractured and segmented and struggling to come to terms with itself.
The word “fractured” there is interesting, because before it comes apparent that You Are Here is a feature-length movie, it works on a fractal level, where each short has its own peculiar logic which also seems to dominate how they’re put together as a whole. It’s kind of the same at whatever scale. Was this part of the idea, to have this discrete scenes with different characters and subject matter that share larger concerns that become more apparent as they’re pieced together?
Yeah. I hoped it would have a cumulative effect, where a certain image or idea may have an echo of an earlier image or idea. And as it goes on, I hope that these echoes and mirrorings accumulate and eventually build to a climax. Obviously it doesn’t come together in a Short Cuts or Magnolia kind of way. But it becomes a more coherent thing in the mind of the viewer.
More Short Cuts than Magnolia, anyway. It kind of reaches a thematic and intellectual dénouement. It’s not just arbitrary wrap-ups and raining frogs.
No, no. Exactly…for some time, I had this idea in my head where, well, let’s suppose there’s a person in a room, walking around, doing different activities. Let’s say they’re cooking a meal. Okay?
And then there’s another person walking around another room shelving library books. And there are all these people in all these different room doing all these different activities. But none of them realize they’re actually tracing the same path and performing the same motions. That’s how I’ve always thought of the movie: all these people in all these different rooms and they’re all doing their own thing, but unbeknownst to them, they’re all in harmony somewhat.

“If a program of shorts is a mixtape, then this is a concept album.”

This idea of mapping is at the centre of one scene in the film, in a very literal way, where you have people actually managing the flow of people across geographical space. But there’s also Tracy Wright’s character, who’s trying to manage this cognitive map, this archive.
Just talking now about people’s lives leaving traces, there’s this line in some piece by Borges, where he talks about imagining the path that someone travels in their life and how if you could see that path it might somehow form a shape. It may spell out a message or be the image of a human face. It’s a trace that no person will ever be able to know or see or understand. That idea is structurally the heart of the movie, but it’s also key to the emotional resonance. All the characters are struggling to come to terms with the fact that they can’t know the bigger picture of the universe they’re living in. They can’t know how they relate to the other pieces. They can’t see the traces they are leaving.
Now, as far as this idea of people in separate rooms: if all the characters are afflicted by this kind of universal struggle, then why the idea of, at least initially, hermetically sealing them off from one another in the film?
Well, you call it the universal struggle and I think that it is. Different people have different ways of dealing with the fact that they are alive and they are individuals in a universe that is bigger than they are. Some people try to understand the universe and people around them, and some people go inside and try to understand themselves. And it’s kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, because if you allot a certain amount of your brain to understanding the world, that’s a certain amount you can’t use to understand yourself, and vice-versa. There’s a necessary incompleteness to this knowledge which is part of being human. There’s joy to be found in that, but there’s a lot of anxieties and difficulties and obstacles to be found in that as well.
Earlier you mentioned Borges, who is cropping up all around this movie.
You mean in the press and dialogue around it?
Well, in the press kit and in the way people are talking about it and in the film itself. But people seem to have a different idea of it, because—and pardon a pun—but Borges is kind of all over the map. It’s not like saying “Kafkaesque” where you hear that and have distinct idea of what that means. So, what kind of ideas from Borges were you working with specifically?
Well, I’m pretty sure we were the first to mention him, because we put it in the press kit and the promotional materials. So I’m probably responsible for his name being bandied about quite a bit. If there is one primary influence, it’s probably him. See, he would paint these literary characters of people who are trapped in webs of recursive narrative. And the shorts I’ve made apply that technique to a film and video-based method. Where Borges has people trapped in linguistic webs, my characters are trapped in webs of film and video narrative.
I was also thinking of Paul Asuter in the New York Trilogy where a character is tracking a character around the city and he begins to write down each day’s path on a map and begins to see that each day is a letter and it’s spelling out a message. It’s really evocative to me, this idea that meaning is only graspable from a vantage point that is inaccessible to us as mere humans.
Not to just traipse off influences or reminisces that this film gestures towards, but there’s an image in David Foster Wallace’s first novel, which a few years I ago I was so obsessed with I got a tattoo of. But this absent character in this novel designs a suburb that, when looked at from above, is shaped like Jayne Mansfield’s head. So, it’s this complex network that you have only an instrumental understanding of at the ground level—how to get from your house to the school, the mall, the grocery store, et cetera—but when you get high enough above it, it assumes a form that’s recognizable but arbitrary and absurd.
I love that image. Is that in Infinite Jest?
No, it’s in Broom of the System. His first novel.
Okay. See, what you’re describing is really interesting to think about. I’m sort of now applying the inverse logic to it. Because you could imagine a suburb which from an aerial view looks like Jayne Mansfield’s head, but none of the people on the ground understand what it really is. But then you could have the same suburb where you’re in a helicopter above and you see that it looks like Jayne Mansfield’s head, but so what? There are people on the ground who go to the shops, and use the park, and live in their homes, and they don’t need to know that it needs to look like Jayne Mansfield’s head. Maybe looking at it at the ground level is fine and it’s what these people need. And knowing that from above their lives look like Jayne Mansfield’s head wouldn’t necessarily change that.
You Are Here premieres Wednesday, September 15 at 5 p.m. at the Yonge and Dundas AMC. For more showtimes, check the festival’s website.
Stills from Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here courtesy of TIFF.
Want more TIFF 2010? Torontoist’s complete coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is all right here.