The Kodak Horror Story and Other Observations

This being a review, of sorts, of ‘Kodak’ by Andrew Norman Wilson, given its world premiere atthis year’s New York Film Festival.

This being a review, of sorts, of ‘Kodak’ by Andrew Norman Wilson, given its world premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival.

SPOILERS ABOUNDif you care about that sort of thing.


A black screen. A young woman’s voice, accusatory, filling the darkened room. “I can see you.” “I know you’re there.” “I’m watching you.” A second voice, as a projector’s film reel starts up. We are shown the image of an old(er), distinguished looking man who looks at the camera in the way that every Victorian man of industry does. You know the look. And then the film cuts and flicks through a range of images, videos, audio notes and animations, while the second voice — our narrator — comments on the presentation at hand, his thoughts lose and his phrasing slightly mad. After some time, the voice of the accusatory woman re-enters and (along with a variety of other revelations we’ve gathered along the way) it becomes clear that our narrator is both blind and somewhat obsessed with the man in the photograph. In what seems to be a public library, he is obsessively listening to clips of the man speaking, watching advertising snippets from the company the man founded, and somewhat disingenuously connecting it with his own past, present and future.
This is George Eastman, Kodak founder. 
The man in question is George Eastman, founder of Kodak. Throughout the film we see and hear Eastman, via genuine recordings, explain various aspects of the company’s vision, his story culminating in his death. But the film is much more than that, with its narrator providing snatches of his own story as it relates to George: he is a former employee, a promising one, who got his tie caught in some equipment and was demoted; during the same accident (I think? The film is deliberately vague) he lost his sight and, probably (not definitely: again, vague) got divorced some time afterwards. Unsaid, and unseen, is the connection between the narrator’s clear obsession with his never-fulfilled career at Kodak and the breakdown of his marriage. Like so many protagonists (and of course, real people), he is likely confusing the consequences of one life-changing event with what his behavior was afterwards. This become semi-apparent in the film’s last act, in which the lens takes us out of archival footage and into a digital representation of the library in which our narrator is presumably sitting. There, the accusatory woman from the start of the film is a morphing avatar, who — among other things — tells the narrator he is pathetic and should kill himself. This, not incidentally, is what George Eastman (actually, in real life) did.
Eastman’s suicide note. It reads as follows: ‘To my friends. My work is done, why wait?’
From there the film, in which our narrator is now raving about living on inside a world of representations (cf. Kodak; cf. video games)  delves through a variety of digital landscapes, the world becoming by turns more nightmarish and more silly. Still, the voices imploring the narrator to end his life continue.

Wait, remember that game…

I had no idea what to expect from Kodak, and I mean that literally: I hadn’t read anything at all about the film  (or the program of which it was a part) before watching it. But only a few minutes after it began I was put in mind of two different videos games, so that when the setting flipped from the photographic to the digital I felt a sense of relief rather than shock or surprise. The first of those is The Beginner’s Guide, by Davey Wreden. Like Kodak, it follows the work of one man as told through the voice of another.
Actually, the trailer almost gives too much of the game away. 
The two works share stylistic sensibilities: just as in Kodak, the narrator drops us in and out of videos, loops, audio files, photographs and more, The Beginner’s Guide drops the player (if ‘player’ is the right word) into various unfinished games by a developer named Coda. Though the pace is slower in The Beginner’s Guide, as we move from one layer to the next, the effect is the same: just as you get a grasp on an intangible ‘something’ that might add up to a coherent narrative, you’re dropped into a new game world, with new commentary and new ideas to absorb and parse. Kodak has that too and (like The Beginner’s Guide), the story of the subject and its narrator are impossible to disentangle. Both are the stories of people telling a story about somebody else’s story. The Beginner’s Guide is also strange, beautiful, and very disturbing.
Rather than explain to you why The Beginner’s Guide is unnerving, here’s Matt Lees doing it .
Kodak is disturbing too, in its way: the film meditates on the power of the image in our culture; it makes frenetic statements about the importance we attach to the image’s ability to capture moments, and the extent to which many of us (certainly the narrator of the film) take comfort in the belief that time and place can be held prisoner through the medium. Clearly, the power of that idea is all around us now, prevalent in Instagram (for example) and in the video games industry as a whole. It plays directly into The Beginner’s Guide, and each fun-fair-mirrors the other.

Unreliable narrators descend

The second game is less connected thematically but the semi-mad first-person ravings of Kodak’s narrator also put me immediately in mind of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Once again, the backdrop for the narrative is a protagonist (Daniel), both looking for and for insight into the subject (Alexander). Though the game has little formal similarities with Kodak, it and the film use a similar method of voice over exposition; each has an unreliable, slightly mad narrator, and each focuses his attention on another man as the manifestation of his own inner demons.
In this, Kodak is likely deliberately video-game like and the switch from photo to pixel is both formal and symbolic. It recognizes the movement of the visual medium in a different technological direction while acknowledging that, in our futile attempts to capture time in the future, we will all be scrambling inside a created world.

Click on everything

Games, games games. They’re all over this film like a set of dirty fingerprints on a still-developing role of Kodak film. Last in the line up: the conceit for Kodak, that a man is going through old projector tapes, resembles a range of point-and-click adventure games.
A still from the X-Files Game, 1998
I felt for much of the movie like I should be able to freeze the frame, click on elements to reveal clues, and replay certain loops. This aesthetic similarity made the switch to a digital landscape all the more surreal because once it did the world became freeflowing in the way that an ‘ordinary’ film might be; once the ‘real’ images of Kodak ads and Eastman had been removed, and replaced with the ‘artificial’ digital setting, the film (though surreal) took on more real proportions. In other words: one could walk around. Things moved. People talked to one another.

Exposure as history

To that end, you might say that the first part of Kodak resembled an extended opening video game cut scene and the switch to the digital embodied the game proper. You might also say that I play too many video games and have made too many tenuous links. This is very possible. And now the great reveal. If what I’ve said means anything at all, it isn’t reflected on any level by the film’s festival description: “A semi-biographical fiction inspired by his father’s work at one of Kodak’s first processing labs, Wilson’s speculative gloss on the evolution of photochemical science entwines multiple perspectives and personas. Co-written by James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Kodak imagines a dialogue between a blind, mentally unstable former film technician and George Eastman himself, recordings of whom play out over a procession of photographs, home video footage, vintage Kodak ads, and animations.” Hmm. I guess I might have read into this too much.

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