‘You Are Here’ is compulsively watchable and utterly unique

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You Are Here

Written by Daniel Cockburn

Directed by Daniel Cockburn

Canada, 2010

Equal parts video essay, fragmented “thought experiment,” and social satire, Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here is one of the most audacious English Canadian features to come down the pike in years. (Admittedly, that’s not a terribly prestigious body of films.) Imbued with enough dry wit and obscure observations to fill a dozen Charlie Kaufman treatments, the film dares to invent a cinematic language at least partially its very own in a scant 78 minutes.

Equal parts Library of Babel and errant-psychology portraiture (akin to the subjects of Errol Morris’s First Person), You Are Here contains few concrete characters – only a couple of figures recur. The film’s opening sequence is of a lecture – though it is never made clear if there is actually an audience present, besides the viewer(s) themselves. Projected behind the lecturer is a tranquil video of ocean waves overlapping each other. The lecturer proceeds to quiz the audience on how they are viewing the waves, then proceeds to use a laser pointer to highlight certain types of motion. Then, he implores the audience to do the impossible: develop an awareness of the red dot’s position…without consciously following it.

The scene works as the closest thing to a summation Cockburn’s film can easily support; it’s a series of interconnected impossibilities, carefully conceived by a set of obsessive figures, whether they manifest as a crowd – the film refers to most of its characters simply as “Alan” – or as individuals. A protagonist of sorts emerges midway through the film: the archivist, played by Tracy Wright in one of her last roles, a somewhat tragic figure who collects bizarre detritus and attempts to make it all fit into some grand configuration she has no actual concept of. It’s just one iteration of the man-as-machine depicted throughout the film in various forms, from the semi-computerized man described in a child’s elaborate fable to the social scientist who unknowingly invents a mind-debilitating linguistic experiment and then volunteers to be the first test subject.

Cockburn’s central concern seems to be of the dangers of a life too closely examined, as compared to those of a life not examined at all. The latter is manifested in a mathematically orchestrated sequence in which four “trackers” (perhaps better described as “human traffic controllers”) occupy a cluttered office one by one, then proceed to coordinate the direction and travel distance of any number of Alans through archaic cell phones. These people are the opposite of the archivist – directionless unless directed, and without clear occupation, they exist simply as other people’s busywork.

That’s enough information. You Are Here, for all its experimental flourishes, bizarre digressions, and total disregard for straightforward continuity, is never remotely boring, trafficking as it does in new ideas, obscure visual gags, and maddening logic puzzles throughout its compressed runtime. Utterly unique and totally engrossing, if You Are Here manages to find an audience of any kind, it will doubtless inspire a small legion of new filmmakers with its no-budget marvels and clarity of vision.

Simon Howell


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