I think of myself as someone who doesn’t need much story or overtly stated themes to fall in love with a movie. Cinema is such an immersive sensory experience that just the juxtaposition of powerful images & sounds should alone be enough to fully grab my attention, with narrative & thematic purpose falling to the side as secondary concerns. That personal resolve is routinely tested to its limits at film festivals, though, where I’m used to seeing exciting experiments with image & sound in movies that just . . . meander, never really arriving anywhere in particular. This challenge to my presumed comfort with a high-style/low-story imbalance apparently extends to the at-home, online film fests that have cropped up this summer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably the We Are One festival’s recent presentation of the film Air Conditioner.
Thematically, Air Conditioner is very up-front about what its central conflict is meant to represent. It even opens with dictionary definitions of “air”, “conditioning”, and “air conditioner” to sketch out allegorical battle lines between natural living conditions and an artificially controlled society. The simple household appliance of the air conditioner is positioned to represent some kind of unnatural, man-made distortion of how we’re supposed to naturally live as a community. Story-wise, there’s even a clear central protagonist deployed to give this vague metaphor practical in-the-moment meaning, especially in relation to societally constructed & enforced class divisions in Angola, Africa. We watch a quiet, calm handyman travel between small jobs & customers in the middle of an air-conditioner related phenomenon in his city, while endless grids of window-unit ACs hanging above him out of every apartment window. He mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, so you have to infer his reaction to the sights & sounds of the bizarre air conditioner crisis yourself. Mostly it just seems like he’s trying to minimize being hassled while the world around him is falling apart, which is at least a universally relatable impulse.
The hassle of the day in this instance is a big one. All air conditioners in the city are malfunctioning and falling from their windowsill perches to the ground, threatening the lives of pedestrians below and drastically raising the temperature of the rooms they’re meant to cool. The closer you live to the Equator the more that premise will sound like a horror film to you, as even just in New Orleans I can tell you that a summer without an air conditioner is miserable (if not borderline life-threatening). While this premise could have easily been molded around a sentient killer-objects horror genre the way of Rubber, The Lift, or Death Bed: The Bed that Eats, however, Air Conditioner takes a much more esoteric route. Our handyman takes a customer’s fallen air conditioner to a repair shop, where a mad scientist converts it into bizarre machinery that projects working-class people’s memories onto video screens and conjures their visions of the future. Elsewhere, working-class men converse through telepathy in the alleys between the buildings the ACs are falling from. A sparse, jazzy score punctuates the handyman’s travels between these mysterious figures and his far less interesting bosses above. It’s all very loose, observational, and aesthetically pretty.
The opening credits of Air Conditioner include a montage of still photographs, including one where a subject is wearing a dress that declares “Art is resistance.” Maybe the point of the movie was not to say anything particular about class disparity in Angola, nor to stage a narratively satisfying story around that theme, but to simply point out that it exists. Maybe illustrating class disparity through something as ubiquitous as air conditioners was the intended resistance. If that’s the case, the film might have fared better as a short than a feature, as the themes & narrative were so loosely defined that all I could really focus on was how eerie the score could be in its better moments and how well the film functions as fine-art portraiture of Angolan locals. I’d usually like to think that kind of pure sensory immersion is enough to fully leave me satisfied, but it ended up testing my patience by the time it fully settled into its groove. There’s something alluring about the idea of common household appliances rebelling against their duty and inciting a class system rift through abandonment of their post, so much so that I wish that this particular movie had taken a more straight-forward path in exploring that idea. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I wish it were a little more grounded & basic.