Identity & Artifice @ Overlook Film Fest 2023

After I happened to spend an entire day watching horror movies about motherhood at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, I found myself searching for patterns in the festival’s programming wherein the movies were communicating with each other just as much as they were provoking the audience.  I didn’t have to squint too hard at my next double-feature to see their thematic connections, since the word “artifice” was already staring back at me in the first film’s title.  My third & final day at this year’s Overlook was all about the tension between identity & artifice, and how the latter obscures the former.  In the philosophical sci-fi horror at the top of that self-programmed double bill, the opaque surface of artifice is stripped away to reveal a complex, futuristic sense of identity underneath.  In the true crime documentary that followed, the surface of artifice is removed to uncover no discernible human identity at all, which makes for a much bleaker, scarier reveal.  Please forgive me for the inanity of reporting that this is an instance where the truth is stranger than fiction; I watched these particular movies hungover in a chilly downtown shopping mall, and I’m not sure my brain has fully recovered from watching two twisty thrillers about the complexities of human identity in that hazy state.

That morning’s theme-unlocking opener, The Artifice Girl, is a well-timed A.I. chatbot technothriller, turning just a few actors running lines in drab office spaces into a complex study of the fuzzy borders between human & artificial identity.  Approached with the same unrushed, underplayed drama as the similarly structured Marjorie Prime, The Artifice Girl jumps time frames between acts as the titular A.I. chatbot is introduced in her infancy, gains sentience, and eventually earns her autonomy.  She is initially created with queasy but altruistic intentions: designed to bait and indict online child molesters with the visage of a little girl who does not actually, physically exist.  As the technology behind her “brain” patterns exponentially evolves, the ethics of giving something with even a simulation of intelligence & emotion that horrifically shitty of a job becomes a lot murkier.  By the time she’s creating art and expressing genuine feelings, her entire purpose becomes explicitly immoral, since there’s no foolproof way to determine what counts as her identity or free will vs. what counts as her user-determined programming.  The Artifice Girl does a lot with a little, asking big questions with limited resources.  The closest it gets to feeling like a professional production is in the climactic intrusion of genre legend Lance Henriksen in the cast, whose journey as Bishop in the Alien series has already traveled these same A.I. autonomy roads on a much larger scale in the past.  It’s got enough surprisingly complex stage play dialogue to stand on its own without Henriksen’s support, but his weighty late-career presence is the exact kind of hook it needs to draw an audience’s attention.

By contrast, David Farrier’s new documentary Mister Organ desperately searches for an attention-grabbing hook but never finds one.  The New Zealand journalist drives himself mad attempting to recapture the lighting-in-a-bottle exposé he engineered in Tickled, investigating another unbelievable shit-heel subject who “earns” his living in nefarious, exploitative ways.  At first, it seems like Farrier is really onto something.  The titular Mr. Organ is an obvious conman, introduced to Farrier as a parking lot bully who “clamps” locals’ tires for daring to park in the wrong lot, then shakes them down for exorbitant piles of cash to remove the boots – making the high-end antique store he patrols a front for a much more lucrative, predatory side hustle.  With only a little digging, that parking lot thug turns out to be a much bigger news story, one with fascinating anecdotes about stolen yachts, abandoned asylums, micro cults, and forged royal bloodlines.  Or so Farrier thinks.  The more he digs into his latest subject’s past to uncover his cleverly obscured identity, the more Farrier comes away empty-handed & bewildered.  Mr. Organ is more an obnoxious Ricky Gervais caricature of a human being than he is a genuine one.  He babbles for hours on end about nothing, holding Farrier hostage on speakerphone with the promise of a gotcha breakthrough moment that will never come.  Organ is a literal ghoul, a real-life energy vampire, an artificial surface with no identity underneath.  As a result, the documentary is a creepy but frustrating journey to nowhere, one where by the end the artist behind it is just as unsure what the point of the entire exercise was as the audience. It is a document of a failure.

Normally, when I contrast & compare two similarly themed features I walk away with a clearer understanding of both.  In this case, my opinion of this unlikely pair only becomes more conflicted as I weigh them against each other.  In the controlled, clinical, fictional environment of The Artifice Girl, an identity-obscuring layer of artifice is methodically, scientifically removed to reveal a complex post-human persona underneath.  In the messy, real-world manipulations of Mister Organ, the surface-level artifice is all there is, and stripping it away reveals nothing that can be cleanly interpreted nor understood.  Of course, the fictional stage play version of that exercise is more narratively satisfying than the reality-bound mechanics of true crime storytelling, which often leads to unsolved cases & loose, frayed ends.  The Artifice Girl tells you exactly how to feel at the end of its artificially engineered drama, which is effective in the moment but leaves little room for its story to linger after the credits.  The open-ended frustration of Mister Organ is maybe worthier to dwell in as you leave the theater, then, even if its own conclusion amounts to Farrier throwing up his hands in forfeit, walking away from an opaque nothing of a subject – the abstract personification of Bad Vibes.  As a result, neither film was wholly satisfying either in comparison or in isolation, and I don’t know that I’ll ever fully make sense of my dehydrated, dispirited afternoon spent pondering them.

-Brandon Ledet

One thought on “Identity & Artifice @ Overlook Film Fest 2023

  1. Pingback: Lagniappe Podcast: We Kill for Love & Overlook Film Fest 2023 | Swampflix

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