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BEFORE AND AFTER SCIENCE, AN ENO DOCUMENTARY IS A SEA OF ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES



A FILM ABOUT MUSICIAN/ARTIST/THINKER/PROVOCATEUR Brian Eno that remakes itself every time it’s screened? That no two versions of it will ever the be same? That not even the filmmaker – actually, especially not the filmmaker – can predict what he will see whenever he watches?


You know that Eno, who while declaring himself easily bored by any sign of repetition, shook up the methods and thinking and careers of artists like U2, Talking Heads and David Bowie as their producer, would approve.


And he does.


“That was a big reason for why Brian agreed to do it,” Gary Hustwit, director of Eno, and co-creator of the software that might remake the way we think about filmmaking, says of the man who was first spotted in the musical wild as the long-haired “non musician” sound sculptor/technician of Roxy Music in the early 1970s. “He hates bio documentaries and music documentaries because they are always one person’s version of the subject’s story and he didn’t want to be anyone’s story.


“I think that idea of every time you see that you are making different connections works a lot like how memory works: you don’t remember things in perfect chronological order, sometimes you remember them differently, some things are more important or less important depending on the time you are alive.”


When Eno the film screens at the Opera House at the weekend as part of the Vivid Festival (which Eno the man curated 15 years ago), each of its four screenings will effectively be “mixed live”, like a musical performance. The opening and closing scenes will be the same, but the program Hustwit and creative technologist Brendan Dawes devised will shuffle in visual, musical and interview elements from more than 100 hours of available material, move some sections to different parts of the film, and while Hustwit sits in the room at controls in case of problems “I’m not there to DJ the film; I’m the caretaker.” – show yet another side of the Eno story.


(Director but not DJ Gary Hustwit. Photo by Ebru Yiltiz)


This is what people who aren’t musicians think jazz is I tell him. Hustwit, whose previous films as producer or director include examinations of design and typography as well as synthesisers, skateboarding and bands like Wilco, Death Cab For Cutie and Animal Collective, laughs but doesn’t completely deny.


“My background before film was in music and that’s really part of why I wanted to do this: I wanted film to be more performative. And it’s usually not that,” he says. “[Usually] it’s impossible to watch something for the first time, or experience it through the eyes of people who have never seen it before, but this time, every night what the system does which I think is fascinating, is it makes connections between different scenes that I’ve never seen in that sequence before. I’m still making new connections about Brian via that juxtaposition of scenes. The audience is also making those connections: you’re kind of telling your own story.”


Hustwit is keen to stress two things about the computer program which he is calling Brain One (the fact that is an anagram of Brian Eno is more than fortuitous). One: it isn’t AI built on feeding in thousands of hours of other work and asked to reproduce something in that ilk, but generative technology that is “a combination of our intelligences filmmakers and the programming”. And two: he has not abandoned control of the film. All the material that is available, some of it newly shot, some of it from Eno’s private library, is material he has chosen for inclusion.


“And that I think is the director role. It isn’t crafting every second of the 90 minute film but it is curating what that mix of things is and trying to arrange it so, or make the algorithms arrange it so, there is an arc to it, so that there is progression of Brian’s thinking, and as you are watching it you are seeing something that is engaging and feels like a conventional documentary in some ways.”


(Brian Eno in the wild. Photo by Cecily Eno.)


Just not that conventional. Hustwit jokes that you might have to “watch the film 10 times to see the Devo section”, though that’s not strictly speaking a joke given in theory you could watch this film 100 times and not see that bit. If you think about it, that’s an evil genius marketing for constantly generating ticket sales.


“That was not the intent, believe it not,” he laughs. “You know, I could have made a six-hour documentary about Brian, I still wouldn’t have been able to show all that is done. His archive is 500 hours of video and film, most of which had never been seen before, so how do you show 500 hours of footage? Or 100 hours of footage? This is a way that you can engage with the huge amount of information like that.


“We can also make the film go on forever; we don’t have to make it 90 minutes. We did a version for the Venice Biennale that was kind of like a prequel to Eno, where we took all those rules off and just let the generative engine make whatever it wanted to. And it made a 168 hour-long film that was not a loop, it was just making this thing. That went on for a week and it was pretty amazing because nobody knew what was going to happen next and people would hang around for an hour, hang around five hours. It was more like an installation kind of thing.”


This kind of thinking of course is not unfamiliar to people who have followed Eno’s art career, which has run parallel with his music for decades. Art installations that run for hours on end, constantly shifting or responding to external elements such as an audience; video art that works as visual wallpaper, equivalent to the concept of ambient music. As Ed Kuepper might say, the yard goes on forever.


And yet … even some of us who consider ourselves fairly deep Eno fans might struggle at 168 hours.


“You couldn’t, you couldn’t,” Hustwit laughs again. “But maybe that will be our streaming release: it’s on 24 hours a day and at night it gets kind of ambient and quiet, a little more chilled. We can do that. There are so many possibilities with this approach that we are just starting to scratch the surface.”


No wonder Eno the technician is on board.



Eno screens as part of Vivid at the Sydney Opera House May 31-June 2, with director Gary Hustwit conducting a Q&A session after each screening. I will be in conversation with him after the 2.30 session on Saturday, June 1.

Eno screens at ACMI, Federation Square in Melbourne - also with post-screening Q&A at the three sessions - on June 3-4.


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A version of this story was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.



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