Cast: Galenus, Fang Hao
Running time: 10mins
With the continued march of the security state, noticing the fourth wall has become an increasingly popular trope among artists. When a character ‘realises’ they are an object of someone’s imagination, being puppeteered for our entertainment, it blurs the lines between fact and fiction – and prompts us to think about the way we in turn might be manipulated or observed according to the whims of the powers that be.
As we inch into the age of the metaverse, where not only do we seem to be on the precipice of ‘living’ our entertainment, but also of being eternally watched by some other unseen – and quite possibly malevolent force – it seems inevitable that this trope will become even more prevalent. As we stand on the brink of this precipice, where we may well begin consuming ourselves in the same way popular culture of the last thirty years has already been cannibalising itself, Again and Again tries admirably to ask some important questions.
What if the ‘characters’ we have learned to see as unfeeling objects built to serve us are in fact living, breathing, self-aware creatures – capable of feeling the emotions and sensations they are subjected to in ‘fiction’ on repeat? On the face of it, you might think this is some kind of thought experiment aimed at getting us to think more deeply about the ethics of artificial intelligence. After all, it’s six years since German AI researchers created a version of Super Mario World starring a self-aware version of Mario, which doesn’t simply play the game by itself, but is psychologically affected by the experience as it does so. However, this story goes one further than suggesting we might still be separate, or somehow in control of the cruelty inflicted on the created characters. In our daily lives, we might be trapped in the same nightmare, having ourselves become someone else’s plaything.
Writer/director/co-star Galenus subjects his protagonist to live out one particularly nightmarish chapter of his life on repeat. Galenus’ character repeatedly ponders a feeling of déjà vu with his friend, played by Fang Hao, during what seems to be a routine movie night at the pair’s favourite haunt – an abandoned warehouse they have decked out with a well-stocked fridge, and audio-visual equipment to listen to music or watch old films on.
The cavernous warehouse is superbly shot. Its cosy-seeming fairy lights and warmly lit popular culture iconography (including, among other things, a Good Guy doll from Child’s Play) present film-lovers with a familiar and welcoming venue to enter – but this feeling gradually dissipates, and we become uneasy as we notice more of the echoing void that surrounds our two characters.
This mise en scene will make the cinephiles in the audience – who the film seems very overtly designed for – feel very seen in our own right. We have probably constructed an environment like this in our own home, where we may have either consumed the same films on repeat, or consumed films inspired by those other films – and so similarly experienced the feeling of déjà vu Galenus and Fang Hao are subjected to.
Further tying us to the experience of the two characters, among the films which the duo watch, claiming “never to have seen,” are Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull – two massively influential films from which many other works that most viewers have probably seen took inspiration .
Galenus also ensures his characters live out a number of recognisable tropes, beyond the déjà vu plot-point. These include the extinguishing of a cigarette on a delicious-looking piece of pastry (you will recognise this from Inglorious Basterds and many other films), a delirious dance sequence (Joker and others used this as a signifier of a character enduring some kind of psychotic break) and the use of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major (to imply an approaching outbreak of violence, as in Se7en, Battle Royal and others).
Indeed, the dance sequence comes before his characters seem to be overcome by the encroaching awareness that they have lived out this scene many, many times – and a collapse into violent despair at the prospect of having to go through the same motions Again and Again. And while we might have felt, as we do in Nukazooka’s disturbing Super Mario: Underworld, that this film depicts some invented creature still suffering separately from us, Galenus has highlighted how many ways we live the same lives as the protagonists of this film, Again and Again.
Each day, we go through the motions of appeasing the needs of our employers at jobs we hate, so that we might purchase the bare minimum in food, shelter and some manner of stimulus to numb the pain of going through it all again tomorrow. And as the stimulus of popular entertainment congeals into a mass of the same old ideas, we can’t help but notice more of the skull-crushing repetition in our daily existence, going through the same pains and frustrations every time our day rewinds to the same unflinching starting point.
On many levels, Galenus has constructed this nightmarish thought-experiment extremely well. With that being said, the format he delivers it in is not especially enjoyable as its own consumable product. Perhaps that was the point… but the repeated, jarring cuts between scenes – followed by the click of an editor clipping two shots together, and with written stage directions apparently lifted from a script the characters are living is a little on-the-nose (even if you can get beyond how aesthetically displeasing this process is). We could draw the same conclusions about the characters, and understand their frustrations, from a single, well-written conversation – and it would be far more engaging than piecing it together in irritating snippets.
In the end, the excruciating jump-cuts of Again and Again cost it a perfect score – if only because I can’t in good conscience give something five stars knowing it gave me a migraine. With that being said, the film did also set the cogs of my mind in motion long after that splitting headache had subsided. This is a thought-provoking, media-literate piece of film-philosophy, which warrants repeat viewing – as much as it might pain the characters and ourselves.