On Eugene Kotlyarenko’s 0s & 1s

“Eugene Kotlyarenko’s ‘0s and 1s’ may be the ultimate has-to-be-seen-more-than-once movie. Not because it’s great, particularly, but because so much is disgorged onto the screen so quickly that no one will be able to catch all the witty tricks and asides with one viewing.” -Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times, March 17, 2011
Still from 0 & 1s

First, a rebuttal to Mr. Genzlinger’s weird combination of backhands and compliments (two of each, by my count): You’re just old.

0s & 1s is a movie told in a visual language and at a pace familiar to any of us who’ve been staring at computer screens since we were tweens, a/s/l’ing strangers in Yahoo! checkers chat rooms and going through full-blown minesweeper phases. It’s a real-feeling representation of how we imagine our own mental lives to be, filtered through the screens of our devices, past and present. I’m hesitant to get all grandiose, but, guys, it’s kind of our Ulysses.

Backing away from that critical precipice for a sec, let me just run through the basics.

The story is simple. James Pongo is a young Angeleno with a boring job and a ?girlfriend (trying to get that orthography off the ground: meme it, readers!) who never calls him back. He goes to a townie party out in Torrance with his HS friends, gets blotto, and wakes up to groggily discover his computer bag has gone missing. Thus bereaved, he sets out to track down the thief using only a list of the party-goers as his guide, and the film progresses episodically, hopping from house to house in search of the stuff.

Script-wise, most of the episodes are funny, interesting, and occasionally poignant—a manic kid obsessed with his Roomba and a conversation with a dreamily music-obsessed friend stand out as scenes that could work well without the tech stuff around them. The soundtrack is an impeccable playlist of much-loved LA indie (No Age, Ariel Pink, etc.), played like an mp3 mixtape almost straight through the movie. The acting is a little shaky, veering into mumbly awkward or high school hammy territory from time to time (and with a double-takey cameo by imboycrazy’s Alexi Wasser), but the real draw, and the thing that sets 0s & 1s apart from almost every movie ever made, is the visual conceit going on around the live action.

To start with, every scene is shown from more than one angle at once, each shot occupying a little window in the larger screen, reminiscent of webcams, YouTube videos, or (if you’re fancy), Facetime chats. Unlike some other split-screen movies, though, the people in the split screens are almost always in the same space or in the same conversation. This isn’t really a divided reality, just a state of surveillance in which the real-time reaction shot gets equal screentime. Layered on top and around the live-action, we get an intricately-designed desktop, complete with error messages, pop-ups, and frequent interruptions from James’ cell phone—an old Nokia candybar model—sliding up from the bottom of the screen.

Still from 0 & 1s

This might sound like an experimental, mock-primitivist-internet-art shitshow waiting to happen, but almost every “digital” interruption serves the story, the characters, or a good joke. Surprisingly, the signal has very little in the way of noise, and after a few scenes, the value of all this visual bandwidth becomes clear: the para-cinematic stuff, the cell phone and chat windows and desktop icons, adds up to nothing less than a complete portrait of James’ mind.

Which brings us back to Ulysses. Joyce’s magnum opus (sorry, Finnegan), for those unfamiliar, charts the episodic path of two guys, Bloom and Stephen, through one day in Dublin, with each episode switching into a different style. There’s a part written in mock ad-copy (Bloom’s a copywriter), one that tries to mimic music, one that runs through the stylistic history of English lit, and so on, for all 18 episodes. Besides just showing off/making sure academics will make him immortal, Joyce does this in an attempt to set down the whole of a distractible, media-saturated mind on the page, getting at the mind-numbing state of a complete consciousness through as many angles as he can cook up..

You can see where I’m going with this, but 0s and 1s essentially updates that concept, replacing print ads and English lit with SMSes and mockups of social media sites. Where Ulysses followed the story of the Odyssey, 0s & 1s follows the ur-narrative of an adventure video game. Ninety minutes of visuals can’t compare to 1000-plus pages of text for density of representation, but both 0s & 1s and Ulysses are animated by the same exhilarating formalist ambition, using a crowded narrative and stylistic field to try and capture the real-time experience of thought and being. And, not that they’re in competition or anything, 0s & 1s is a hell of a lot easier to sit through, and blows Joyce out of the water for lols/minute.

Historically, this kind of consciousness-representing thing has been done on camera through a lot of POV work and maybe some fantasy sequences (cf. all the bad movie adaptations of Ulysses), which inevitably seems to miss out on a lot of what life, and mental life, is. The camera=eye formula just does not work as a representation of human experience. We see the world not as an image with a single depth-of-field, pointed in one direction, but as an archipelago of visual pools, our attention hopping and refocusing from one to the next. One of the most refreshing effects of the visual glut on screen in 0s & 1s is the freedom it gives our eye to roam, and the freedom it gives its characters’ attentions to scatter. To be clear, here, too, I’m not talking about freely contemplating obtuse shots of foliage intercut with stills of screaming women, or any such high-arty stuff. Our eye is free to roam in a comfortably cluttered field, one that we’re already trained to unconsciously digest. We can pick and choose among the narrative events going on onscreen, from one camera angle to a chat window and back again, and intuitively know, as naturally as we touch-type, which is the most important.

While 0s & 1s has its share of “dream sequence”y moments, whole scenes set in 16-bit homages to Doom or Earthbound, these read just like updates on the kind of filmic fantasies of something like Spaced, or even Family Guy. They show James as experiencing life through the lens of the digital worlds he’s inhabited in the past, but homage alone does not make a modernist investigation of the mind (it might do for a post-modernist investigation, though).

Still from 0 & 1s

The part of the human-as-desktop conceit that does the most to bring 0s & 1s into the realm of real innovation is the written word. Books allow thought to be leisurely laid out, and can mess with time in ways that would seem impossibly dumb if done visually (“it was just a dream!”). By having a constant HUD up on screen, though, 0s & 1s taps into that textual power. We see James’ psyche revealed in his internal text message monologue and unraveled through the metaphor of computer crashes, system resets, and malware.

The many-screened format adds a lot of drama and lols, too, through the unpretentious irony of image vs. text (we see characters simul-tweeting, or see the health bar go down as pleasantries are exchanged). What isn’t going on is any kind of ironic nostalgic computer shit, thankfully. Any throwback-ery is consistent with the idea of James experiencing life through the media he’s consumed, and the pixellated screens of a booting OS aren’t there to be outsider aesthetics of the obsolete, but just a part of the conceit. Windows XP is still built on MS-DOS; much like a person’s helplessness when first waking up, the start-up screens show the infantile roots of the system as a whole.

On a certain level, 0s & 1s can be read as a critique of the digitally mediated mind. James is an ass, his friends seem dumb, and reducing attraction and flirtation to a “hot or not” pop-up is revoltingly simplistic. But, honestly, a lot of people are asses, many friends are dumb, and the constant empty socialization of the internet has undeniably paved over a lot of subtlety in the culture at large. The visual and narrative innovation is no less impressive for its only partly-sympathetic subject matter, even if some Seinfeld-y  winces at painfully dumb characters crop up here and there.

It’s unlikely that this cinematic style will catch on anytime soon, since it took Kotlyarenko three years of grueling indie post-production to get all the good stuff up on screen. Something with funding could crank it out faster, but without a director so single-mindedly obsessed with getting every detail right (and with the same sense of humor), the conceit could end up as tonedeaf as the creepy 3D “acting” in Mars Needs Moms.

All thought and criticism aside, I can say that I left the theater feeling as though I’d just been led through a story in a language I hadn’t known I could speak. I’ve never felt that before, and doubt that I will anytime soon. See it if you get a chance. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog