I haven’t yet seen all of the Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short, but in this post I’ll make a couple of observations about Don Hertzfeldt’s wonderful film, World of Tomorrow. It didn’t win the Oscar, though it did win the Grand Prize for Short Film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it is very much worth your time. You can see the film at Vimeo on Demand or Netflix. It’s available many other places, though I don’t know how many of them are legal.
Aside from the fact that this is an intelligent, funny, sad(ish) film, there are two points in it that I want to note, rather than review the film as a whole. To summarize, a cloned woman from the future contacts her original self and tells her about life in the centuries ahead. The woman, named Emily, tells her prime self, a young girl, how this cloning process came about – and how, in two instances, it intersects the world of art.
First, future Emily tells of how an artist placed a clone of himself in a tube and exhibited him as a work of art. The clone was mindless, and simply stood and blinked for the duration of its like. Visitors came to watch; it became a favorite exhibit at the museum. This is actually a pretty cool, if morally ambiguous, idea for an artwork. Is it mistreatment if the subject has no consciousness? It is unkind to what is not sentient, but simply empty flesh and bone? Preserving the dead in one form or other is generally not looked upon as cruel – mummies are often star exhibits in museums.
Watching a live person can seem voyeuristic, but not necessarily. Consider the performance work Tilda Swinton has done at several venues, where she sleeps in a glass case. She is alive, but does not interact with the viewer. Marina Abramovic’s work, The Artist is Present, has similar qualities, but differs in that the interaction, as with the clone, is entirely silent but definitely person to person. The clone does not interact, because there’s no one there.
Later, Emily describes how memories were first extracted from the dead, but such random collections of neuron impulses provided experiences without context, something rather like found photography. Emily opened a gallery of these memories, showing them as works of art. This is not a new idea, as found photos and other items have been displayed together as art. Again, I find it completely believable.
The best science fiction provides just enough of the believable to make the unbelievable palatable. Rarely is a science fiction story meant to be prophetic; SF and fantasy are so often lumped together because they are two facets of the same gem. World of Tomorrow succeeds so beautifully in that its ideas are presented without a lot of science masquerading as justification for the fantastic. It is drawn from today, not tomorrow. Much of what is shown could easily come true. We are fascinated with ourselves, and Hertzfeldt shows us two sides of that: a body without memories, and memories without owners. In the end Emily asks her prime self for a memory, one that has been lost in passing from clone to clone. What she asks, and why she asks it, I will leave alone. Spoilers are not what I’m here for.