And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine review: A brief history of the image

Mar 23, 2023 11:21 AM IST

And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine review: A visual essay on the century-long fascination with the photographic image, and the way we see the world.

In Swedish directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck's joint feature-length documentary debut ‘And the King Said, What a Fanstastic Machine’, which premiered at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival 2023, the world slowly but surely turns into an ever-widening nexus of looking into the camera. A documentary about the history of the photographic image and the process of subsequent documentation itself, this is a thrilling and thought-provoking carnival ride of a film that might just change the way you look at the world, and yourself. (Also read: Queendom review: No country for drag)

'And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine' premiered at CPH: DOCX.
'And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine' premiered at CPH: DOCX.

Beginning at a shopping center where the customers are taken into the prospect of a camera obscura, the documentary takes a narrative deep dive into the history of the camera and follows, chronologically, the fascinating obsession with the visual image. The title is derived in earnestness from the praise bestowed by Edward VII, who was amazed after seeing a 'recreation' of his coronation ceremony titled The Coronation Of Edward VII, which was filmed by Méliès in 1902. Parts of it which were dramatized, we are informed in the voiceover, was not originally a part of the ceremony. This small dramatization of the event is key to understanding how the camera can be used as a weapon for building information that might have an everlasting impact. The lack of perspective however, is what haunts the proceedings.

The series of archival footage and interviews that co-directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck conjure up, from Muybridge to Rebecca Roth, Sidney Bernstein to Ted Turner, thrillingly explore the politics behind the decisions of image making and documentation. When this very idea is thrown at German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, known for her role in producing Nazi propaganda, who details the innovative and masterful camera angles she devised to document the Nazi rally in Nuxemberg in an archival footage, she responds that it was entirely a technical influence to account for the "evidence" above everything else. Nothing more is added to underline the far-reaching effects of the point made here; the historical subtext is revealing enough to establish the concern. Later, we follow a scene as the World War II ends, where an archival footage shows in detail the mass grave that was formed, as a naked dead body is pulled over into the ground.

The wealth of material at display here is ravishingly edited by the directors and Mikel Cee Karlsson, whistling through decades of image-making tendencies to reveal the ways in which we observe the world and each other. The later half of Fantastic Machine turns its gaze into the modern day internet culture and digitalization, that has turned the world into a giant pool of information on overload. Where an act of 'reacting' can generate a profit on TikTok and Instagram, and has the power to make one famous to millions of people around the world.

A powerful moment when a youngster clicks a number of pictures of herself in public to then quickly zoom in later in the dark corner of her room to decide which one works better for her Instagram is quietly chilling. (These pauses amidst the cacophonous array of imagery create the space for reflecting on the nature of slippery truths.) This self-concern shows how overwhelmingly the rise of social media culture effects our ways of seeing the world catalogued into likes and reactions, invariably distorting the perceptions of ourselves and the world at large.

Triangle of Sadness director Ruben Östlund also joins as one of the executive producers for the project. Much like the Palme d'Or winning director's blend of satire and observational style, Fantastic Machine becomes a sharp, propulsive visual essay which serves as a biting critique of modern-day social media culture- where nothing is what it seems. The doom is embedded in the boom, and terrifyingly so. Where is this obsession headed? In an age, where everyone can be a creator of their own narrative, where is the pause for intention? The confrontation persists with hope. Prepare to be stunned.

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