Peter Strickland's Cold Meridian is exclusively showing on MUBI starting December 11, 2020 in the Luminaries series.
Cold Meridian started life as a commission from the London Short Film Festival in 2019 when they were planning an ASMR event. My most recent feature film, In Fabric, embraced the possibilities of the phenomenon known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and I felt that it was time to move on, especially as my previous films all unwittingly employed similar sonic tropes before I even knew that there was a name for such a euphoric response to certain tactile sounds. However, as soon as I decided to move away from ASMR, this commission came along.
My connection to ASMR goes way back to childhood, only I never really questioned it. If a friend peeled off football stickers to put into an album or if a librarian was whispering, I experienced a mild form of euphoria and just assumed that everyone felt like this. I didn’t question my enjoyment of the texture of those sounds as much as someone else wouldn’t question the enjoyment of the texture of ice cream in the mouth. An array of seemingly nondescript yet alluring sounds managed to cast a spell on me throughout my life such as whispering, page turning and pencils writing on paper. For years, I failed to make sonic connections even when tuning into music that made explicit use of key ASMR sounds, such as Robert Ashley, Luc Ferrari, Franco Battiato, Costin Miereanu and Nurse with Wound. My response to that music was not theoretical even though plenty of theory had been written about the names mentioned. The sounds I was listening to were incredibly tactile, evocative, inviting and sensual without being erotic. There was a mystery to what I was hearing and the sounds had the power to transport me into a lull and I naturally pursued these mini reveries for my feature films with a degree of naivety until somebody suggested I look up what ASMR is. What I read on the internet suddenly connected those childhood football stickers to music such as Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing.
The brief from the London Short Film Festival was purely to make an ASMR film with no specific remit beyond that. A vast number of highly skilled practitioners on YouTube already did a very effective job of provoking an autonomous sensory meridian response in viewers and their innate understanding of those sounds and their effects lent itself to the mode of computers. I wasn’t sure what I could do that would improve on what was already available and besides, ASMR works much better in private where the viewer can fall into a lull and fully hear the most intimate of sounds. ASMR in an auditorium, on the other hand, is more of a performance than an immersion purely by its communal nature. With this in mind, I focused more on making a film about ASMR rather than a film that embodied it.
Cold Meridian centers on the activities of a fictitious ASMR streaming channel, only what we see feels more like an intense, anxious dream than an actual real life event, as it segues into much darker and distinctly unrelaxing territory. The front credits state that two dancers are making preparations for a "performance" and it’s unclear whether those credits are what we are watching or what the viewers in the film are watching too. The film weaves in and out of these different realities, both virtual and oneiric until it’s not clear which is which. It’s also not clear if we’re in the dream of a performer or viewer or both.
The juxtaposition of soft, sensual whispering with photographs of a primal, sexually confrontational rehearsal take the film into the realm of a dark ASMR dream even though we clearly see that the aggression is acted and that the practitioners are calmly assessing the photographs of their own violent actions during the rehearsal. That push and pull between reality and performance and the virtual and the oneiric is something I wanted to explore for this film. The stark contrast between intense, confrontational images and the soft, whispered voice of the dancer also takes the film far away into something more restless and feverish, yet still with a somnambulant tempo. Cold Meridian features hints of social media satire when it comes to the relationship between the performer and the viewer and the need to be watched, liked and commented on. In the dream-like reality of this film, the performer can enter the viewer’s life, yet the viewer still has the power to switch the performer off. The gaze in its various manifestations is ever present, from the camera that the performer sets up to the viewers and to me, as the director. The question of the gaze also inevitably leads into voyeurism, which is inescapably intertwined with ASMR practitioners and their online audience. The voyeuristic impulse of the viewer is suddenly challenged by the online performer who magically comes to life and questions their actions. The idea of streaming content as something inert is challenged when the online performer confronts the viewer with questions, which poses a further question of who controls whom. The performer has the power to addict the viewer, yet the viewer also has the ability to switch off the performer.
If taken at face value, Cold Meridian charts the preparations for the dancer’s performance: her hair being washed, sketches for the choreography and the archiving of rehearsal photographs with her partner, which all invoke an autonomous sensory meridian response from an audience inclined that way. We never see the actual performance, but we clearly get a sense of what it could be.
Stylistically, the use of stills in some sequences comes from a music video I made for the band GUO earlier in 2019. The kinetic effect of stills rapidly edited to convey the movement and struggle of naked bodies was something I wanted to explore further with Cold Meridian. Whereas the stills in the GUO music video were actual photographs, the stills in Cold Meridian were frames from a Super 8 shoot of the dance rehearsals. Also the paradox of using analogue technology for a film about the digital medium seemed to push it more into the realm of a dream.
Although ASMR is very much the entry point into the film, I wanted to explore different realities as well as emphasize the role of ritual as we see, based on the viewer numbers, how many thousands of times the dancer’s actions are played out whether in reality or within a dream. The perpetual nature of the dancer being activated or switched off by the viewer reminds me of a music box I came across during childhood, which featured a slowly spinning ballerina each time it was opened, only for it to lie dormant every time I closed the box. Therein lay all manner of mysteries.