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Dispatch from the Planetarium

At the Melbourne International Film Festival, a journey to planetarium cinema.

Sentient

“Is this solving space?”
Cymasonics Matrix Optimizer 2.0

 I took the train out. It was a Friday night, and I was surrounded by commuter ennui. From North Melbourne station to Footscray station I thought to myself: halfway through a film festival, exhausted by competing deadlines, on my thirtieth coffee of the week—these are the ideal conditions in which to go to the Planetarium. I thought to myself: I’ll just recline in my seat and surrender to the roof.

I was heading out to experience the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Fulldome Showcase at the Melbourne Planetarium in Spotswood. Two films were featuring: Sentient, a production of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Cymasonics Matrix Optimizer 2.0, a commercial of sorts for Planetarium software. The former turned out to be a cringe-worthy exploration of pop psychology, the latter an uncomfortably transcendent experience.

It was the bridge I noticed first, before I even laid eyes on the Planetarium. The walk from Spotswood train station to the screening venue encompassed a kilometre of factories and vacant lots, which eventually opened out into an impressive view of The West Gate Bridge.  Or rather, the street opened out onto a view of its outline, as the bridge’s structure, invisible in the dark, was traced by the moving lights of traffic flowing from east to west. These lights framed a stunning view of downtown Melbourne.

I was exhausted, in a suburb I had never visited and looking at the best view of Melbourne I had ever seen. Already my senses were heightened.

A group of guys in their mid-twenties, doing the trek from station to screening ahead of me, were heightening the mood for themselves. They frantically smoked a joint as they speed-walked to the Fulldome. One of them knew exactly what they were in for.

“Just wait, it’s gonna be wild,” he said, over and over again. “It’s gonna be wild.”

After the first film had screened I heard one of them ask him if he was bored.

“Dude of course not, I’m on mushrooms,” he replied.

After entering the Planetarium we took our seats and waited. The light inside was an eerie shade of light blue, the sheer unconventionality of the setting driving the audience to an audible sense of excitement.

We reclined in our seats and after a short introduction by the Planetarium Programmer, all lights in the Fulldome were switched off. Even the Exit signs were dimmed. We were lying in absolute darkness.

And then one word, repeated twice, floated above us.

Sentient.

I confess that its title is one of the few things I recall of Sentient.

The experience of the film was most notable for something that happened off-screen. Towards the end of the screening a man departed, opening the door connecting the Planetarium to the lobby. Because of the darkness of the room my attention was instantly drawn to this unexpected source of light.

How bizarre to witness, from my reclined position in the Planetarium audience, this man leaving. The door appeared to be on a Dutch angle, and because of the sheer size of the screen above us, the man appeared to be in miniature. Watching him leave instantly reminded me of the old couple in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., scurrying in fast motion out of that blue box at the end, driving Diane to her death. I laughed at the unexpectedly morbid thought. The film ended a short while later.

Cymasonics Matrix Optimiser 2.0

Cymasonics Matrix Optimiser 2.0, however, was a different story.  The black background of the film merged with the darkness of the Planetarium room, so that you had no idea where the screen ended and the room began.  The room and audience and Spotswood and the festival vanished, replaced by synthetic music, abstract lines and patterns, nothing but the here and now. These patterns and sounds appeared to travel through vast expanses of nothingness. The darkness of the screen and room all but obliterated any sense of scale. Consciousness slowly departed too, replaced by the immediacy of sensation. We were floating through nothing, experiencing patterns and sounds that you couldn’t even begin to rationalise.

At one point floating text asked us “is this solving space?” It wasn’t solving space so much as totally obliterating it by expanding its horizons infinitely.

That is, until a curious moment towards the end of the film. The electronic sounds that had hitherto constituted the soundtrack were replaced by a small sampling of guitars and what sounded like the voices of an audience. This music traveled with a beam of light from one side of the Fulldome to the other, before the abstract electronica returned.

The moment was fleeting, lasting barely twenty seconds. But its effects were remarkable. The use of guitar implied a person playing an instrument, the voices of an audience implied a delineated space surrounding the performance. After a viewing experience that had induced the experience of being engulfed in the void of space, experiencing sounds and images free of conscious interpretation, free of spatial limitations, it was jarring to suddenly imagine a group of musicians playing to an audience in a room. Musicians, audiences and rooms were concepts so far removed from the content and experience of the film thus far that their implication alone was enough to shatter the sensation of experiencing a vivid dream. I felt disoriented.

Afterwards I took the train from Spotswood back into the city. I was surrounded by pre-drinking Melbournians, getting ready for a Friday night on the town. Out the window of my carriage I watched the lights of the city flash by, from the intricately detailed streetlamps of the road running parallel with the tracks to the abstract glows emanating from skyscrapers tens of kilometres away. From Footscray station to North Melbourne station, I felt and thought nothing. Then my phone buzzed, and I remembered I had to be somewhere in half an hour.

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