The so-called ‘desktop movie,’ a film visually told predominantly or entirely through the setup of a computer screen, has had a couple of high-profile examples over the last few years. Among these are Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows (2014), Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman’s short Noah (2013), and, most notably in terms of mainstream success, Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014). 2018 would seem to be a major year for the genre, if you can call it a genre just yet, with the wide release of sequel Unfriended: Dark Web, Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile playing festivals, and now the release, through Sony, of Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching. It is worth noting that Bekmambetov also produced the two of those 2018 titles he didn’t direct, so there’s at least one benefactor devoted to making the form catch on. With the exception of something like Kevin B. Lee’s essay film Transformers: The Premake (2014), the desktop movies that have gained critical or commercial traction have tended to stick to the mode of horror. Given that the Internet’s terrors seem endless, it’s an understandable creative instinct. Searching stands out, though, as it’s firmly in the mode of an investigative thriller: after his 16-year-old daughter disappears, a desperate father (John Cho) breaks into her laptop to find any clues he can in order to find her. At this year’s Locarno Festival, Searching played late at night to up to 8,000 attendees in the open-air cinema at the Piazza Grande. In the context of the festival as a whole, an interesting comparison to the film came in the form of an entry in the festival’s Signs of Life strand, devoted to experimental cinema.
Thai director Tulapop Saenjaroen’s 29-minute short A Room with a Coconut View received its world premiere at the festival, paired in a double-bill with Jodie Mack’s debut feature, The Grand Bizarre. A Room with a Coconut View isn’t a desktop movie in the style of Searching, but rather it’s presented in the guise of an interactive hotel video or software. The short is actually credited as ‘A video by,’ rather than ‘A film by.’ When asked why during a Q&A session after the premiere, Tulapop bluntly stated because it’s a video, not a film, but briefly expanded to explain that so much of the video was made with so many pre-existing effects templates that it might be suspect to give it a label that implies a greater level of creation from the ground up.
In the short, the automated voice of an AI hotel representative, Kanya, engages in conversation with a foreign guest, Alex, taking him on an informative visual tour of Bang Saen, a beach town in Thailand. The tour starts off with footage of the various facilities on offer at the hotel, before Alex—whose voice also sounds automated—throws a curveball and asks for information about the town beyond the images he’s being presented. Alex then decides to explore the town and its history outside of the regimented spiel he’s fed by the hotel rep, all while the video’s look remains in the style of the hotel software, complete with an onscreen mouse, buffering notices, stock photos and fonts that also wouldn’t look out of place in a karaoke video.
The two engage in witty and somewhat philosophical exchanges, with Alex tripping up Kanya by asking about subtext the guide doesn’t understand. For example, a short film clip of a 1980 biopic of notorious Thai politician, businessman and organized crime boss Somchai “Kamnan Poh” Khunpluem is shown, with the guide listing off the fact that the figure plays himself and also executive produced the movie. Alex then asks if Kanya personally thinks he subsidized the project just to promote himself, leaving Kanya confused and only able to answer that they can’t find the relevant data. Amusingly, since Kanya only has the short footage of the biopic to source while telling Alex about Kamnan Poh, some of the details of his various misdeeds soundtrack footage of a tourist playing on a water slide.
In a way, both of these interface films—as seems an appropriate descriptor to refer to the pair—are about trying to break free of the frame; early in A Room with a Coconut View, Alex states he personally believes in “the paradox that an image can only show what is in the frame but can never show what is in the frame only.” Each uses the expectations of the respective interface aesthetics to fuel our emotional responses to the work, and both put you in the headspace of the character navigating the system presented onscreen. A Room with a Coconut View’s play with an emotional response is largely done with comedy and some surreal, disorienting touches, such as when Kanya falls asleep while giving a presentation, leading Alex and the viewer to witness a coalescing of disparate archive footage, the images bleeding into one another. Searching does so with how the various websites, apps and camera-based media either worsen or aid the protagonist’s state of mind in various ways. In not restricting its screen interface aesthetic to just a laptop (FaceTime calls and television news reports are also heavily used), Searching sets itself apart from its aforementioned terror-based brethren, though Branden Kramer’s horror film Ratter (2015), about a hacker stalking a grad student through all of her web-connected devices that have cameras, also framed its interface visuals in a more varied fashion.
Searching—not to spoil any of the reveals of its whodunit story—is heavily concerned with the carefully curated nature of images we’re presented and how we create exaggerated identities through technology that often bear little resemblance to how we actually are. A Room with a Coconut View, as a much looser work, is a little harder to pin down in terms of definitive subjects, but Tulapop definitely seems interested in curation of images, too, particularly in how the history of a place is cherry-picked for presentation to a given audience, and in how the regulation of that place’s development in the present is inextricably linked to that presentation of its past. In terms of construction, where the two movies at Locarno differ in their use of one’s expectations of the presented interfaces is how rigidly they stick to the ‘rules’ of the software. Searching is so devoted to accuracy and familiarity that it has an opening montage in which a family’s history is told entirely through a decade-plus montage of computer interactions. Older versions of Windows, other programs, and websites make an appearance in contextualizing the time period for the exposition that’s conveyed solely through computer use. We watch a mouse create user accounts for all the family, calendar reminders be set up, correspondence about the matriarch’s ailing health get sent, and videos and other files get archived after the mother’s death. The information conveyed is always clear; by the nature of the film’s investigative story, every onscreen image is designed to cumulatively make sense. In contrast, the final few minutes of A Room with a Coconut View delve into outright hallucinogenic mode after it’s implied Alex has smoked a joint. The archive videos blend with disorienting screen-invading colors in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Star Gate sequence. The software interface fuses with a drug-addled mind so that the lines separating them are blurred; the breaking free of the frame would seem to have been achieved. But then again, as a third voice in the short suggests at one point, maybe it’s best not to force so much rationality on what is going on.