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Courtesy of Erin Espelie

April 19, 2016

The Lanthanide Series at Cornell Cinema

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The Lanthanide Series is an experimental video essay produced by Cornell alumna Erin Espelie, and its subject is the series of rare-earth metals used throughout history in the production and replication of images: first in the obsidian “black mirrors” of early societies, now in your iPhone screen. The film has no plot, characters or dialogue. Instead, it consists mostly of shots of industry, the natural world and spliced-in clips from outside sources, with a narrator reading in monotone over the top. Interposed are references to historical figures, like Gutenberg and Primo Levi, who had some hand in the process of image creation.

Exactly what point Espelie is using all these techniques and subjects to make is a little unclear. The film successfully draws a connection between the technology of the past and of the present, but doesn’t seem to have any insight into that connnection. After all, it’s pretty self-evident that people have always wanted to reproduce images, right? Though there are recognizable motifs, like duplication — see the shots of mirrors being stacked on one another, the doubled suns, and the young boy holding up a smartphone to a monkey’s cage — these visual tricks don’t build towards any larger point. They’re just there, for you to read or not read at your discretion.

I will concede that you could write everything I know about avant-garde cinema on a Post-it note; besides, it’s not like I’m interested in trashing an obscure film obviously made out of love. So I read up on this film online, hoping experimental film lovers could help me understand what it is I’m missing. Unfortunately, no one, even the film’s fans, seems to be able to decode The Lanthanide Series. What keeps coming up is descriptions of it that use words like “examination,” “meditation” and “reflection.” One writer describes it as a “rumination on the very nature of the mediated image and its inherent distortion,” which I agree is true, but isn’t the point of examining, ruminating, meditating, and reflecting on a given subject to actually come to some conclusion about it?

The film, however, can be appreciated as a series of pretty images. Espelie has a talent for creating shots, and I thought there was real wit in the way a pond’s surface is likened to a mirror, and in the reappropriation of a droolingly pro-industry film about the wonders of the glass industry. The point here, I assume, is to show how modern industry has created a society in which duplicated and reflected images are everywhere. But the images onscreen just don’t ever build into anything coherent. For every nice shot, there’s a weak one, like the endless, momentum-killing take of a light turning on and off in darkness, or the graphic of a periodic table being (very slowly) assembled. Like its subject matter, The Lanthanide Series is all surface.

I think a big influence, though he goes unmentioned in the film, is the French theorist Jean Baudrillard, who pointed out that modern societies have replaced reality with symbols and signs, and that we’re now unable to distinguish an image from the subject which it depicts. He came to mind because of the film’s concluding revelation is that “the images seen here were captured in the reflection of a modern-day black mirror: a disabled electronic tablet made of lanthanides.” I assume what we’re being told here is a point also found in Baudrillard, that our experience of reality is now entirely mediated by technological images. Baudillard’s Simulacra and Simulation famously also inspired The Matrix, which, wooden acting notwithstanding, is definitely a more interesting film than this one.

Puzzlingly, The Lanthanide Series ends with “The End” by The Doors, which any good cinephile knows plays at the climax of Apocalypse Now. I have two guesses on why Espelie would reuse such a famous reference; one, she’s implying that we’re nearing some sort of technological doomsday because of our inability to tell images apart from source material, and two, that she gets a kick out of replicating a reference in a film all about replication. This is the kind of ironic metajoke that you’re supposed to knowingly snort at, inwardly congratulating yourself for getting it. Not my taste: but then again, am I just misinterpreting her? In a film with no exposition or forward motion, who’s to say?

I feel like I’m being too mean about this. The bottom line is this is a well-made experimental avant-garde film aimed for the festival circuit, where audiences will probably be a bit more receptive to its style and tone. I feel no obligation to go easy on this film, which I was frankly bored by, but if I was part of the community that produces and watches such films — my guess is it’s all the same people — I’d probably appreciate it more. But if the question that I’m being tasked to answer here is, “Should you see this,” I’m forced to answer no: it’s an intellectual exercise that I personally think could have exercised a little bit harder. Like obsidian, The Lanthanide Series is opaque. Make of it what you will.

Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mvanzile@cornellsun.com. 

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