The cyber-chaos of ‘0s & 1s’

Remember logging off? 0s & 1s does, but only barely. Eugene Kotlyarenko’s proto-desktop film renders life on the brink of a full-scale digital takeover, a true work of internet brainworms so dense and cacophonous that its 2011 release date and 2006 setting are still shocking. The film’s prescience emerges not only from its interface-first format, but through the way it so perfectly (and chaotically) conflates our own analogue human experience with the digital computer experience of our devices, articulated through a day or two in the life of James Pongo (Morgan Krantz – a pretty boy somewhere between Gabe Gundacker and KJ Apa). James is an LA twentysomething cruising comfortably until one day he gets too drunk, his system crashes, and his laptop is stolen at a friend’s party. Along with it, “everything… that I’ve worked for, worked on…”

James is as cut as up as you’d be in a similar spot, with no iCloud backup to keep his data safe in lieu of its physical container. But 0s & 1s is less about the lost content on James’ laptop as it is about the withdrawals he experiences in the computer’s absence – the chaos of being, however temporarily, unplugged. Setting James off on a wildly convoluted escapade, party host Norm (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) passes on a list of all the previous nights’ attendees, potential suspects James is forced to interrogate in increasingly bizarre circumstances. Adding insult to injury, the index is entirely composed of former high school associates from whom James has spent years trying to distance himself. 

In the search for his computer, James is forced to tick the names off the list one by one in the search for the culprit, a series of engagements which Kotlyarenko approaches in kaleidoscopic form. Although the film initially appears to take place comfortably within the confines of James’ desktop screen, it’s not defined by its adherence to this strictly screen-recorded format – this is no Timur Bekmambetov joint. Despite the loss of James’ laptop, and thus its use as a formal device in the film’s opening sequences, familiar tech overlays continue to frame his interactions far beyond the computer screen.

Sometimes, the film becomes a frantic venture through a blogroll: a drop-in with hopeless romantic Becky (Alexi Wasser) is composed as a snapshot of her sparkly pink blog, complete with gifs, an in-site music player, and video windows of her and James in conversation. A late stretch in the film turns the narrative into a 16bit video game world overview, not dissimilar to the level select screen in any given Super Mario Bros, where James’ avatar chases another suspect across the map. From there, the film momentarily morphs into Doom (1993), with James traversing pixelated dungeons, list in hand. Other times, it inexplicably becomes a sitcom, as a run-in with a suspect’s grandfather is backed by a studio laugh track and TV static lines. 

A handful of 0s & 1s’ interfaces.

Unmoored from the rigid rules of any one graphic style, Kotlyarenko and visual effects supervisor Andrew Schwartz – a VFX guru with credits on everything from Warcraft (2016) to Stuart Little 2 (2002), Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) to Godzilla (2014) – are free to mix and match, pick and choose; to go wild with screens and overlays and internet experimentation. Forget what you know about operating systems: 0s & 1s gives life to some kind of alternate reality potpourri of them all, part Windows XP, Windows 95; part 00s Macintosh; part cracked out Linux; but at the same time, not quite any. Perspectives continually shift, impossibly so – everything becomes a frame, environments are recontextualised as a desktop or a website or a program at random. 

It’s a true work of 21st century maximalism, undoubtedly a counterpart to the purist desktop films of the Unfriended series. But 0s & 1s is so barely concerned with any semblance of desktop realism, without a pixel-perfect display in sight; instead, it sticks magnets to the hard drive and projects the results. Stylistically, it’s Natural Born Killers (1994) via Screenlife, an exercise in randomised computer graphics, fusing ordinary life with binary code. 

It’s exactly this formal chaos gives way to some of the film’s best moments, idiosyncrasies impossible to imagine in another type of film. One such moment stages James’ casual grilling of a culprit as multicam footage broadcasted within a free 15-day trial of a mock surveillance software “SpyApp”. The scene is covered from multiple angles and arranged in splitscreen à la a modern De Palma bit – shot, reverse shot, and wide shot all sit in the frame within a frame, overlapping, giving a full perspective on the scene. Within this, phones pop up on screen showing messages being sent in real time, flashbacks occur in extra windows and progress bars count up and down, ever changing. Fucking mayhem!

Navigating from point A to point B is rarely simple, and the paths aren’t made clear. Evidently, they’re even harder to put into words. There’s so much happening that blink and you’ll miss it – a click, a scroll, a pop-up, a transition. The New York Times dubbed it the “ultimate has-to-be-seen-more-than-once movie.” What feels like digital free association is, however, undoubtedly the work of a meticulous eye: the film is a product of a careful three-year-long post-production process. Condensing the density and hyperactivity of digital life is not an easy feat, and many have tried to carve social media up onscreen, but 0s & 1s makes this incoherence look easy.    

Most strikingly, it reminded me of the way so many of my memories are inexplicably hardwired to specific locations on multiplayer maps from the Call of Duty games I poured hundreds of hours into in high school. Whenever I think of certain people or things, my mind races to some part of the map: early Earl Sweatshirt takes me to the bridge on ‘Bailout’ from one of Modern Warfare 2’s (2009) DLC packs. On ‘Sub Base’, there’s an elevated walkway in the middle that makes me think of Timbaland, a pathway around the back that’s so distinctly attached to late-00s Black Eyed Peas, and the rooftop section makes me think of the social media movie ticket giveaways we sometimes do on this site. I have no idea why! I haven’t properly played the game for the better part of a decade! It’s hard to recall these connections off the top of my head, and near impossible for me to explain how or why that is, but certain keywords just send my mind to these virtual places. 

On some level, I think that 0s & 1s understands this. James loses his laptop at the beginning of the film, seemingly forfeiting the film’s claim to this desktop form. But this style never dissipates. Human communication continues to be rendered through the lens of these interfaces, the narrative endlessly filtered through these frames upon frames: a seemingly infinite series of apps, browser windows, chat windows, and screens. The film so cleverly articulates the way our memories have become intertwined with the digital realm, the way our experiences are painted by these digital frameworks in lieu of any actual physical devices. Even in their absence, they act as all-pervasive frames in our lives, in our experiences, and in our memory. The internet broke our brains; 0s & 1s just shows us how much.

0s & 1s will be playing on 22 February as part of the Hyperlinks festival.

Visit the Hyperlinks site for more info. 

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Samuel Harris is an early career academic, an editor at Rough Cut and Michael Bay apologist. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.

Samuel Harris

Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University and has written for Cool Accidents and Catalyst Magazine. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.