Hot Property: Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here
Written by Chris Chang
Daniel Cockburn’s film ends with an odd disclaimer: “This movie does not necessarily represent the views or ideas of John Searle.” Searle, as a handful of you may know, is an American philosopher who postulated, among many other things, the Chinese Room thought experiment. To vastly oversimplify: Alan Turing’s “Turing Test,” another, earlier “experiment,” answered the question “Can machines think?” with an affirmative. In You Are Here, Searle’s rejection of Turing’s argument is enacted on screen: a solitary man sits in a room. A sheet of paper with Chinese writing is slipped under the door. The man, who does not speak Chinese, uses a set of manuals to interpret the message based on the shape of the characters alone. Using the same method, he composes a response in Chinese, and then slips it back out. The process demonstrates the possibility that, even when it appears that cognition is happening, sometimes it actually isn’t.
Cockburn’s metanarrative never mentions Turing and only acknowledges Searle in the closing credits. Instead, the film shows a variety of people engaged in activities that slowly reveal that they are perhaps not truly conscious and most definitely not in control of their lives. A man named Alan forgets his computer password (which isn’t that strange, except that he’s played from one shot to the next by multiple male and female actors of varied ethnicity). Four employees in an office incessantly make phone calls tracking the movements of various operatives who are moving about the city with no apparent destination or purpose. An archivist’s materials are either “moving themselves around” or she’s moving them herself without remembering that she’s done so.
Early festival reviews have called the film “charming” and “playful” and mention affinities to Charlie Kaufman. All true, but this is also a twisted exegesis on the dissolution of identity, the disappearance of will, and, eventually, the loss of mind—depredations all brought about by seemingly benign social activities. It’s very clever yet, in the end, undeniably sinister.
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