Old-world statues and paintings seem no match for VR headsets in Common Carrier, James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s dizzying experimental essay on what the everyday life of an artist looks like in the 21st century. In much the same way in which the omnipresent radio soundtrack shifts seamlessly between news, hip-hop, and ads, Wilkins’s film skips back and forth between different artists apparently plucked from real life and layers images on top of one another, creating a cannily cacophonous atmosphere which suggests that the true challenge to imagination is maintaining the necessary focus. ISP strikes, custody battles, delivery problems, YouTube tutorials, or just the pervasiveness of screens—it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to create or just trying to get by, the potential for distraction is limitless.
The figure of Wilkins himself forms the nominal center around which the documentary orbits, an apparently penniless filmmaker anxiously waiting for FedEx to return the DCP of one of his films who passes the time by carrying out unnecessary home repairs. Via phone conversations, evening beers, or chats over coffee, connections are progressively forged to the remaining characters, all of whom work in the arts in one way or another: a housesitting filmmaker looking after a sick parrot; a father living upstate New York who spends his time fighting a custody battle, writing a horror movie script for Amazon Studios, and carrying out house renovations for cash; a property-owning sculptress living with her grown-up son whose family don’t approve of her situation; a 73-year-old ex-gallerist who now sources art pieces via eBay; a worker at a call center who deals with constant enquiries about an ongoing Verizon strike; a self-declared urban shaman. While this loose group is pointedly diverse, the same problems pop up for all of them, including the strains of precarious living, the impossibility of making ends meet with art alone, the primacy of the Internet even as access to it can’t be relied on, and all the cellphones that won’t stop ringing.
Yet describing the various protagonists in such a way makes Common Carrier sound far more like a conventional documentary than it actually is, as the film endeavors to smudge boundaries and create a mood of dispersion and interference at all times. The best approximation of its guiding principle here is that of a hand turning a radio dial, which not coincidentally forms one of the opening images. Whether on the almost constant soundtrack, which splices together New York public radio and a hip-hop station, or the way in which the film meanders between its characters, different voices and sounds fade in and out at will, the corporate always threatens to drown out the personal and the political, snatched fragments usually take precedent over lengthier discussions, and bursts of feedback noise can emerge at any time.
The sense of being flung between different processes unfolding in parallel is mirrored in the camerawork, as every frame consists of a superimposition of two separate, usually moving images, allowing different perspectives on the same situation to be stacked on top of one another or fresh sets of ideas to be introduced before the previous ones have even left the screen. The resultant barrage of visual information is both jarring and strangely exhilarating in its density, with striking, necessarily fleeting compositions also emerging again and again from the flow, such as the surreally beautiful sight of a baby dancing before a sunlit garden or a fireworks display being pulled down from the sky and onto the cityscape below.
Common Carrier’s freewheeling volatility is further amplified once it becomes clear that what the protagonists are saying can’t necessarily be taken at face value, as certain people appear to be reading from a script and others are quite literally acting. Even Wilkins is seemingly performing some sort of constructed persona rather than his actual self, another smart smudging of boundaries that keeps the precise amount of irony contained within all the oft-earnest observations conveniently unclear.
Many of Wilkins’s concerns—the difficultly of making art in a corporate world, the bizarreness of technology, digression as a navigational strategy—are familiar from his acclaimed 2016 short Indefinite Pitch, which attained a level of precision and clarity in 23 minutes that this feature-length work is unable to match. Yet while the dense, twitchy construction of Common Carrier can make it feel at times rambling and overstuffed, it’s precisely this quality which makes it such an effective model for contemporary life. When faced with a torrent of distractions of all kinds, perhaps all one can do is sift through the discordant mix of sounds, images, and positions to isolate those that mean something or that might serve as inspiration, regardless of whether you’re a New York artist, the viewer of this film, or indeed anyone else. If nothing else, it’s better to make a mix tape of your own than have one made for you.
BAMcinemaFest runs from June 14—25.