Late this afternoon I submitted to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena, a six-and-a-half-minute virtual reality trip that simulates with all-encompassing realism what Mexican immigrants often go through while attempting to cross the United States border in the Southwestern desert region. It was my first virtual-reality-plus experience (not just sight and sound but a realistic vibe and an atmosphere that I was walking around in barefoot), and I was so knocked out I’m returning next week for a second go-round.
I took off my shoes and socks, strolled into a red-lighted sound stage with a floor covered in sand, put on a virtual reality backpack and headset and…bing, there I was. Or there it all was. The headset screen was circular and not CinemaScope-like as I’d expected, but I was suddenly standing in the pre-dawn desert amid the sloping mounds and cactus and slightly damp morning air. Then a small group of immigrants, led by a “coyote”, approached in the semi-darkness.
A few seconds later an overhead chopper approached, and then a blinding light hit my eyes. Border guards pulled up in a pair of SUVs, shouting and aiming their weapons and telling me to get the fuck down on my knees. I put my hands up and dropped to the ground, looking around and behind and all over. Then I got back up and started roaming around in a crouched combat position, feeling like Charlie Sheen or Willem Dafoe in Platoon. Then I got yelled at again: “Down on your knees…hit the ground…now!”
In short, within seconds I had forgotten the tech aspects and fallen into the reality of it. It wasn’t a viewing experience — it was a being experience. You can do a 360 any time to see what’s happening here or there. There were dozens of things I could have done including (I assume) challenge the guards and tell them to back off or say “yo…my personal hotspot isn’t working…do you know where I can find a reasonably decent wifi signal?” Mostly I crouched and watched and just took it all in. I was half-expecting to get shot at any moment. Which would have actually been cool, especially if the VR assistant had punched me in the chest at the exact moment the muzzle flash appeared.
Carne y Arena is an all-CG creation but sourced from actual footage with real actors. It was easily the most immersive, head-turning viewing I’ve ever sampled, tasted, felt and touched. And yet it also delivered in emotional terms, prompting me to feel compassion for immigrants all over. So yes, I now know a little bit about what it’s like to go through something like this for real. I felt intimidated, fearful. But I have to say that I simply loved the primal juice of it. I especially liked walking around that big desert sandbox barefoot.
Carne y Arena director Alejandro G. Inarritu, inside viewing hangar at the Cannes Mandelieu Airport — Thursday, 5.19, 3:35 pm.
It happened inside a cavernous aircraft hanger adjacent to the Cannes Mandelieu Airport, just west of Cannes La Bocca. Inarritu and dp Emmanuel Lubezski were hanging around in the check-in area. Alejandro, open and spirited as always, said he’d been planning and working on this thing for four years, give or take. It was only during the last year or two that advances in technology made their idea fully feasible.
“Virtual reality cinema is the next thing, the next realm…there’s no stopping it,” Alejandro said. “And this is only the beginning. This is nothing. What will follow in years to come will be amazing.” Except people are sampling Carne y Arena one by one — I was all alone in the sound stage — so the economic template might be difficult to figure if the goal is to make money with a travelling show of some kind.
Alejandro’s press release statement: “My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame, within which things are just observed, and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin and into their hearts.”
Alejandro was about to leave for Milan’s Fondazione Prada, where the installation will open on June 7th and remain until 1.15.18. He’ll be there a couple of days and then return to Cannes for some kind of filmmaker dinner that will also be attended by Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cauron. (The latter will sit for a Cannes Film Festival master class sometime next week.)
A slightly smaller but otherwise identical Carne y Arena installation will open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on July 2nd.