While the filmmaking process has had to undergo massive changes since the default adoption of digital media, most films still look similar to their analog predecessors in both style (filmmakers often process digital files to mimic the look of celluloid) and in narration: beginning, middle and end. But, even as we’re looking down into the barrel of the cinematic afterlife, embracing digital media right now just means making movies explicitly on the internet, or attempting to watch it. It takes a New Wave-adjacent director to “explode the shot” for us once again with organically reconsidered digital techniques.
Presented as a contemporary interpretation of Bresson Au Hasard Baldassarre, Jerzy Skolimowski follows the titular donkey from his beginnings in a Polish circus with loving keeper Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska) to the end of his life after going through several owners and professions. Eo is removed from Kasandra’s care early in the film at the behest of an animal rights law which states that animals cannot be used in circus performances, which becomes ironic as the film progresses and Eo’s living conditions And or they are, at best, a little worse. , and macabre at worst. Most of the film takes on Eo’s embodied worldview: characters unceremoniously peel off or appear randomly, based on their proximity to the donkey. In a literal sense, we often find Eo’s head sweeping across the frame, dwarfing the rest of his body and surroundings, which is what I imagine a donkey is like. Just like Belshazzar, the effect is suggestive of empathy: as spectators, we animate Eo with our own emotions by anthropomorphizing his gestures. That Eo chases after Kasandra when she visits him after their separation, that he kicks a petty fur farmer (the film’s only real villain) in the guts to stop him from electrocuting other foxes: let’s translate these actions into a personality and love Eo because of this.
Although it would normally follow that this is a classic example of a film about animal rights and subjectivity Belshazzarthis is not an animal rights movie and EO it is not Belshazzar. Belshazzar lives in the canon as an exemplary meditation on issues of self-determination and control during the accelerating mechanization of French agriculture but, to modern viewers, it stands to reason that a donkey has been overtaken by machines, making the animal more or less useless as regarding productivity. Eo has no control over his life as various owners struggle to find creative uses for him. As far as fiction goes, Eo’s purpose is simply to be a liability, or novelty accessory, for someone else. In one of the film’s more memorable chapters, Eo escapes from the petting zoo where he’s been deployed and is captured by animal control, who happens to be on his way to playing at a local soccer match. The fact that they have a newly acquired donkey doesn’t stop them from attending the game, then celebrating with their new mascot in a seedy club.
The question for the director of Eo: what to do with a living being after its functional use has been rendered obsolete? Skolimowski’s answer is delightful and daunting, thoughtful but never boring. The Polish director himself said that the main criteria for his work are 1. to be aesthetic and 2. not boring. While contemporary filmmakers still struggle to embrace new forms of media (such as digital video) without applying the same constraints demanded by traditional cinema, Skolimowski embraces the freedom digital media allows without slipping into hyperbole. EO it intertwines between incredibly sharp and unnatural images and fragmented stroboscopic effects, as if we were in a disco or looking through the nose of a microscope. There are moments of soft, old-time vignetting, but the effect is less filmic than haunting and incongruously pristine. At other times, Skolimowski strays from his standard subjective/claustrophobic framing of Eo’s head and body, zooming all the way in and giving us data – well, wide-angle footage – that overwhelms us. There is no focus in these drone shots because Everything it’s in focus. We don’t have enough time to scan it properly and our visual processors fail. Meanwhile, the film’s relentless soundtrack relies on classical instrumentation but is often interrupted by computer sounds. At some point, the distinction between organic sounds and computer-generated sounds dissolves, which seems discordant until you realize they’re all processed through the same machinery anyway. The orchestra becomes a machine and the computer becomes an instrument, and only our processing faculties differentiate them.
Overall, the questions we ask Eo throughout the film – mostly, what to do with him all day – aren’t that far removed from the question we might consider asking ourselves: what to do with the increasingly outdated form of the traditional film format. Is the arthouse film itself a thing of the past? Skolimowski doesn’t seem to think so. Indeed, the best moments of Eo’s life are expressed in the joyful prologue, when he is a simple circus entertainer with a beautiful woman who takes care of him. Everyone’s favorite exaggeration about technology is that it won’t be long before we’re just brains in a bottle, feeding ourselves entertainment and experience without really demanding anything else from our bodies. The senses become everything. But right now, we have our awkward oversized bodies and a need to do something real with them while we’re alive. In the same way that Eo doesn’t transition into being a donkey in 2022, EO it speaks to a world where your hardware is too slow for the tasks you were born to do, but you do them regardless. The afterlife of cinema lies in the idiosyncrasies of life, in the insistence on slowing down and looking again.
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