There may be more focussed documentarians in America today, but few are as ambitious as Theo Anthony has become. In his second feature, All Light, Everywhere, he sets his sights on nothing less than the history of human perception since the late 19th century, beginning with attempts to chart the movement of Venus as it passes across the sun in the sky, and hurtling through to the modern-day use of body cams in police departments across the United States and the world.
The thesis of this particular essay film is broad, encompassing those on all sides of the camera apparatus: inventors, those using the camera, and those viewing back the footage. In other words, the camera is only as objective as the person using it, which is to say, it’s not objective at all.
Indeed, for Anthony, the history of human perception ultimately mutates into a history of scientific abstraction and rationalisation, of human beings attempting to represent that which cannot be represented and predict what cannot be predicted. In the historical portions of the film, he delineates attempts to study human and animal movements using cameras, pointing out that every experiment was done in the controlled environment of a studio. Even science can and will be staged.
More importantly, the history of scientific rationalisation manifests itself today as an almost mindless race forward into more surveillance and more imagery, under the guise of corporate “progress”. Another thread in the film’s web of subjects is a tour around the headquarters of body cam and taser manufacturer Axon, given by spirited representative, Steve Tuttle. Anthony shows up the theatrical hysterics of PR, often leaving the dead time either side of many of the clips while Tuttle waits for him to shout action, making for some awkward, frozen silences.
The film’s finest moment comes when Tuttle is introducing the new Axon Network project. Beginning in a close medium shot of Tuttle, Anthony zooms out as more products fitted with Axon cameras appear in the frame. Sunglasses on his face; then a body cam fitted to another employee’s chest; then a drone; then a car. But the moment’s hilarity sours, as Tuttle and his colleague train their tasers on a dummy and freeze for the most chilling succession of shots I’ve seen all year: footage of the scene from every Axon camera around the dummy, all held uncomfortably long. In a single scene, Anthony delineates the panopticon of modern surveillance while also maintaining each camera’s ambivalent, supposedly “objective” gaze.
Where Anthony falls down, then, is in assuming the need for a get-out-of-jail-free card, a device that will absolve him of any blame for exactly the assumption of the camera’s objectivity held by people like Tuttle. His tactic is to foreground the film’s construction, often showing himself in shots or displaying his Premiere Pro timeline on which he has edited the very film we are watching. Because these moments are poorly integrated, they come off as too witty and intellectually unimaginative for a film as otherwise perceptive and composed as this.
All Light, Everywhere is available in select US cinemas now
by Thomas Atkinson
Thomas Atkinson is studying journalism at City University of London, hailing from the New Forest. He has spent much of the past five years watching movies, and some of the past three years writing about them. His favourite films include Beau Travail, Zodiac, Heat, Only Angels Have Wings, Close-Up and Eraserhead. His life-force largely consists of Ted Danson’s bow ties in The Good Place, Pauline Kael’s books, and the intro to OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’, which he rightfully claims to be the greatest song ever written. He has Letterboxd.