It was only a matter of time.
Video essay maker Davide Rapp has a strong sense of space and an affinity for architecture. He has used the videographic form to rearrange cinematic corridors, elevators, bedrooms, and entire houses. Those video essays can be interpreted as attempts to reclaim the overview that is lost when film reduces reality to a flat surface. They are visual experiments that refashion the two-dimensional movie screen into a spatial construct. So it was only a matter of time before Rapp set his sights on Virtual Reality and started to explore the spatial opportunities that technology offers.
His VR supercut Montegelato is exactly that. For his first foray into VR, Davide Rapp focuses on the Monte Gelato waterfalls, a natural attraction not far from Rome. Rapp knows the location well – not from visiting it in person, but from the many movies that used the waterfalls as a backdrop. With a couple of collaborators, Rapp tracked down almost 200 films, television series and commercials that were filmed there. He and his team digitized those scenes and used them to create a three-dimensional collage: a 28-minute VR movie that puts the viewer in the middle of that scenic spot as it was used and reused by scores of filmmakers. This short behind-the-scenes look gives you an idea of the amount of work that went into the project.
The result is stunningly beautiful. The waterfalls and their surroundings are recreated by seamlessly stitching together dozens and dozens of clips. Separately, each of the clips only offers a small cinematic slice of the waterfall. Presented together in this spatial collage, the location reemerges in its entirety. The rectangular screen is turned into a full circle enveloping the viewer. When a film shot uses a pan, that movement is tracked onto the 360° view and the spectator has to physically mimic the movement the camera made to follow the floating image. Each shot leaves behind a lingering afterimage – a visual trace of its path through or position in (virtual) reality. It’s an explicit yet elegant way of visualizing the work each film viewer does instinctively: to mentally construct a complete picture from the morsels the screen offers him.
As Rapp’s montage progresses, more and more of those afterimages are superimposed. The VR environment becomes a three-dimensional palimpsest, layering semitransparent film scenes on top of each other. Like a written palimpsest, this video equivalent is a testimony of time. It spans centuries: from the Romans to futuristic civilizations, from ancient Greek gods to Western gunslingers. Monte Gelato was used as the setting for period pieces in very different genres and all of them co-inhabit this virtual collage. It turns Montegelato into an ode to both the ingenuity and the unoriginality of filmmakers, because for each novel way to visualize the waterfalls there are also excerpts from movies that are carbon copies of each other’s visuals.
Davide Rapp uses strategies that are common to the supercut form to structure his movie. Shared actions (diving, doing the laundry, horse riding), similar lines of dialogue (calling out a character’s name), and shots with comparable cinematic techniques are bundled into miniature montages. Spatially adjoining shots are strung together. And in a fun intermission, several advertisements featuring footage of the falls are presented together in a commercial break. The painstaking research that must have gone into finding these combinations is admirable, but more importantly these links help flesh out the idea that this specific location is a nexus of cinematic storytelling that inspired (and connected) filmmakers working across different genres, in different times and with very different means.
This VR video essay is a unique experience: it recasts the role of the spectator from that of an immobile viewer in a seat in the theater to that of a participatory flaneur. You whirl through film history and spin around in this specific film setting, surrounded on all sides by colourful characters (ranging from knights to nude bathers). The end result is the most immersive video essay I ever saw – and there’s poetic beauty to the fact that this immersive experience is centered around a waterfall.
Montegelato premiered at the 2021 Venice Biennale, where it played in the VR Expanded section of the festival. The trailer embedded above only hints at its artistic ambition and impact.