Thursday, June 16, 2016

Where Are We?

Where are we? This is a familiar statement uttered by travelers, children, and the occasional philosopher. The recent Netflix movie Special Correspondents examines the question from an often-comedic yet still insightful view – challenging the audience to understand how it views location and context.

Special Correspondents is the story of a New York City news radio personality and his sound technician as they set out on an unexpected and irregular journey. Frank is the news radio personality, who is introduced to the audience as he and his assistant trespass their way into the scene of a prominent murder posing as police officers in order to gather information to “scoop” the competition. He is found out by a detective who throws him out of the crime scene, from which he runs to a waiting sound van and transmits the story with the help of Ian, the trustee sound technician. Although Frank and Ian are applauded when they return to the station, Frank is dragged into his editor’s office, where he is told that he narrowly escaped being put in prison for interfering with an investigation and is on very tenuous footing. To Frank’s protests that he was too well known to be fired and that he has made many contributions to the radio station, his editor reminds him that he has never progressed beyond local radio.

Ian receives a similar dressing down from his wife, Eleanor, at a radio station gala later that night. Essentially, in her eyes he is a failure and she expected much more from him at this point in their relationship. When he has to work suddenly, Eleanor stays at the gala, where she seduces an unknowing Frank into a fling. Although Ian is unaware of his identity, he is convinced that she had an affair – this is later confirmed when she leaves.

At this point in the film, both Frank and Ian find themselves confronted with the reality that they haven’t “been anywhere” in their careers or even personal travels despite their perceived accomplishments. Within the constructs of the society they live in, Frank and Ian are bounded by geography and professional achievement.

Fate intervenes a day later, when Frank’s chagrined editor has to offer Frank the opportunity to travel to Ecuador to cover a reported governmental failure and potential coup. After pointing out that this is his chance to break out, Frank accepts the offer and calls Ian. At first, Ian is reluctant to go on the trip since he is distraught at Eleanor leaving him. Frank convinces him to break out of where he is and make the trip. However, when Ian mistakenly throws out the package with their passports, plane tickets and money, the two find themselves in a quandary. Without passports at the very least they cannot travel – without a story they cannot go back to the station without being fired.  

Despondent, they go to Ian’s favourite café – across the street from the radio station – to think the situation through. They are assisted by Brigida and Domingo, the sweetly naïve couple who own the café. We know little about them other than that they are from somewhere in Latin America, regard Ian as family and will do whatever he needs. Ian hatches an improbable plan and asks to use the spare room in the attic of the café building. Eventually, Ian unveils his idea – they do not actually have to be in Ecuador to report from Ecuador. He creates a sound effects system that reproduces the sounds generally associated with Ecuador and with unrest – bullets, tanks and screaming. Frank then steps in to create the story. At first the stories simply echo what was known to them when they left for the airport – civil and governmental unrest. Soon, however, the stories become far more elaborate tales of fiction than anything grounded in fact. They captivate the listening public – and indeed other media outlets that have found their correspondents barred from entry – and are relied on for international news.

At the same time, Frank and Ian sneak out of their hiding spot for a periodic walk around the block in disguise. During one such walk, the station manager calls and requests a quick news report then and there. Thinking on the spot, Frank is able to offer an “update” while also explaining the standard background noises of New York City as coming from Ecuador. These routine noises plausibly become the noise from American television or, in the case of a delivery truck, the sound of military vehicles moving through the streets.

When Frank and Ian invent a fictitious warlord who is “driving the rebellion,” they become a concern to the US government and their editor is told to have them report to the embassy in Quito for debriefing and evacuation. In the face of this request, Frank and Ian invent their own kidnapping in order to explain their inability to access the embassy. When they finally decide that it is time to come home, Frank and Ian face the startling realization that they must sneak into Ecuador and get to the embassy in order to have a proper end to their story. In an ironic twist, they are taken hostage by bandits shortly before they arrive in Quito and fight their way free. When they arrive at the embassy they truly look the part of former hostages and are able to tell an honest tale of captivity and survival. They can finally say that they have been somewhere.

Special Correspondents challenges the audience to think about the concept of where it is and how society constructs the concept of place. According to the strictures of law, one is a resident of a certain area and is bound by the laws of a certain area – in order to travel outside of that space there are also established legal requirements, notably passports.

And yet, as the film demonstrates, using advances in technology and media it is possible for one to “be” in another place without leaving the comforts of home or being bound by the laws of that place. Frank and Ian’s antics might have been comedic but their juxtaposition between places and experiences offers profound questions as to where we think we really are and how we understand place in modern social constructs.  

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