The First Film Ever Streamed on the Internet is Kind of Crazy
Beekeeping, Alien Planets, and the Limits of Narrative as Technology
In 1993, some dumbass in Alamogordo, New Mexico soaked a cowboy boot in gasoline, placed it on the final stretch of a twisty slide on the playground at Heights Elementary, and set it aflame. The burning boot tipped and melted into the thick plastic. The next day, over the classroom intercom, there was a stern announcement about vandalism and the indefinite closure of our slide. There were promises of an extensive manhunt. When the slide eventually reopened—the boot burner never captured, forever eluding authorities despite presumably hobbling around on one bare foot to this very day—the janitors had only scraped charred leather from the hole in the melted plastic. There was no money for a new slide. Us kids spent the rest of the year gliding into a chasm that was exactly the shape of a burning boot. Or, desperately avoiding gliding into the boot-chasm, which was often filled with all manner of awful shit. This was when, for me, the story of the West finally died.
In the year of the boot-chasm, recess always began with a bunch of kids racing toward the slide to fill the hole with rocks and dirt and boogers and shredded love notes with the wrong box checked (how did love ever grow more complex than that?) and spit collected in juice boxes during boring math lessons and gnarled apple cores and different dead stuff like tumble weeds and grasshoppers and, yes, occasionally piss—anything that might be totally gross if an unwitting kid splashed into it. But despite being raised by the kind of people that might torch their own boot, or maybe because of it, most of us kids at Heights Elementary had most of our wits about us. We did not slide down the vandalized slide. We just filled that hole up every day, then stood around looking at it, amused, coming up with different names for the concoction we’d concocted so there would be a word to yell in the event any kid ever fell into the muck of our boot-chasm. We collectively imagined a tragic story, and took steps toward its manifestation, then loitered around the swing set, waiting for the story to finish itself.
Also in 1993: the first feature-length movie was streamed on the internet. The movie is also a boot-chasm filled with all manner of awful shit. The movie is also about the evolution of the West. And we are also all now standing around waiting for the tragedy we’ve arranged to finish itself.
The movie is called Wax, Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees written and directed by David Blair. You can stream it on the internet right now, free except for the fee of sanity. Most people watch for about two minutes before clicking away because Wax does not immediately seem a movie of worthwhile quality. Grainy archival film is mashed up with low-fi home video interspersed with rudimentary computer graphics that, even when the movie was released in 1991, were less than breathtaking. Wax is like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil if the travel budget had been only a few hundred bucks and it had been shot by Agnes Varda, written by late-stage-paranoiac Philip K. Dick, translated from English to English by the guileless singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, then projected via rotoscope onto a napkin in the atrium bathroom of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. There is a very small subset of audiences for which that will sound orgasmic. Count me in.
The story in Wax doesn’t matter but here’s the way WIRED described it in 1993:
THE PLOT BEHIND one of the hottest pieces of “electronic cinema” showing at universities and in art houses and libraries across the US, Europe, and Japan is pretty straightforward: Jacob Maker makes weapons guidance systems and keeps bees. While tending his bees, he falls into a reverie and visits roughly rendered spaces where linear thought struggles with warped axes of time and space. Agents of dead souls, the bees insert a crystal television in his head. The TV guides him to the planet of the dead, where planar, skeletal animations take him through the creation of the world and into the eye of God. (God’s eye, it turns out, is roughly equivalent to a cathode ray tube.) When, in the form of a smart-bomb’s gun site, he murders Iraqi tank commandos in the desert near Basra, all is right with his past, and he has secured his future.
No need to read that summary again. The whole point I’m trying to make is that the narrative doesn’t matter.
“Most people watch for about two minutes before clicking away because Wax does not immediately seem a movie of worthwhile quality.”
I recently watched the whole movie because it is largely set and shot in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This is where our protagonist—weapons scientist/beekeeper—tends to his bees and loses his mind and dies and is reborn into God’s eye. If the film had not been set and shot in my hometown, I would have clicked away after two minutes. But Wax proves to be a fairly remarkable travelogue about Southern New Mexico. Though the protagonist (played by director David Blair) dons a beekeeping suit throughout the film and works for some fictionalized amalgamation of NASA and the military, he wanders through all the actual SNM tourist hot spots: White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, the Museum of Space History, Trinity Site, the Sunspot Observatory, various crumbling adobes, desert, mountains, etc.
Even if you don’t know these places intimately, you understand that Blair is working in the mode of nonfiction, representing trips to actual locations, even as he fictionalizes their purposes, his yarn growing increasingly absurd. He skewers the standard SNM tour with straight-faced Monty Python-esque foolishness. As a local, this is wonderful to watch. For decades, Big City folks have done exactly this, wandered around us in alien antennae and atomic bomb t-shirts, picking up on only the shallowest details of the myths they’re chasing, the people they’re plowing through. Blair, a New Yorker turned Parisian, at least seems hip to the joke.
Blair’s matter-of-fact, first-person voice-over fuels Wax, and it sounds by turn like memoir, travelogue, ancestral narrative, cultural criticism, astrology poetics, and religious testimony, with more than a little bit of the intimate-but-sweeping historical pastiche Ken Burns put on the map with the PBS release of The Civil War in 1990. Blair relates the story of the first test of the atomic bomb using the same naïve monotone that he uses to relate the story of Mesopotamian bees harnessing television to communicate with the dead, or the story of the dead living on the moon. From a distance, in Blair’s monotone, all these things sound equally likely and unlikely. The sprinkling of truth into fictions, and vice-versa, destabilizes. The viewer becomes less concerned with tracking narrative than with keeping a foothold in reality, which is another way of saying the movie cares less about immersing you in its plot and more about making you question the narrative of your own life. After my first viewing of Wax, the only thing I could for sure peg as bullshit was the narrator’s claim that he ended up in Alamogordo because his grandparents, in search of the world’s last real cowboys, had willingly honeymooned there. I have never encountered honeymooners in Alamogordo. And, for their sake, I do not hope to.
There is much to say about how Wax was prescient regarding drone warfare: the protagonist from Alamogordo transforms from a man into a missile—literally loses his humanity—reigning down on the Middle East. Alamogordo is where we now train many of our drone pilots who are both there and not there as their missiles reign down on the Middle East. There is much to say about how Wax was prescient regarding the ubiquity of screens in our lives, televisions in our heads like swarms of bees. Streams. That Wax was the first movie on the internet seems prescient too: a film designed to make you question the narrative of your reality helped in some way pioneer the medium that now dictates the narrative of your reality. Go figure. And there is much to say about why the hell William S. Burroughs shows up in the movie. I could prattle on about Wax endlessly, which is why, despite it clearly being a terrible movie, I’m starting to think it is one of my favorites.
When the few academics who want to talk about Wax get together, they’re primarily interested in the idea of processed narratives. (This exciting gathering seems to have happened exactly once and is recorded in the fascinatingly unreadable Interview MS. Found on a Floppy Disc: Some Reflections of “Processed Narratives” and David Blair’s Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees by Larry McCaffery.) These academics tend to wax incoherent about artificial intelligence and virtual reality and algorithms—the possibility that narrative is a technology, a tool we’ve developed rather than an innate biological trait, meaning that narrative exists apart from human consciousness and might therefore be successfully replicated outside of it, namely in computers. If stories are the primary means by which humans make meaning, and humans are increasingly becoming techno-humans, then in order to retain our meaning-making ability, our technologies will also need to master narrative.
“That Wax was the first movie on the internet seems prescient too: a film designed to make you question the narrative of your reality helped in some way pioneer the medium that now dictates the narrative of your reality.”
Blair, for his part, claims that Wax was co-written by some sort of software. He also created a non-timebased version of the movie, called Waxweb that is, predictably, more maddening than the movie. Despite all the complexities of plot in Wax, the interrogation of narrative itself, and its uncertain future in the evolution of our species, seems to be the whole point. Here’s Blair in an early 90s interview posted to his website telepathic-movie.org:
. . . I and others always stand a certain distance apart, in relations that lead both to endless transmission and contradictory reception of all kinds of images on all kinds of screens, mainly mental but made from plastic and metal. . . this must go on until communal thinking replaces all of this, somehow, and all paradoxes are absorbed. I am told a quantum age will do this for us.
Don’t worry, I’m not quite sure how to parse this either. But my guess is that Blair’s concern is related to a feeling common to thinkers of the time, most famously expressed in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama. In the The End of History?, Fukuyama writes, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
The idea that history might actually be something like a traditional narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, where the end is “Western liberal democracy,” must have been horrifying to anyone who understood the failings of “Western liberal democracy” leading up to Fukuyama’s ’89 pronouncement: the Vietnam War, Reagan’s “New Southern Strategy” and defiant silence on AIDS, the crack epidemic, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. . . all of this must have made the prospect of never evolving beyond Western liberal democracy a real bummer.
But the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of the decade seemed to suggest that Western liberal democracy was a juggernaut unlikely to slow. So then the battlefront shifts—you attack narrative itself in hopes of ensuring that Western liberal democracy is not the end. If there is no end, then Western liberal democracy is not the end—plus, with no end, there’s no requirement to offer an alternative. . . you simply deconstruct, you confuse, you complicate. . . you throw a whole bunch of awful shit into the boot chasm and stand back. Blair seems of this group of artists at the 80s end—the emerging glitch artists, the stripes and constellations of Ross Bleckner, Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (written in this 60s but first translated into English in 1988 and, to my mind, a big influence on the proliferation of plotless autofiction these days, itself a genre confused about the value of traditional narrative).
In Blair’s Wax, the connecting of events or thoughts in order to communicate an overarching aim or value (one definition of narrative) is taken to its absolute extreme so that everything and anything throughout all of time (the Tower of Babel, the invention of photography, an Alamogordo corn farmer, the structure of honeycombs, a future civilization on a distant planet, etc.) connect to develop the story until the sheer number of connections and their non-linear arrangement makes them all equally meaningful and meaningless. Sounds like a bad day on the Twitter timeline, right? Wax was prescient about algorithmic warfare and algorithmic storytelling and probably also the overlap of the two.
All these meta-fictional aspects are, I think, the kind of thing that leads critics to call Wax pretentious. But Wax is not pretentious. The climax of the film, if you can even call it that, is a hilariously overdramatic anagram. And the monotone narrator is full of great quips:
“My death was relaxing. And beautiful. I certainly didn’t want to waste very much time on it.”
“The desert became the past. The dead marched across the sand to reach me. Their shadows crossed my face. . . I wanted to take a picture but all I could do was dance.”
“The dead had attacked me. Now I would attack them.”
Plus, there’s a very basic and unpretentious gag at the heart of Wax: despite deploying so many traditionally trustworthy narrative forms (memoir, travelogue, ancestry, testimony, Burnsian archival montage) the narrative grows more and more untrustworthy, and increasingly meaningless. If one uses all the right utensils and all the right ingredients for the world’s best meatball sandwich, how does one end up with a turnip? For the sake of argument, I’m employing the turnip as an example of something meaningless (don’t be angry turnip lovers), but of course by doing so I’ve now given the turnip meaning. I guess it is a pretentious gag.
“Despite what every generation claims, the problem has never been that, because our times are broken, narrative no longer works. The problem is that narrative never worked.”
Gag or not, we shouldn’t discount the highfalutin concerns of Blair and his tiny chorus of academic champions. I just mean to point out that Wax’s criticism of narrative is pretty accessible, and universal, and old. Burroughs shows up in the movie because he was waging war on narrative with his cut-ups in the 1960s, a technique that dates back at least to Dadaists in the 1920s. One place in SNM that the bee-suited Blair didn’t include in Wax (because he—by design or not—visits only the most famous tourist spots) is the petroglyph site at Three Rivers, where the Mogollon etched fictionalized documentaries and cut-ups into rocks 1,000 years ago. Walk around Three Rivers and look at the rocks covered in spirals and mazes and all the creatures drawn with warped limbs twisting in on themselves like a whole future of elementary playground slides, then tell me those people believed in the dialectical progress of traditional narrative.
Despite what every generation claims, the problem has never been that, because our times are broken, narrative no longer works. The problem is that narrative never worked. As a tool for meaning-making, it’s pretty inept, the number of possible connections between events or thoughts must be whittled to almost nothing in order for anything to make sense. There are many dissertations on this subject, and many more to be written, but for now I recommend you just watch Wax and bask in the ambition of its attempt to find a path through proliferating conundrums. Because, at its best, Wax reminds us of this: for as long as we can remember, we’ve been telling stories, and yet we still don’t know what it all means. At its worst, Wax seems to suggest there is some way to reengineer narrative to make it more useful in the time of the techno-human. But here we are in the age of fake news in which all our emerging narrative technologies have connected and divided us more than ever. Or, the same as ever, but now we’ve got the data to make the charts that trace the edges of the echo chamber in neon. And we’re all terrified that the stories we’ve shared have been mined, and weaponized, against our better interests, like the protagonist of Wax was weaponized, literally turned into a missile, by the television in his mind.
I’m not saying I know of any alternative to narrative. I love stories and am ecstatic about living in a time when more stories are shared more widely than ever before, the suppression of any given story more difficult than ever before. But what is there to learn from my story of the boot-chasm except that none of us kids ever slid head first into the muck? I suspect the ideal stories are nothing but potential, which is to say that our appetite for resolution has not yet dwindled the possible connections.
I like Wax, the ugly movie that pioneered all our Netflixing-Hulugan-Primean transfixations, because it reminds me that the primary way humans have always tried to understand each other is flawed. I like Wax because it is a fairly shitty story, because it reminds me that at our best, we are better than our stories. There are still infinite possibilities. So many ways to connect. Plus, my beloved, my strange, my beautiful Alamogordo, of course you are the perfect place to meditate on such an unwieldy idea. And this is exactly why I hope to never meet honeymooners there: they deserve some time to believe the story they’ve concocted is the only best possibility for them.
At the end of Wax, after transforming into pure language on an alien planet and then taking on just the form of a gunsite—an “X”—our protagonist returns to Alamogordo as a female genetic researcher who farms hybrid corn. I imagine her, the corn farmer, hobbling off into the sunset wearing only one boot as the movie ends on another meaningless animation and the narrator declares in glorious monotone, “That’s the power of love.”