It is hard to imagine a scrappy palette of stock footage being put to work as inventively as it is in Autopilot; a near-abstract mediation on estrangement that is more tonal collage than film. The short was Shane Ryan and Kade Tabin’s last-minute entry to the eponymously titled Corman Challenge; created by the prolific Little Shop of Horrors director as a double pronged incentive to aspiring filmmakers to get creating whilst staying indoors. Entrants were required to create a film shot entirely on a phone from inside their own homes, using only people, props and equipment that happened to be around.
Image rather than narrative led, Autopilot jettisons deliberations about whether to confront present day anxieties in its story. In fact, it is hardly a story at all, but a sort of hyper-personal tone poem, one that leaves ample room for the watcher’s own fears to flood in.
The entire film is characterised by a remarkable absence of boundaries; themes of estrangement and deterioration and sickness unspool like ribbons in every scene, but they are always presented with an air of abstraction. Ryan layers image upon image, both in the edit and the diegetic space of the film itself, inventing phantasmagorical forms that seem almost to dance across the material borders of each frame. There is meaning to be found in them, but it is left to us to extrude it.
Tonally, things swing wildly from moody to introspective to manic. This is in part because of the way the film is edited; slow, hallucinogenic dissolves applied to some footage and frenetic, juddering cuts to others. But mostly it is Tabin’s performance that is the key to the film’s mercurial fibre. Often, she is more object than subject; lying motionless as stock footage projections dance on her paint smattered form, the planes of her face lit up in ways that hauntingly reinvent their topography. Yet when she does emote, she does so with unsettling elasticity, with what at first glance seems like a howl of distress reading on the second as a bout of manic laughter. Part of her inscrutability is in her muteness, the only accompanying sound to her performance a cacophony of wiry electronica.
Autopilot is a work of fragmentation in every sense, and you do get the impression that it was somewhat hastily pulled together (and it was; finished just an hour and a half before the submission deadline). Yet ultimately this helps rather than harms it; for its tonal dissonance captures the kind of conflicting emotions that are a common response to any kind of traumatic event.
Intentionally or not; Ryan and Tabin whip up a maelstrom that note-perfectly capsulises the mood of the times. While the rush-job, bare-boned constraints of the filmmaking could have been a hindrance, combined with verve and imagination as they are here, the result is dignified and exciting cinema.