I had to laugh as I was watching Johannes Grenzfurthner's latest feature flick Masking Threshold, a cinematic behemoth of experimentation and intellect, insanity and a loss of control and everything that can do to us and do to the world around us.
Perversely yet joyfully absurd, Masking Threshold is, I must say, a film not for everyone and most likely not even for most. The reason I laughed is that it strikes me as the demented bastard cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's sublimely inspired Memoria, a Tilda Swinton vehicle similarly exploring the world of sound and a film that would find itself in the Oscar hunt if the Academy had some balls.
Masking Threshold isn't likely headed for the Academy Awards, a near impossibility that makes me chuckle. The film centers around a skeptic IT worker, physically represented by Grenzfurthner himself yet vocally brought to painstaking and irritating life by Ethan Haslam. Set up with a makeshift home-based lab, he begins an increasingly severe series of experiments designed to cure himself of his three-year case of rip-roaring tinnitus.
Our protagonist is both tech nerd and queer, two societal labels already rendering him somewhat suspect in the circles that primarily matter to him. This becomes relevant to the story in a myriad of ways, a story that takes increasingly drastic turns as his experiments grow in their boldness and depravity while wounding an already fragile psyche.
It's difficult to describe Masking Threshold, a film that feels as much like a scientific experiment or a podcast or even a PowerPoint. For those who are patient enough to maintain through its just over 90-minute running time, it's a rewarding and thought-provoking motion picture that explores loss of control within this character who is simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. In most cases, we would unquestionably sympathize with him but he's a narcissist of the highest degree whose increasing madness seems to only exacerbate the internal and external fractures at play.
I've always resonated with Grenzfurthner's work, from the nerd immersed Traceroute to the gloriously anti-capitalist Glossary of Broken Dreams. Masking Threshold exists in a world all its own, a psychological horror story of sorts with arthouse-tinged cinematic wings and LGBT tones adding another layer of emotional and intellectual intrigue.
I actually received Masking Threshold to screen a few weeks ago, though my attempts to survive the American healthcare system have rendered me a stressed out, anxiety-ridden mess who just plain forgot about it. Then, of course, there's old Kris Kringle in there somewhere.
What can I say? I dropped the ball until I picked it up again.
Masking Threshold is uncompromising, a trait of Grenzfurthner as a filmmaker and seemingly as a human being. The Austrian is a lecturer on transmedia arts at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria, and communication theory at Leuphana University in Lueneberg, Germany. He heads up the San Francisco sex and tech festival Arse Elektronika and is the organizer of Vienna's Roboexotica. In case you're tempted to think he's just some wacko filmmaker, Grenzfurthner has presented at SXSWi, O'Reilly ETech, FooCamp, Maker Faire, HOPE, Chaos Communication Congress, Google (Tech Talks), ROFLCon, Mozilla Drumbeat Barcelona, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, and a host of other places where they won't even tell me the time.
Haslam's vocal work is creatively delirious here, pacing itself beautifully and selling the entire journey in ways that are occasionally humorous and occasionally horrifying. The film's ensemble, while largely secondary, remains essential and clearly understands the tone Grenzfurthner is seeking here.
Masking Threshold has already picked up a slew of awards on the indie fest scene including prizes at Columbus, Ohio's Nightmares Film Festival (Best of Fest), South African Horrorfest (Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography for Florian Hofer, Best Editing for Grenzfurthner and Hofer), British Horror Film Festival (Best Feature Film), and Shockfest (Golden Stake Award) among others.
While Masking Threshold is not for the timid or squeamish, for those willing to invest heart, mind, body, and some semblance of soul this is a unique, inspired, intelligent, and impossible to forget cinematic experience.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic