During the TIFF screening of Isiah Medina’s He Thought He Died, which was preceded by Blake Williams’ 3D short Laberint Sequences, nearly half the theater cleared during its one-hour duration. There was also a curious number of restless souls still sitting and some who just started talking during the film––not in whispers, to which Williams issued a shush. But I imagine Medina has experienced this kind of response before. It’s probably not unexpected for a public screening to feature many people who, despite TIFF commercializing them as the “world’s best audience,” are probably not used to watching much beyond Hollywood narrative cinema. Medina’s opening statement was that he believed “cinema is not a linguistic art.”
Whether “linguistic” should be taken literally or in terms of “visual language” is the kind of academic ambiguity Medina loves to play around with: he’s the guy who went to film school but wants to make a show of breaking all the rules it tries to teach. The dialogue in He Thought He Died is appropriately deconstructed dialectical discourse (that word is specifically recited a few times throughout). The characters speak about philosophy, art, commerce, and tech in purposefully-rehearsed manners that deem the conversations both monotonous diatribes of verbose affectation and sincere attempts to try forming a dialogue around the subject of art.
The intercutting of imagery creates sensations both impressively geometrically sound (misaligning and separating spaces of interiors is done to great effect) as well as corny and juvenile (on a MacBook, a cursor drags a file that reads “Francois T” into the trash can). Once again, the idea is for the movie’s imagery––both the positioning against one another and shifts in time and place––tell the story. Comprised of four characters, two of them (played by cinematographer Kelley Dong and Adilib Khan), engage in lengthy academic philosophical conversations about art, commerce, and its political connotations.
This is layered on top of a threadbare plotline featuring an artist (played by Medina himself) conducting a minimalist “heist” of sorts of his own work. The metaphorical message being that ownership of art becomes lost in a sea of commerce. This commerce also––in discussing its modes, utilities, and functions in the perception of art––muddles the concepts of context. A character says that art is completely decontextualized, and fascism requires a fascination with contextualization. The philosophical discussions will perhaps go above everyone except those who are already in tune with thinking in the dismantled manner that Medina’s films present their thoughts, but in allowing Died‘s audial-visual gaps and jolts to sit in the brain, there’s a unique rhythm to admire.
If politics is a concern––for which it always is in Medina’s work––familiarity with both Eisenstein’s Strike! and any of Godard’s post-60s cinema can be of great help to understand how the flashing of imagery, the pops of sound, and the juxtaposition of items and logos and popular classical art pieces (as well as DV footage) all coalesce. It’s not going to give one any comprehensible picture, but there needs to be a certain level of faith that what you’re watching is in the order it is for a reason and running with it. For a film about questions of context, such background provides a template in how to approach a work like He Thought He Died.
He Thought He Did Died premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.