This screening is part of the IFFR program Signals: Regained, developed in collaboration with Edwin Carels. Signals: Regained is an annual part of the festival, and shows a collection of restored classics, inexplicably forgotten masterpieces and films and documentaries that centre on cinema itself.
Rebecca Baron’s Detour de Force gives us a fascinating view on the life of Ted Serios, a bellboy from Chicago who was better known as a ‘thoughtographer’ in the 1960s. Serios was said to produce images from his mind straight onto Polaroid, a new medium that delivered instant snapshots of a scene within mere moments. In Serios’ case however, his Polaroids didn’t portray anything that appeared in the space they were taken in.
Serios was taken under the wing of Dr. Jule Eisenbud, a well respected Denver Freudian analyst interested in parapsychology, who basically built his career on Ted Serios. He spent years supporting him, housing him and studying him. In the meantime Serios produced hundreds of Polaroids of seemingly impossible images, images that occurred solely in his mind.
Was he a Charlatan or a psychic marvel? Rebecca Baron does a great job at making a case for both plausible options. Although she based the entire film on archival footage that was restored by the Austrian Film Museum, giving it an authentic, documentary feel, Baron carefully edited the material to reveal her own interest in the story. In the scientific effort to capture and study what Ted Serios was doing, there were many photographers and filmmakers present during the research. While Serios fixated images onto Polaroid film, he was himself captured on film. But there’s another layer, as Baron further explains, “The instant image, the fact that it all happens in front of your eyes is connected to our experience of magic. The 16mm camera used to make the documentary footage is completely focused on the Polaroid cameras, much more so than on Ted. As if the cameras needed to be watched. There is an obsession with the question of whether some trickery is happening with the device.”
So what’s at stake here isn’t whether or not Serios can produce images with his mind, but whether or not he can manipulate technology in such a way that it seems like he can. A fraud or not, a good magician covers up his tracks. And like a wowed audience during a very exclusive performance, the researchers around Serios watch his every move, and the camera’s every movement. They don’t really understand what he is doing, but they are so drawn in, so completely enamored with this man that they want it all. Which makes you wonder who is really studying who… Are the viewers wondering who and what to believe, always between not-knowing and on the verge of discovering the truth? Or is their own behavior constantly providing the performer with more knowledge on how to make them believe that what they see is real magic? It doesn’t really seem to matter in the end now, does it.