270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”―Henry David Thoreau

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: David Blair

FEATURING: David Blair

PLOT: A “supernatural photographer” and beekeeper searching for evidence of the afterlife buys a hive of rare, disease-resistant Mesopotamian bees. Years later, his grandson Jacob, who works as a software engineer designing flight simulators for warplanes, inherits the insects. The hive gives him visions, then drones pierce his skin and insert a crystal—which allows him to see the bees’ version of television—to direct him in his destiny as a metaphysical assassin.

Still from Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Wax took six years to complete and was partially funded with grants from German Public Television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Film Institute, and other private and state charitable endowments.
  • Jacob’s grandfather, James “Hive” Maker, is played by (in a non-speaking role).
  • First broadcast on German television in 1991, this shot-on-video feature never received a true theatrical release, although it was blown up to 16mm film for limited screenings in 1993.
  • The New York Times reported that Wax was be the first feature-length motion picture to be broadcast on the Internet.
  • A “hypermedia” version of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees is available for free viewing at a site hosted by the University of Virginia. The movie is available to watch or download for free on Vimeo under a Creative Commons license.
  • Two years ago, Blair said that he was still working on a sequel, which has been in progress for at least seven years.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oddly enough, in a movie with so many digital distortions and abstract psychedelic graphics, it’s the shots of Jacob in his white beekeeping suit that stick in the mind the most—because, absurdly, he almost never takes it off, whether trudging through the steaming desert or walking past banks of supercomputers at his job at a military facility. Even when cuddling with his wife in front of the TV, he only takes off his hat. The suit becomes both a symbol of Jacob’s insular insanity, and a low budget substitute for a spacesuit a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jacob ventures into cosmic realms far beyond ordinary human conception.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Semi-intelligent missiles; the dead on the Moon; the Planet of Television

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This is a “documentary” about a man who is sent to the Planet of the Dead via bee television in order to kill the reincarnation of his grandfather’s brother-in-law, thereby becoming Cain, before being reincarnated in paradise. I think. The story is utterly insane, although it makes complete sense to bees.

Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees [10:00/85:00] from David Blair on Vimeo.

The first ten minutes of Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

COMMENTS: When I first watched Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees, I marveled at the steadfast audacity of David Blair’s visual experimentalism. Throughout the second half of the film, after the bee-television chip has been inserted into Jacob’s cranium, the image was divided into three sections. At the bottom was a field of colorful scrambled static that took up almost half the total screen. The action played clearly in the top left quadrant, and the exact same image repeated itself in the top right quadrant, only with a little bit of the visual fuzz from the bottom leaking into it, partially obscuring and distorting the mirrored image. After a first half that had been filled with scrolling video, mirror images, early computer graphics, psychedelic kaleidoscopes, and other tricks, it seemed brave yet somehow natural for Blair to stick with such an arcane visual triptych for the last half of the film. It was only when the end credits started to roll, and I could not make them out through the static, that I realized my VCR had been malfunctioning. I simply thought that I was seeing everything the way it would appear on bee television.

In my defense, in a movie that sports deadpan quotes like “I wanted to use the bees to go back to the Garden of Eden” and “I discovered the planet of television four hours after my death,” nothing that appeared onscreen could possibly constitute a surprise. The movie starts out as a bizarre paranormal stock-footage documentary about trying to photograph the dead, then goes to completely to hell in the first ten minutes—in a good way. If you’re not totally confused, you’re not paying attention; the film makes some sort of sense eventually, but only if you master its alternate logic: bee-think, the buzzing reality of the hive mind.

Here are some of the elements that make up Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees: Bees and beekeeping (naturally). Ghost photography. The vengeful spirits of the dead. Cosmological references to moons and planets. Telephones and televisions. Characters who are all distantly related—Jacob Maker is married to the granddaughter of his grandfather’s half-sister. Biblical references to the Garden of Eden and to Cain, the first murderer, and his famous mark. Weapons of war, including “semi-intelligent” weapons, some of which Jacob asserts have escaped the Army test facility and become flying saucers. Early virtual reality, as seen in the flight simulators, and perhaps on bee television as well. And consider the way these scattered themes mysteriously connect: the mystical bees come from Mesopotamia. Ancient writers thought the Garden of Eden was located in Mesopotamia. Modern-day Iraq occupies the land that was once Mesopotamia, and Jacob Marker’s job is developing weapons to be used against Iraqis, descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians. Your head will spin as you try to fit the pieces together into a consistent allegory, much less a coherent plot.

The bees must be new at this television thing, because the movie is delivered with a lo-fi aesthetic that looks like it was shot on Super-8 and edited together after hours at a UHF station in the late 1980s. (Although, considering the lack of imagination in network TV, maybe NBC or CBS should consider hiring some bees as consultants.) Much of the film is made up of stock footage. Some sequences were recreated in a home movie style (William S. Burroughs’ scenes, for example). Simple experimental movie techniques, like the use of mirrored images, are frequent, to varying effect (most of it is par-for-the-avant-garde-course, although shots of misshapen eyeballs are particularly effective). The film will sometimes scroll in unexpected ways, with images peeling back from the corner of the frame. There is a lot of primitive computer animation, especially in the final act, often depicting skeletons and skulls representing the dead. Few of these tricks are visually impressive in themselves, but the fact that we are continually bombarded with them creates a manic atmosphere blending the mystical with the technological. David Blair’s narration is matter-of-fact, almost emotionless, lulling the listener into a trance. The ironic distance between the flatness of his delivery and the bizarre content of his speech is deliberate: when Jacob says “I always enjoyed visiting the Moon,” he might as well be speaking of trips to his favorite local watering hole. The narrator goes to no great lengths to try to convince you of the truth of his story; he relates it simply, just as it happened. That the audience might doubt some of the elements of his tale of bee-assisted death and rebirth never seems to occur to him.

Taken literally, Wax could be understood as the ravings of a delusional madman. It might even be imagined as a found footage item, a self-funded documentary made by a paranoid schizophrenic. But it’s more interesting to give yourself over to the theory that maybe the bees are an advanced lifeform in league with the dead. If you accept its patently insane axioms, the movie follows a cause and effect architecture, one that leads to surprising places. (In that way Wax is an ancestor to Upstream Color, another film that starts with fantastic premises and then treats them with science-fictional exactitude, to confusing effect). Still, although every one of the movie’s motifs somehow connects, like diffused neurons running through a hive mind, it’s the mystery that creates the movie’s magical pull, rather than the solution. As Jacob says after the bees transport him into a dreamlike recreation of the Garden of Eden (the portentous name of his grandfather’s Kansas homestead), “I decided I didn’t want to understand.” David Blair himself said of the movie, “…you have to relax and let it happen to you… intellectually it is not supposed to be a puzzle, unless you want it to be.” Wax is a homegrown myth fashioned out of honey and computer circuits. The purpose of myth (and art) is the same as the purpose of religion: to create a reality that is more interesting, more spiritual, and simply better than the mundane material world in which we are trapped. Jacob’s bee-reincarnation theory may be demented, but it gives him a more meaningful purpose than he would have had designing flight simulators that train pilots to kill soldiers in a war neither side really wants.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With its shifting, alternative realities, ‘Wax’ might also be described as an electronic video answer to ‘Total Recall’ with the weirdness multiplied exponentially.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

Wax is alternately weird, tedious, inventive, inscrutable, fluid and unremarkable. Where you stand on the film may ultimately say more about you than about Wax itself.”–Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“A curious pot-pourri of found footage, fantasy narrative and electronic visual trickery, this is proof that stylistic innovation and a taste for the bizarre don’t always add up to galvanising effect.”–Time Out London

OFFICIAL SITE:

– – – W A X W E B – – – David_Blair – – – The multimedia site for Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees. This page allows you to view a “hypermedia” version of the movie, but it requires the outdated Quicktime program and is underwhelming by today’s standards. There are also many broken links. There are still many items of interest to be found here by poking around.

IMDB LINK: Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees (1991)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

wax_1 – A .pdf scan of contemporaneous newspaper reviews

WAX or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees – “Wired” report on the film, with quotes from Blair

Cult Film Is a First On InternetNew York Times article on Wax‘s Internet debut

Second Trailer, “Wax or the Discovery of Television Among The Bees” [1987] – This early work-in-progress trailer may, or may not, give some clues as to the plot of the completed feature

FINDING THE TELEPATHIC CINEMA OF MANCHURIA – Ten minutes of a new video piece from David Blair, still listed as “in progress” in 2009 when it was last updated

DVD INFO: Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees has never been commercially released on DVD. Used VHS copies can be bought at reasonable prices (buy), and the film’s lo-fi aesthetic lends itself well to the cassette tape experience—this is not a movie whose blurry visuals are likely to benefit much from a 4K Blu-ray restoration. In the past Blair has offered home-burned DVDs or CD-ROMS, so if you are truly interested you may want to try to contact him through the official site.

Since 2013 Wax has been available for viewing for free on Vimeo, with Blair’s blessing, so it’s safe to say this is how most of us will experience the movie for the foreseeable future—at least, until the bees figure out how to download it onto a chip and insert it directly into our brains.

Wax or The Discovery of Television Among the Bees from David Blair on Vimeo

(This movie was nominated for review by “Morgan,” who described it as “[a] wandering bee expert travels deep into the earth’s core to find billions of bees congregating inside the tower of babel transmitting very early cgi into the brains of people…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “270. WAX, OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES (1991)”

  1. I guess Bee Movie is no longer the weirdest movie about bees, even with its various Internet remixes. And sorry, X-Files: Fight the Future. You’e out of the running.

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