Masking Threshold UK première at Soho Horror Film Festival 2022
Johannes Grenzfurthner’s Masking Threshold, which he co-wrote with Samantha Lienhard, is named for an acoustic phenomenon: if two sounds are played concurrently but one is louder than the other, it can mask the softer sound from the human brain, reducing it to inaudibility. Likewise the film is about a man unable to see the wood for the trees, and whose obliviousness to the real nature of his own condition sends him on a toxic journey within.
College dropout and IT drone P.T. Alcorn (embodied by Grenzfurthner himself and voiced by Ethan Haslam) is determined to get to the bottom of the tinnitus-like hearing impairment that has been relentlessly buffeting his ears with intolerable noise for the last three years. A string of doctors has questioned whether he even has a physiological (as opposed to psychological) condition, and his first boyfriend, unable to put up with Alcorn’s phonic fixations, soon becomes his last. So our hypochondriac hero takes time off work, converts his rented apartment’s workshop into a laboratory cum audiovisual centre, and embarks on a series of investigations, some scientific, others more philosophical and even theological and cosmological in nature. These sessions he meticulously records, posting some fragments on YouTube, and sending others to various medical experts and academics, all as part of an all-too-familiar quest for attention, recognition and validation. Yet as he goes further down the rabbit hole of his own supposed auditory illness, his self-involved studies are destined to become both found footage and police evidence.
Much as Alcorn is engaged in extended ‘experiments’ (his word), there is something formally experimental about Masking Threshold too, which cinematographer Florian Hofer, like Alcorn himself, has shot via a macro lens that places plenty of little details in extreme close-up while always keeping any broader context on the fuzzy margins. It is a good way of conveying Alcorn’s tunnel vision – his total, neurotic focus on little things, eventually even at an atomic level, at the expense of any kind of bigger picture. We never even properly see Alcorn himself, just bits of him, from every angle, like a jigsaw puzzle in pieces demanding to be put together. Alcorn’s agoraphobia and apanthropy inevitably lead this shut-in to look within – he may purport to be investigating the workings of the physical world, but his o(n)tological and acoustic inspections are also introspections. What lends a coherence of sorts to these disparate recorded images – the workshop footage, as well as family video material and clips from the internet – is Alcorn’s editing and his constant, persistent voice-over, serving as diary and documentation. Yet as the cuts get ever more frenetically free-associative, and as the commentary gets ever more ranting and unhinged, Alcorn himself becomes the object of study: a damaged man whose inability to see his own mental illness – the all-encompassing distortions created by his thoughts and perceptions – makes him a very unreliable narrator.
While this peculiar loner is certainly afflicted with his own individual sufferings and clearly needs help, he also comes to represent several wider pathologies of the modern age. For, as a resident in Apopka, he is, both metaphorically and literally, a Florida man. He is also an incel, unable to maintain social let alone sexual relations with anyone – witness his peculiar interactions with friendly neighbour Dana (Katharine Rose). And he increasingly spends every waking and sleeping hour in what is in effect a classic “mom’s basement” – even if his actual mother, a source of endless irritation to him, lives elsewhere. He is given to conspiracy theories, narcissism and megalomania – a deluded, self-deluding Trumpian figure (self-)confined to isolation in a single room and left (again both literally and metaphorically) to masturbate alone as his errant ideas grow and fester like algae in a bathtub. “My goal is to prove this is not my imagination,” Alcorn says. Yet his film is both evidence and mask of who he really is. It tracks an (ultimately failed) attempt by a deranged man to impose order on his own disorder, and to give rational form to all the chaotic noise around – and in – his head.
Like Filip Jan Rymsza’s Mosquito State (2020), Masking Threshold follows an unravelling individual creating a microcosmic environment for his own mental breakdown. It is the tragic tale of a madness that, though in denial of itself, inexorably fulfils its own prophecy – a madness that resonates with our own age of self-aggrandising, empty politics and online solipsism. Open your eyes, mind and ears to it, and share in the bleak insanity of the – or at least a – human condition.
strap: In Johnannes Grenzfurthner’s psycho-acoustic found footage, a sound-sensitive shut-in succumbs solipsistically to mental as much as otological illness
© Anton Bitel