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By David Finkelstein | May 6, 2004

The first six minutes of so of this film show the word “TANK” in white letters on a black background, flashing on and off the screen at intervals of about one second. The font is reminiscent of an old-fashioned typewriter. Each time the word flashes on, we hear the identical recording of a woman’s voice saying “tank.”

The flashes get closer and closer together by tiny increments, but the beginning of this film is still stupefyingly minimalist and repetitive. I happen to have an extremely high tolerance for minimalism and repetition, so I was able to entertain myself by studying the serifs on the typeface and trying to feel the tiny variations in timing, but many people would probably find this opening to be maddening. Even I kept thinking to myself “there had better be one hell of a payoff after sitting through this.”

There is. In the second two thirds of the film, Michaud creates myriad, dizzying variations, all from this same basic material. The word “TANK” is shown backwards and forwards, small and large, in the corners of the screen as well as in the center. The woman’s voice, exactly synchronizing with the images, is played backwards and forwards, and in different durations, pitches, and volumes. All of this is done in extremely complex rhythmic patterns which make your eyes and ears feel happy and well fed after the long, static intro.

The separate phonemes in the word provide fascinating effects as they are broken up, the shatter of ‘t’s, the clatter of ‘k’s, and what sounds like rushing water and moaning winds. The slight difference in the diagonal slant of the crosspieces in ‘N’ and ‘K’ assume major importance, as does the way the various letters seem to ‘bloom’ into view when they are only seen for one or two frames.

In a way, I found watching “TANK” to be like listening to a really complex and intriguing piece of music scored for drum machine. On one level, the lack of organic, human ‘breath’ in the piece, and the lack of engagement with emotions, did seem to limit the piece a bit, and keep it from touching me on the deepest level. Yet, as an exhilarating display of filmic virtuosity, and a playful, kinetically alive game for the eyes and ears, “TANK” still provides a thrilling filmwatching experience (for those who make it past the opening.)

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