Watch a nightclub shooting in virtual reality? For Rose Troche, painful subjects make for powerful art

Rose Troche says she came out three times in her life: first as a Puerto Rican, next as an artist, and finally as a gay person.

“By the time I came out as gay, it was like, ‘oh, this old thing,’” jokes Troche, the child of immigrant parents who grew up hiding her minority identity on multiple levels in a tough Chicago neighborhood during the 1960s and ’70s.

She relaxes on a white vintage couch in a picturesque chalet in the Hollywood Hills, explaining how she’s in the midst of a fourth coming out of sorts. As a writer and director on the vanguard of virtual reality, she’s trying to articulate that her latest form of art isn’t filmmaking.

It’s a tricky but important sticking point for the celebrated indie filmmaker, whose virtual-reality project “If Not Love” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival’s experimental New Frontier arts and media exhibition.

Since 2012, New Frontier has showcased the film world’s bold and exciting steps into the VR space. Troche, who has exhibited three pieces at New Frontier since  2015, is searching for fresh language to describe that entrance.

“I’m advocating for a whole new set of words so that we stop calling it ‘cinema,’” she says. “This needs to exist as what it is and not be put into a funnel of what is a beautiful and amazing medium, but it’s not the same thing.”

Troche would know. She carved out a career for herself in film after her 1994 feature debut, the lesbian romantic comedy “Go Fish,” became a cult hit. Made for $15,000, the film earned more than $2.4 million at the box office thanks to a string of awards and a nomination for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Film gave way to a decade spent building commercial success in television, most notably as the co-executive producer of the lesbian drama “The L Word.” But a history of social activism and a desire for a new artistic challenge drove Troche to create VR work.

Three out of four of her pieces have dealt with difficult subjects. “Perspective Chapter 1: The Party” was a first-person exploration of date rape from the point of view of both the survivor and the assailant. “Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor” told the story of a police shooting from the perspective of  two police officers and  two black youths being shot. 

The new work, “If Not Love,” is a short piece that takes the viewer on a painful, 360-degree journey through a mass shooting at a nightclub. “If Not Love” isn’t intended to re-create last year’s Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., but the project was inspired by that incident as well as by the tragedy in Nice, France, when a truck ran down a crowd at a Bastille Day celebration.

In both cases, Troche wondered if anything could have been done to stop the violence.

“If Not Love” explores that thought by following the story of a closeted gay man who, after an anonymous hookup, decides to carry out a shooting at a nightclub. The piece presents an alternate scenario where, instead of letting him leave after sex, the man’s partner asks him to stay. The two men kiss and hold each other, while back at the nightclub the bodies on the ground suddenly rise up in reverse of the falls they took in the shooting.

The idea, which Troche admits is perhaps naively simplistic, is that a single act of love just might save someone from himself. She felt VR would be the most effective medium to get her idea across because of its immediacy.

“This form allows you a shortness of story, but in a more immersive way,” Troche says. “I do pieces that take you to places that you don’t want to go, and I don’t want to take you to those places on a whim or in a cavalier way. I wouldn’t want you to be immersed in this for more than seven minutes.”

If this isn’t film, what is it? You watch it like film, only through a special headset. And the watching is active, instead of inactive. VR encourages you to move around — to look up, down, right and left. If you turn completely around during the scene in “If Not Love” when the shooter is leaving after his secret tryst, for example, you will see a child’s car seat.

With VR, Troche says, “we are relearning how to watch. It’s teaching us how to view things differently, and to be more intuitive viewers.”

New Frontier curator Shari Frilot says she has invited Troche to exhibit year after year because of her “ability to emotionally penetrate the limits of the intellect … in ways that are powerful, familiar and accessible.” 

“She continues to stand out as a storyteller in this field who is doing something unique around combining classic aspects of filmmaking — character, performance, story structure — with the embodied power of this immersive medium in ways that continue to push this field forward,” says Frilot, who has seen New Frontier grow exponentially since its inception in 2007 as a fledgling space at the intersection of art, filmmaking and technology.

Troche believes that VR will claim its rightful place in the pantheon of future media arts when its makers learn to create strong narratives with powerhouse performances. Three years ago, she says, it was popular to say narrative couldn’t be done in VR. This has been proven false, but to date she doesn’t feel the accomplishment has been properly achieved.

“It’s really important to me to test the parameters of how to create sustainable narratives in VR,” Troche says, adding that the sooner a cohesive language to describe it emerges, including critics who understand and employ that language, the sooner that feat will be accomplished.

Actors, too, will need to relearn their craft if VR is to flourish. Actors are never off camera in a 360-degree film, unless they physically leave the room. It’s almost like being in a play, only unlike with theater, actors in VR need to understate everything. The more they project in VR, the more false they look.

Troche’s next step into the narrative realm is a 30-minute VR comedy series called “LGBTQIA,” which she describes as “The Bad News Bears” of gay comedy.

“I’m trying to find the strengths of VR and what it has to offer,” she says.

“I watched the film ‘Blue’ alone in a movie theater, and I remember being in the space and bubble and world of it. I think VR has the potential to put viewers back in that space in a whole new way.”  

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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An earlier version of this article said "If Not Love" was set in a gay nightclub. Although characters are gay, the setting is not specifically a gay club. Also, Troche's first project premiered at Sundance in 2015, not 2014, and "Perspectives Chapter 3: Misdemeanors" is shown from the point of view of two police officers (not one) and two black youths (not one).
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