A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, January 13, 2017

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

What we call "reality" is, as we all know now, a construct, the product of the limitations of our senses. But what if we, too, are part of the construct, put here by some other entity and blinded to the reality that lies beyond the senses? That way lies religion -- "Now we see through a glass darkly...." -- and metaphysics -- now largely dismissed as "asking unanswerable questions" -- but also science fiction. Witness the popularity of a film like The Matrix (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, 1999) and its sequels. In fact, Rainer Werner Fassbinder got there more than two decades before the Wachowskis. In 1973 he created a two-part television series, World on a Wire, that aired in Germany, and then became a kind of cult hit via file-sharing on the internet before being restored in 2010 and screened at the Berlin Film Festival. In it, a German research institute has created a simulated world in its supercomputer. The inhabitants of this world have been given consciousness, but only one of them has knowledge of the world outside the computer. He serves as a contact between the programmers and the simulated beings. But then the sudden death of the head of the program puts his second-in-command, Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), in charge of investigating not only the death of his predecessor but also the suicide of one of the simulated beings. Stranger and stranger things begin to happen, until Stiller learns that he is also a simulation in his own simulated world. He also learns that the institute's simulated world is being used for commercial purposes, something that violates its agreement with the government funding it. As he comes to terms with this knowledge, his increasingly erratic behavior makes him a target for assassins, and his one hope is to find the contact with the level above that's simulating him. Got that? The head-spinning premise of the film comes from a novel, Simulacron-3, by the American writer Daniel F. Galouye, adapted by Fassbinder and Fritz Müller-Scherz. Fassbinder gives it a good deal of his characteristic style in the adaptation: The women in Stiller's world, for example, always wear cocktail dresses, even at work, and rooms are filled with mirrors to suggest the layers of reflected reality in the three levels. The costume designer is Gabriele Pillon and the production design is by Horst Giese, Walter Koch, and Kurt Raab. It was filmed in 16 mm for television, which means there's some graininess and focus problems in some parts of the restored film, but the cinematography is by Fassbinder's frequent collaborator Michael Ballhaus, along with Ulrich Prinz. Löwitsch is very good as Stiller, taking on kind of James Bondian role, and the paranoid atmosphere prevails even when the plot gets a bit snarled in its own premise.

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