October 18, 2011

Janus Films Revives 1970s Sci-Fi Classic

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Like a phoenix from the flames, a hitherto unknown two-part movie by cult German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, World on a Wire, has re-emerged into the cinematic spotlight after nearly four decades in obscurity, thanks to the efforts of Janus Films. World on a Wire is a prototype of the kind of science fiction narrative popularized by films such as The Matrix – the question of whether we are living in the real world as opposed to a virtual one. Cinema has always been an ideal medium to speculate on such themes, because cinema itself purports to portray a complete virtual world, drawing the viewer into itself through the utilization of techniques designed to suspend disbelief. World on a Wire is a cinematic subversion of the trope. Through its deliberate neglect of world construction, it portrays a reality designed to alienate the characters, and by extension the audience.

Spanning over three hours in length, the film is not for the impatient. In a world of blandly futuristic corporate offices and incongruously lavish homes, a cybernetics institute invents and runs a machine that can simulate a perfect virtual world, complete with self-aware “identity units” that populate it and live normal lives within it. The mysterious death of the institute’s technical director, after he declares knowledge of a stunning new discovery, leads his replacement, Frank Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), on a quest to find out the truth about his passing. Somewhat predictably, he eventually finds out that he himself is a part of a simulated world and that his overseers in the “real” world are trying to eliminate him before he can corrupt the system with his knowledge.

While this may seem a good formula for some halfway creative Hollywood script, World on a Wire is less about the story and the action as it is about cinematography and mise-en-scene. Our generation, weaned on a plethora of virtual reality science fiction narratives such as Tron and The Matrix, have little difficulty in relating to the movie as a vehicle for introducing the concept of the Cartesian demon, or the evil intelligence Descartes proposed, which controls every aspect of our perceptual reality. In fact, one can already suspect from the first twenty minutes of the movie that our heroes live in a virtual reality world. It is not known if Fassbinder intended the audience suspect the “plot twist” so early in the script, as it were, but the hints are broad and unsubtle. Perhaps the film was made for an audience not used to the idea that we can live in computers as disembodied, electronic existences. In this respect, perhaps, the film has not aged as well as it might have. The plot is also filled with some bizarre coincidences and laughable deus ex machinae, and the denouement is a distinctly unfashionable — at least, in this day and age — happy ending in which our hero Stiller gets the girl.

More interesting is the craftsmanship of the movie itself. Fassbinder’s camera pans weird angles, close to the floor, tracking strange, unrelated objects, and zooms in on the faces of background characters (in a style oddly reminiscent of Monty Python) who freeze up as soon as the protagonists leave the scene. It is a style of disjunction, deliberately preventing the viewer from placing him or herself into the scene, because the camera does not give the suggestion of seeing events from a human perspective. Fassbinder has an obsession with mirrors and the repetition of visual geometric motifs. Often, when two characters converse, there is an ubiquitous mirror around, and the camera pans close to the reflection rather than the actual person himself. Sometimes, mirrors abound and the characters find themselves infinitely reflected in a vast room full of mirrors, from which the film crew is, naturally, cleverly absent. The setting reflects a curious brand of corporate blandness: men wear perfectly fitted suits and elaborate coiffures, the women furs and done up in excessive amounts of lipstick. Gender roles strictly enforced — women are the sycophantic and alluring secretaries, men the masculine go-getters, powerful existences in the faux corporate world. In general, all the characters are stereotypes of narrative roles, even the main character, who, as a titular protagonist of the noir variety, smokes, drinks whiskey, owns many guns, and angsts in the typical stone-jawed fashion endemic to such paragons of manliness.

But all these elements of the film — the camera angles, the wooden acting, the stereotypes and the bland setting — all emphasize the non-reality of the world — these characters are really marionettes controlled by an overpowering consciousness and can be erased and controlled at will. It is the deliberate neglect of the usual criteria for movie quality — the construction of the suspension of disbelief — that allows the audience to genuinely appreciate the artifice of the setting. In that sense, Fassbinder has created a movie that successfully used the tropes of soap opera superficiality to pioneer the portrayal of a theme way ahead of its time.

Original Author: Colin Chan