Sunday, October 23, 2011

Levels of reality

Writing about Christopher Nolan’s Inception last year, I said this: “… the fact of it being about dreams, ultimately, is arbitrary. With a few tweaks to the set-up, it could have been about parallel worlds, or a computer-generated matrix, or a fantasy taking place in the mind of a madman.” This came to mind recently as I watched, for the first time, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire, which has strong thematic similarities with Nolan’s film, and just about no other similarities with it whatsoever.

World on a Wire

Fassbinder’s film is set around a corporate “Simulacron” project, a computer-generated environment based closely on our own, but susceptible to manipulation of all kinds; it’s primarily intended as a purely scientific exercise for the common good, but rapidly becomes subject to potential misuse by a steel corporation seeking to improve its forecasts of future demand. The technology’s chief developer dies in mysterious circumstances; his unenthusiastic successor, Stiller, is plagued by odd events, such as a security chief who vanishes into thin air in front of his eyes, and who no one else then claims to remember. Even from the little I’ve said so far, genre fans could probably guess the direction of things: what if this is all a creation within another Simulacron, directed by a further level of reality up above?

World on a Wire was made for TV, and largely disappeared from view for a long time (the 1999 Hollywood flop The 13th Floor was based on the same material); it resurfaced last year, and is now on DVD. It received an enthusiastic welcome back, based in particular on being so clearly, as The New York Times put it: “an artifact of its moment. The clothes, the cars and the furniture are richly, even extravagantly, redolent of the Euro-’70s, as is the anxious tremor of political and sexual unease that vibrates (along with a sinister, Muzak-y score) underneath the opulent surface.” Even the most visionary science fiction, of course, betrays the aesthetic limitations of when it was created – try counting the number of movies in which the pilots of galaxy-spanning spaceships stare at poky little LED computer screens. As if anticipating this, Fassbinder as noted makes little attempt to disguise that this is 70’s Germany; the main indicia of “futurism” consist of items we’d now call (and maybe even then would have called) tacky – dig those orange telephones!

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

You might think this would limit the film’s impact, but actually it’s the opposite – the specificity is a guarantee of emotional investment; whereas Inception exists on generalized paranoia having little to do with real dreams, let alone one’s real waking life, World on a Wire is firmly rooted in the grim grind of trying to hack your way through a drab adulthood. Many of the characters are basically awful, smarmy hacks, trapped in their ugly niches. The Simulacron is an awesome game-changing technology, but also a largely redundant duplicate of what’s already known. In one scene, Stiller programs a duplicate of his boss into there, except that he has him at the centre of a goofy song-and-dance routine. It’s very cute, but obviously hardly indicative of top-flight scientific focus. In a couple of scenes, the film shows us a bar where the performer vamps and mimes to old Dietrich songs – a more low-grade application of the Simulacron concept, but also summing up how the country remains trapped in ancient ideology and iconography.

I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned Fassbinder in this space, but if so, it’s not because of lack of familiarity with him. When I was first seriously exploring movies in the UK in the early 80’s, he was one of the most easily accessible European directors, both in cinemas and on TV. A lot of this was due to sheer productivity – his career lasted only some sixteen years, from 1966 to 1982 (he died of a drug overdose, aged just 37), but in that time he generated over forty titles. I saw a good chunk of them back then (the most famous include The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Merchant of Four Seasons and Fear Eats The Soul), but I confess I’ve rarely gone back to them since. Fassbinder was a prodigious chronicler of his time and place, excavating multiple strands of hypocrisy, corruption and predatory behaviour, but also enormously tender at times; he loved and sometimes reveled in melodrama and kitsch, but could also be piercingly analytical and abstract. Whereas watching, say, Eric Rohmer (someone else I discovered around the same time, who’s been a much more consistent presence in my viewing since then) requires an acquired technique, watching Fassbinder feels more like an exercise in jumping on and not falling off, despite the beast’s constant efforts to throw you. Anyway, I think I encountered most of his films before I had the capacity to hold on to much of anything, and was consequently a bit overwhelmed.

Call to action

I might do better with Fassbinder now though. I’d also recently watched, more or less through random selection, his 1981 film Lola; it’s probably not generally ranked among his best, but I found it quite stunning. Largely set in the unpromising-sounding milieu of post-war building permits and reconstruction projects, it depicts the worlds of official deal-making and propriety and of underground vice merging and then intertwining, not so much anticipating a new Germany as one that learns how to lie more effectively about itself. The film has a remarkable dream-like quality at times, suggesting the country’s difficulty in pulling itself into some kind of modernity, or even reality.

A scene in Lola depicts an official buying a television in a stab at being more tuned-in, to be confronted with the reality of having just one channel, which doesn’t even start up until 8 pm. The Simulacron sounds like the other end of the technological spectrum, and yet in Fassbinder’s vision of it, it feels constricted in much the same way, like crumbs falling from a table you can sense or dream about, but were born too soon to access. One of the most surprising things about World on a Wire is its relatively optimistic ending, although it’s an optimism that depends on keeping us in the dark about a lot of things. Fassbinder was no denier of progress; anyone who worked that feverishly would have to have been an optimist of some kind. But comparing World on a Wire to Inception (or any of its high-concept big-budget cousins) underlines the vapidity of what passes today as visionary. Even if we were programmed from up above, we couldn’t be much more passive and ineffectual in the face of our escalating problems. If being aware of that possibility is good for anything, it ought to be as a call to action, not as a further excuse for veg-out fantasy. But maybe all we ever really wanted to achieve within our level of reality was to put those wretched 70’s fashions behind us.

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