Wednesday, July 27, 2011

RW Fassbinder's WORLD ON A WIRE (1973 - 2011)

"I am. I am." (World of Wires)

"What is 'real', Neo?  How do you define 'reality'?  If you mean what you can see and smell and taste than really 'reality' is nothing but electro-magnetic impulses going through your brain." (The Matrix)


World on a Wire is one of those film discoveries that boggles the mind: so much should seem to come out of this film to influence others, chiefly The Matrix and Inception (and to a smaller but significant extent Minority Report), in how it tackles simulated reality and what happens when people create the worlds, inhabit it, and then minds become nothing more than electro-magnetic impulses riding through the brain. And yet for many years it was never really seen anywhere, outside of Germany at any rate, as it was an epic made-for-TV movie that only just got US distribution through Janus films (they're still around eh?) and Criterion, who will no doubt make a killing on DVD.

So what to say then about one of the best science fiction films of this year AND 1973? Well, it's a mind-fucker, plain and simple. And if you had told me that it was adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel I'd not have doubted for a moment (ultimately it's from Daniel F. Galouye called Simulacron-3). It's protagonist is a Doctor Fred Stiller (Jack Nicholson double-agent Klaus Lowitsch), who takes the place of a Doctor Henry Vollmer, who died suddenly under some suspicious circumstances. That is, suspicious to only Fred, who takes on the role as head scientist at the Simulacron-Cybernetics division, which is, in short, making up a virtual reality that is complete once 'plugged-in' via electrical wires hooked up on a helmet into the super-computer. Stiller, however, starts to go crazy... or is he, once he takes this position as he keeps seeing a man named Guenther Lause who no one else seems to have heard of, and is uncertain if the world he is in *is* the Simulacron.

Now, to fans of cyberpunk and, again, Inception and The Matrix and, of course, The SIMS videogames, this is nothing new. But take it into some context: in 1973 this was some ahead-of-its-time stuff, probably a good few years before Gibson got to writing his books on the subject. However I don't throw around the Phillip K. Dick comparison lightly; as an admirer of his work I had to speculate watching the film unfold, with a lot of it (the first half at least) being mostly dialog and under-the-surface gestrues amid a cold but eye-catching futuristic landscape that is all too familiar. And more than that, like something out of 'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,' World on a Wire has that Dickian sense of palpable paranoia and total up-is-down down-is-up and in-between sense of a world gone awry through one point of view. And frankly, it's probably the best summation of the kind of work he and his ilk (probably the author of Simulacron-3 as well) that could have made it to the screen.

It's through Fassbinder's sense of the world, how specific it is to him, that brings this out as well. He was not throughout his career a, how should I put it, 'genre' director (unless you count melodramas as a genre, which is totally fair), but this is a science fiction film through and through, with its pulp-narrative character parts for the dangerous and sexy women on the side, the obvious but still creepy villains (one of whom is played by Kurt Raab of "Herr R Runs Amok", bald head and all), and a creative usage of technologies and cinematography that reflects an altered world and perspective.

But at the same time that Fassbinder experiments in the genre, he still brings his sensibility to what on the surface is still a typical "B-movie" narrative. He's operating much like Godard in Alphaville: take real locations and swets (or at least what would appear to be so on such a low budget) and make evwerything stand-out through depth of field, spacing in hallways, how a camera moves across a cafeteria, or just that fuzzy POV angle when surely "in" the Simulacron (and to top the cake with some icing, Eddie Constantine makes a cameo!).

The film is long, this should be noted, and the first half is good and intriguing and has some bizarre (intended?) comic elements like an extended shot at a party with a Marlene Dietrich look-a-like singing as doctors talk business, and other bits of business (I can imagine the DP Michael Ballhaus having a lot of fun designing some of these shots just to bring out the 'extra' element of rising paranoia), but it can also drag in some spots with characters' exposition or just how cold Fred Stiller can be sometimes. All of this mostly changes for the best/better in the second half as the shit gets deeper and weirder, and ambiguity adds to the terror happening for this character - albeit there are some moments, consciously like a super-hero or an agent like James Bond, that Lowtisch's performance takes on an air of 'yeah, even if this is all happening, or I am crazy or a murderer, who cares' - and in the last half hour especially a growing sense of dread and mayhem ensues that has some of the director's mosty inspired beats of cinema.

You know it's sci-fi because there's a close-up of an eye-ball.  Or something

I should also note that World on a Wire may not move "fast" enough for some viewers qwho suddenly see a mention of Inception or The Matrix and think it'll be like that. Not really. That is to say, there IS action and violence, but when it bursts out it's often shot in takes that don't really cut away or around as much as more post-modern sci-fi films do. And in a way Fassbinder is smart to do this, to let the character(s) drive this narrative, or that a zoom in or out can do a lot for this edgy material. A shot of Fred driving through a garage with the ceiling whizzing by is exciting. And once the pace is caught on by the viewer, seeing Fred's moments of clarity shattered by the madness around him (and punctuated by some truly bizarre music cues like a pre-TRON test by Gottfried Hüngsberbg), it's rhythm is mesmerizing.

Dare I even say it, with its wonderfully careless occasional bits of homo-erotic tension (hey, it IS Fassbinder after all, aside from Querelle the guy has great fun in doing poker-faced camp), and its mystery around the nature of how we make worlds for ourselves and destroy them, that it's possibly *better* than a big trumpet noise of a movie like Inception. And, last but not least, considering it's one of those 'in-the-past-looking-at-the-fu​ture-we've-caught-up-with' films, it holds up as challenging, subversive entertainment based on its ideas and how the shots and cuts lure a viewer in cooly, like a lover with an alienating grip.

Papa Mike's Video #4 - Krzystof Kieslowski's THE DECALOGUE

This blog entry comes with an and/or really.  While it's been a long time coming to watch this film - ever since I seriously got into European art-house cinema of the past fifty years several years ago I've heard of it and heard it's praises sung much - it's also been one of the DVD's from "Papa Mike's Video" that has been also sitting on the shelf for years.  Why so long?

The length was a factor, one which ironically seemed simpler (if not less daunting) when it came time to watch all ten 55 minute episodes, and the kind of depth that would come with it.  The name Krystof Kieslowski, for those who have seen his work or just know his reputation, comes with a hefty cinematic language.  This is a good thing (Kubrick called this one of the only masterpieces he could think of), and it was something I'd looked forward to taking all in.  All in one... BIG... cinematic scoop.
And what did I think?

How does one live?  How do you about trying to be moral, or good, or have a yearning for something, or what happens when the circumstances of fate and chance take their toll?  And when going by the ten commandments, especially in this 'modern' world that is so beguiling and fucked up, how does living take its toll on families, loved ones, children, parents, those from the past, those in the future, and the dead? 

Kieslowski and his co-writer don't simply make it strictly 'this is THE commandment dealt with in the episode" in this cine-series.  On the contrary when I started watching the films (or episodes or what-have-you) I didn't know that it was specifically *the* order that is used from the common texts of Biblical teaching.  So, for example, I wasn't sure at first if episode three that was set on Christmas Eve had to do with adultery (a woman taking a man away from his family for shenanigans at night) or that episode two had to do with taking the Lord's name in vain as it seemed to be more-so about deception and/or (again) adultery.

(As a change of pace, by the way, I decided this time to just copy and paste for the most part- some segments here there are some exceptions- my notes that I was taking as I watched the films.  Why not give a little glimpse into what I was thinking and feeling out as I went on this marathon cinematic adventure?  And if you don't like it, you can go about your business, move along, move along...)

In a sense these episodes have a lot and little to do at the same time with each commandment.  And within dimensions of looking at things like believing in God, murder, sex, adultery, theft, lying, cheating, loving and hating and just plain pondering, Kieslowski gets a lot out of just outright asking the right questions and presenting themes dramatically.  Characters talk but so much is revealed through just straight good filmmaking, and with a couple of exceptions most of the films/sodes are masterfully executed, especially parts 5 and 9.

How to break it down...

Part 1, ... don't worship false idols? The computer turns on by itself, its self-thinking, like the computer in Sphere.   Pavel, kid. Interested in questions of life or death, computer work, what is god...and then the ice broke.  "I spilled the ink!".  Don't follow advice of computer?  Turns out that is the case.  Or, simply, don't follow or have false idols "before me", which means that even a computer acts as a God.  This is even truer and more moving a notion today, and it builds to a dramatic climax that is heartbreaking and the kind that fills one with dread watching someone else being filled with dread - in a good way I mean.

Part 2... Old guy in apartment, woman staring out a window sill with a cigarette... Ran over dog, sick family member... Teeth monologue... A woman is told there's doubt her husband will live.  This is a sad story of life on the brink of end... Wait, she's pregnant with another's child.  She can't have the child if he lives.  "Adultery"?  (Matchbox lit on fire, brief image, haunting)... Water dropping from the faucet in the bedroom of the hospital... Every moment slipping away from life.  Its agonizing to watch that as the man dying in bed.  And the bug in the liquid.  Life has such a strange meaning but one that can be expressed through such an image.  Or through music being played.  Bittersweet ending, he's back to life and a child that's not his.  Great episode... Its don't take god in vain. Hm... A little mention of God goes a long way I guess ("my personal God" the doctor says)

Part 3...Santa Claus!  The Christmas episode. Stealing the car? Though shalt not steal!

No... this is "Honor the Sabbath".  Ironically what I wrote before in my notes indicates that the "honor" part would basically portend that not honoring it would be things like, say, stealing away a man from his family on Christmas by a woman who had a prior relationship with the man and wants to basically joyride around....

And then... Yeah, this woman makes this a segment about adultery I suppose, or just coveting in general.  "How often I've pictured your faces run over by trucks.". Ouch... CAR CHASE!!  No, yeah, its adultery.  She slept with this guy, and was with Edward, but what happens after?  I love when they think he's come back, and instead its carolers.  Life keeps being unexpected don't it?  Oh, and they run over a Christmas tree cause this woman is crazy.  But its all about the lies and betrayal isn't it?  What a twist! Edward was married!  "I've told a lot of lies tonight.". Wait, it really is "thou shalt not dishonor the sabbath"?  but its christmas!

Part 4...  Honor mom and dad...  Pours water on her dad's head. Heh...  Notice, "open after my death". Eerie. What's in the letter!  Forgery part is interesting. I like when she's about to open the letter and the guy from the canoe is there. A god-like presence or just weird timing?  I LOVE his reaction.  When were told a horrible truth we can't look the person in the eye.  I like that she just comes out with it.... In an elevator, space is constricted.  Deep, hard talks are best for the cellar.

Kieslowski suggests these shattered, true feelings by the space they're in.  They look at pics in the cellar... Commandments get crisscrossed here.  You can honor a father, but what about deception?  the over arching motif here is no commandment is mutually exclusive... Uh oh, daddy issues.. It becomes like scenes from a marriage only between a father and (not) daughter. Its about two people figuring out what a relationship is or could be.  How to deal with the truth of things?  Its painful to be faithful.  Does parents respect automatic?  Or is it real?.... Um... Hm... This changes the whole dynamic, and YET, The directors point is still made.  What is trust?  ... Or no maybe it still is true? Ah, ambiguity, you're my only friend.

Part five... Thou shalt not kill.  Alright, now we're talking...the color is different here, a little more sepia in the outdoor scenes, or just desaturated.  Memory loses its meaning, and yet it has a quality where you can't let go.  Guy walks around town, little girl looks different...  This guys a punk, scaring pigeons and shit... A picture hanger... Knocked over in the stall... I'm not sure why it keeps cutting back to the guy in the room talking about crimes of the world.  Following this disaffected youth is really really fascinating. Kind of like following Raskolnikov... When he flings the food at the window, kids on the other side, you can have that distance and being an asshole is fine... (This other guy maybe is a lawyer)...

I love how this is shot.  Its like the world is all gray like children of men... The music like a horror film... The murder, they don't show the neck, they mostly show the feet, the tire screeching.... This isn't like "movie" deaths.  Its slow, painful, and even the horse turns to see the horn being pulled... I didn't expect the beating.  Brutal. Staring at him... Nevermind how he was caught... Now its about the lawyer trying the case. He was for capitol punishment, now against... While this is set in modern times, everything evokes time eternal.  The hangman setting up the noose is done without a word.  Its a mini-masterpiece of pure storytelling... And it ends with the hard conversation to have. What's special here is to find humanity in a young but cold-blooded killer (and the story of how his sister was killed).  Great acting too by the young man.

Part six. Adultery. :)

Starts out like a thriller, a man looking in on a woman's apartment, her half naked.  Why is he there?  Does he know her?  She is sexy for sure.  Good guitar music too.  Hmm, he's spying on her, with another man mayhap... Post office workers...didn't expect this to be so Rear Window... Spill the milk, dig that girl... He gets his way into her life.  It has a touch of the sex-letter, but I still like it.

The emotions are still raw and true.. Kieslowski's Body Double?  This one has some of the few laughs, mostly out of awkward innuendo, in the series.  This kid is stupid, but he's also 19. ... Oh, grandma!  I kinda like this, despite, again, it nears soft-core.  But the guy is so young that its interesting.  ... And suddenly this shit gets really melodramatic. Or just tragic, I'm not sure.  What a fucked up kid!  But it's still drama, and its sad so there ya go... When she comes back and speaks to the mother, this is around where the movie is made.  Actually, its in the last few minutes where the tables turn.  Now she is the obsessive.

(I should note, I love adultery stories, or what comes close to it - this is... kind of like that I suppose?  What I loved about this segment was how characters moved in scenes, how the boy and the woman interacted with one another, like their encounter outside the building when she finds out that he's been spying on her through his telescope, how he walks away ala Charlie Brown dejected and how she calls him back, or later on when she has him in her apartment and things get sexual - or the most they're going to with such a warped teenager.  There's something to how characters move in the frame, and how, as Kubrick noted in his praise of the film, Kieslowski is able to film these ideas of sexual identity and emotional presence and obsession without having to say it that works so well.  The ending especially has that bittersweet awe to it that just melts my heart).

Part 7.  DON'T STEAL! Shot descends a building, then yelling.  Kidnapping plot? ...  Love the kids party. Full of magical and wonderful characters... And then the woman takes the kid away.  Hm.. Can you "steal" a kid? Guess so.  Sneaky.  Music's like Morricone's Paranoia Prima... Reminding me of Fatal Attraction.... The kid asks if she Kidnapped her, haha!  The full drama has real tension, as the "mother" explains herself to the man.  There's a shot where she won't let go of his finger in sleep.  Touching...

Hm, he reads about Two Women!  This episode feels a bit colder than the others. Maybe Kieslowski needs some moments of emotional power edged with the coldness of the "parents".  Question is, who is really stealing? You've stolen my child- I'm a mother that loves.".   She might have a point if she weren't so emotionally unstable... The episode is very good because the direction and performances are still strong, and the wolf dreaming-nightmares are a nice touch.. But its still Lifetime movie-like.

Part 8, false witness... Holocaust survivor, and an ethics professor...opens with an image that could be anything- an adult hand holding a child's hand as they walk- but the feeling is different, the mood already feels like a ghetto.  Then there's an old woman, going about her affairs in her apartment... She is the professor, ethical hell...  A woman in class describes a night in February 1943 Poland ghetto. Obviously this reporter or whoever it is talks about the professor.  But I love that its all subtext, all the dolly shots panning across the class say so much in so little. And the kid that interrupts by coming in late is so intense a moment.  Every push-in of the camera counts.  How does one bear false witness in the eyes of God?  This night scene gives the chills- the house where it happened, the ghetto, a return.

They both were there.  The whole episode is haunting, the only way if there is any kind of "way" is to remember as it was- a horror upon all.  Hm, the professor was the witness, the younger woman the catholic.  For 40 years.  I am moved by what happens to characters when they are genuine and good and do things like saving the life of a child..."I don't use the word God".  People can choose. That's a powerful thing.  Forces of good and evil at work.

The end is most telling when she sees the tailor who also helped her, their conversation, where he says simply "I don't want to remember during the war..." Tells so much about the war experience and what "bearing witness" means.  Its the most heroic thing imaginable, a great responsibility.

Part nine. Guy can't have kids. Pressures wife to find someone else.  A wonderful, sad examination of watching the dissolution of love.  Whenever he watches or listens to his wife its captivating, how his mind if working here.  It goes past coveting: how do two people live together? Simply.  How much love can there be without trust?b. They're surprisingly is.  The ending too is bittersweet as they've each gone through the hell of going into trust and back and forward again.

Part 10.  Now he's having fun.  It opens with raging, awesome punk rock live that sings about the very stuff we've seen: commit adultery, beat up your mother and father, lie cheat and steal, covet!  Haha.  This ones about stamp collectors who "covet goods".   Its funny, but not straight-thru lol style. Its more funny-sad, with a drum roll the funniest part.  Did I mention Poliosh punk rock?

And that's it.  I loved some of these as much as the greatest films ever made, and at worst it was still well-acted and well-lit tales of woe with a few minor spouts of melodrama.  It's a dark, hopeful, cold, funny trip into life in Europe near the end of Communism and each segment critiques the commandments while it honors them.  That's something.

And to close this out... who else?