Monday, September 26, 2011

World on a Wire (September 29th and October 2nd at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[WORLD ON A WIRE screens Thursday September 29th at 6:45 pm and Sunday October 2nd at 6:30 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

While cleaning out old e-mail I found a list forwarded to me from some movie- entertainment website I won't bother naming, even though one of the 20somethings named as a contributor actually put GRAND ILLUSION on a personal roster of her favorite films, which shows some intellectual savvy and class (or an ability among well-paid content-providing 20somethings to cut-paste from pre-existing best-movies-of-all-time surveys online before knocking off the day to play Second Life, take your choice).

Anyway, the document in question purported to a list of "Movies That Were Ahead Of Their Time." When I saw THE MATRIX prominently named, and not much else of older vintage, I lost interest. A better description might be Movies That Were In The Video Store Or On TV When We Needed To Make A List.

For an example of a film - to be exact, a scarcely known TV miniseries - that was AGES ahead of its time, be at the Cleveland Cinematheque, one of the few venues that has had repeated revivals (two in the past decade, I think) of WORLD ON A WIRE ("Wehlt Ahm Draht"), a reality-bending science-fiction two-parter made for West German viewers in 1973 by the prolific, short-lived Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Dig: The untypical topic is a "virtual reality" (a term never used, incidentally) computer world - yes, imagined and envisioned in the Nixon era. Double-dig: The thing is based on Simulacron-3, a novella by the obscure Daniel Galouye (a science-fiction author and former test pilot, considered New Orleans’ gift to SF), actually published in 1964! Now that's ahead of it's time, callow young Generation Y-ers. Or does THE MATRIX still count for more because it had kung-fu?

Yes, kung-fu is an element that didn't occur to poor Fassbinder, but he tried his best in WORLD ON A WIRE in depicting a futuristic environment a la Godard's ALPHAVILLE, mainly by sticking to blocky concrete-and-steel, sterile and antiseptic locations around contemporary Berlin, no fancy sprawling sets, zap guns or anything that would really hold the attention of dumb kids. The brainy setup is that Simulacron, an old-school computer - rooms after rooms of data banks with the tape-data spools constantly turning - has, within its massive storage capacity, created an imitation world in which "circuits" with awareness, called "identity units" live out whole lives without realizing that they're synthetic. It is not giving too much away to say that the point of Simulacron is hardly pure science, but to fabricate a projection of society 20 years in the future, so that big corporations, utilities and manufacturers can foresee the changing needs of consumers.

One of the scientists who designed Simulacron, after admitting to personal angst and trouble sleeping, abruptly drops dead. Right after that, Laushe, security chief for the company tells the replacement science dude Stiller (Klaus Lowitch) that he’s got an unbelievable story to tell – then Laushe suddenly vanishes into thin air at a party. The macho Stiller tries to solve the twin mysteries, faced with the fact that, one by one, his rather shifty fellow employees, the nosy media and public records are losing any evidence that Laushe ever existed in the first place.

After more than three hours’ running time there’s a “twist” ending that ought to be rather familiar by now. And it’s even more so if one knows the Amazing Movie Fun Fact that when THE MATRIX and similar pictures dealing with virtual reality hit big around 2000, Galouye’s novel was filmed a second time, now for US-language screens (mercifully shorter and with a bit more f/x) as a fair 1999 B-movie called THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR – come on, surely someone besides me saw it? Anyone? (crickets chirp, wolf howls in distance)

…Frankly, I can imagine good old Rod Serling taking a look at both these productions and thinking that he could have done a better job of it in his old half-hour “Twilight Zone” time slot, and he’d probably be correct. Fassbinder’s saga – influenced a bit by Patrick McGoohan’s classic “The Prisoner,” I would dare say - is actually more fun if you know the twist in advance [POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT], then see the various clues sprinkled throughout – characters shown in mirrors or other reflective surfaces rather than straight-on; when Stiller actually enters, briefly, Simulacron-3 (via electrode-to-the-brain headset, most MATRIX-like) it looks pretty much the same as his own world; a not-quite real ambiance about the proceedings, in which computer nerds and executives act more like stilted gangsters and tough-guy P.I.’s of pulp fiction, and women are all pliant playthings and curvaceous eager-to-please baby-doll secretaries – the most curvaceous of whom is portrayed by the late Barbara Valentin, who I am given to understand was the busty girlfriend of Freddy Mercury [NOT SO SPOILER ALERT]. Other people sure seem to have led far more interesting lives than Charles Cassady. I wish I could find the exit out of this dumpy, poorly-written software simulation. I wonder what they call it up there? Cleveland-con 3?

So there it is, even with its flaws and the slow, studied TV-miniseries pacing, WORLD ON A WIRE makes for an amazing ahead-of-its-time artifact. Watch for Fassbinder regular Ulli Lommell, later to direct some well-received horror and SF-genre films himself, in a minor role as a Dieter-From-Sprockets-looking reporter. (2 1/2 out of 4 stars)

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