Saturday, September 6, 2014

Digital Killed the Video Star: THE CONGRESS

Ari Folman’s The Congress is a rare movie that starts with a nugget of inspiration and then imagines faster, imagines farther, until we’ve arrived at something we’ve never seen before. By the end, it’s far lovelier, messier, and more haunting than I had expected. It’s a mixture of sharp live-action and fluid animation, a hallucinatory philosophical science fiction dark comedy of sharp emotional pangs and chilly unease, a swirl of influences very loosely adapted from a novel by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem. It confidently becomes something singularly mesmerizing.

The film begins as a bone-dry showbiz satire, set in a near-future Hollywood where computer technology has advanced to such a degree that studio executives are contemplating a post-human business model. No more need for celebrities and all their attendant foibles. Instead, movie stars will be richly rewarded for a one-time full-body, full-emotion scan that will be uploaded for all eternity into the companies’ databases. Their forever young virtual doppelgangers can act in whatever projects the studio desires while the real people go off to be forgotten, never to act again.

This is the offer presented to Robin Wright in the film’s opening stretch. She was once in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and lately has been turning up in a stream of fascinating roles. Here she plays Robin Wright, an actress who was once in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, but has found the stream of good roles dried up. It’s an alternate universe version of herself, an out-of-work actress living in a former airplane hanger with her teenage kids (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Sami Gayle). They talk, fly kites, eat meals, and care for her son’s medical problems as diagnosed by a kindly doctor (Paul Giamatti)

Folman’s approach to these early scenes is patient and considered, letting conversations play out in long takes precisely framed. The family dynamics are tenderly felt, while scenes of showbiz are calculating power plays. Her well-intentioned agent (Harvey Keitel) stops by and begs her to take a meeting with the head of Miramount Studios (Danny Huston). After some negotiation (she won’t allow her digital incarnation be used for sci-fi, porn, or Holocaust dramas), she’s uploaded. It’s a masterful sequence of sci-fi light and shadow, flickering raw emotions captured forever in a geodesic flashbulb dome while Keitel’s warm voice delivers a heartfelt monologue about the way showbiz sells people for the public’s consumption.

We skip ahead 20 years. What follows is an earnest expression of identity and technology, of who we are and how our relationship to evolving societal machinery may change us. To renew her contract, Wright goes to a fancy resort hotel in what’s called the “Animated Zone.” People can ingest chemicals that create shared delusions, Entertainment Industrial Complex-approved pharmaceutical fantasies. The film becomes a piece of surrealist animation, full of shape-shifting landscapes where size, speed, and distance are a matter of mind over matter. The inhabitants walking around can make themselves into whatever appearance they desire.

The film explodes with color and design as if it is Satoshi Kon’s Paprika dreamworlds by way of a hypothetical post-modern Hieronymus Bosch and Ralph Bakshi co-directed Silly Symphony. There’s nothing consistent except inconsistencies, an entertainment bacchanal of fluid distractions in a state of flux. On giant screens we catch glimpses of Wright’s digital double’s films – beamed directly into the brains of these revelers. She’s a superhero in one. In another she’s aping a famous Dr. Strangelove shot. But no one recognizes the real deal walking amongst them. Everyone is carousing in this animated fantasy playland, but no one’s really connecting. They’re alone together.

Folman’s work in imagining this future of virtual reality hallucinatory living is at once liberating and debilitating. He imagines a future where people can manipulate their appearances however they wish, free at last from constructs of race, gender, orientations, or disabilities, and able to simply live as a group without prejudices or fear. No matter how you’re born, you can huff a chemical and be whatever you wish. And yet few seem to be aware of the others with which they interact. Everyone’s an avatar. Wright meets a seemingly helpful man (Jon Hamm), and they strike up a relationship of some kind as the animation world is turned upside down by talk of revolution. (Some shout, “We’re going to be real again!”) But she never sees his real, un-animated face. We don't either.

In the future of The Congress, everyone is allowed to live in their own subjective reality, cultivating their persona and constructing their own bubbles of infotainment. Sounds familiar. It’s our present-day struggles with technology reflected and refracted, stretched to absurdity and made frighteningly obvious. Furthermore, it’s a movie that starts with sharp jabs at Hollywood’s commodification of persons before drifting off into the future, implicating us all in its haze of existential amorphousness. Culture in this film is poisonous, turning real performers into ultimate studio-system puppets, malleable, compliant, consumable – sometimes literally so. One sniff and you’re Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, or Leone-era Clint Eastwood. You can drink celebrity, taste persona, and feel total possession over stars and their iconography while living your dreams and never waking up.

This film is a feat of imagination that dares to be a weird, expressionistic, emotional view of the future. It moves with the logic of a dream and the undertow of a nightmare, full of sights so striking and unexpected that they colonized my imagination and left me dazed. Wright falls into this future deeper and deeper, losing herself to better find herself, to reclaim her identity, and find her way back to her family, or what’s left of it, as best she can. There’s a deep longing for connection, for purpose, for sense. It’s woozy, disorienting, and effective. “How do I know when I’m dreaming?” Wright asks. It’s a good question, and one not easily answered.

Folman, whose previous feature, the semi-autobiographical Waltz with Bashir, was a similarly deeply felt animation experiment, here paints gorgeously strange images of shifting bodies with wiggling limbs, planes flapping their wings, fields turning into waves, vials of chemical bliss and disorienting subjectivity. Rare cuts back to live action send the head spinning. The film’s imagery swam in my mind so strongly and vividly that I left feeling like I was waking up from a peculiar, personal, and powerful vision.

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