World on a Wire

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht),
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder,
Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck
Second Sight Films

The world in a nutshell...”

Here’s a remarkably unusual 1973 film by famous (and often infamous to some) film-maker Fassbinder, an intriguing slice of science fiction that’s very much ahead of its time. Based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, this German language film (originally made for television and shown in two parts), a production I’ve heard mention in discussions about science fiction history, but never seen. World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, to give it its original title). The German government (or the West German government as it would have been back then) funds a cybernetics research programme which has developed a next-generation computer, which they intend to use to model events and trends in society.

That may sound fairly normal to our modern-day sensibilities, given organisations and governments have used detailed data on computers to run predictions, trends and modelling to help predict what resources may be required in the future – are birth trends indicating we will need more schools and teachers in a few years, for instance. Simulacron, however, is indeed some next-generation level modelling – this computer has created a virtual world, a small town of around ten thousand digital inhabitants (“identity units” as the programmers refer to them), all effectively living their lives, the programmers able to observe them, tweak their personalities and world. Modelling the real world, combined with some unusual anthropology.

The programme is a high priority for the government, but hits a stumbling block when the main creator, Vollmer, dies in mysterious circumstances (is it an accident or something more sinister?), his friend Dr Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is asked to take over the project, reluctant at first but soon persuaded by the oily Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau). It’s just the start of his problems though – a a party hosted by Siskins his friend Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the head of the project’s security vanishes, just after talking to Stiller about his misgivings about Vollmer’s death not being an accident. And I mean vanishes – one minute he is there in a chair in the middle of the crowded room at the party, Stiller turns away for something, turns back and he is gone.

It becomes increasingly peculiar after this – Stiller reports Lause’s disappearance to the company and the police, but only a few days later nobody even remember the man existed, and he is introduced to another man who is the head of security, and has been for years. Even the police detective he reported it to has no memory of Lause or of Stiller telling him of his disappearance. His regular secretary takes ill and is moved away, to be replaced by a new assistant appointed by Siskins, played by Barbara Valentin (one time paramour of Freddie Mercury), and he can’t help but feel despite her being very friendly to him, that she is perhaps there to keep an eye on him.

As he continues to investigate the death and disappearance while working on the Simulacron project, Stiller becomes increasingly agitated and disturbed – he has himself linked into the simulation, effectively riding one of the virtual people’s lives, to observe, but while there the entire street blanks out on him several times. A glitch or something else? A colleague discusses the “reality” of the virtual lives lived in the simulation, commenting on how Vollmer spent so long programming every aspect of humanity into them, wondering if it could create something akin to actual consciousness. And then he finds a record of Lause – not by name in the database, but by searching through descriptions, there he is in the Simulacron database, programmed by the deceased Vollmer himself.

This is a real slow-build into a series of increasingly disturbing concepts (it’s over three hours, you can see why it aired over two evenings, originally!) – Stiller starts to lose his grip on what reality could be. Is he the puppet master, the god of this virtual construction and the digital lives within, or is he another puppet, but a puppet who is starting to see some of the strings? Is he even real? He is so sure at the beginning that he is in the real world, crafting Simulacron, but as the discrepancies pile up he starts to wonder if the digital beings from Simulacron are somehow crossing over to the real world, taking over the bodies of the programmers who enter the simulation. Or is it even more complex, can he be sure he is the one running the simulation? What if he himself is in a simulation (and running a simulation?). It sounds like psychotic delusion, but really, how do any of us know, much less prove, that the world we see around us is real?

Bear in mind this is some three decades before the Matrix introduced the wider cinematic audience to concepts like this, this is pretty high concept for 1973, and really it’s still high concept today, in my opinion, because it is a great piece of drama laced with philosophy, and that philosophical question about the nature of reality and perception is, as the Matrix and others have shown, still one which perplexes us to this day, and is the subject of scientific debate too as our computing abilities become ever more powerful, it is a legitimate question to consider if a more advanced species could be running what we perceive as the real world and our lives as a vast simulation. How would we know? Imagine if that thought got into your head as it does with Stiller, how would it affect you? Would anything matter anymore if you thought none of it was real?

I can’t be alone in thinking nothing really exists.”

 

While the concepts are both disturbing and perplexing, the visuals are highly stylised – many of the actors move in a very unnatural manner, posed in scenes almost like carefully arranged mannequins in a display, many conversations are shot with one actor reflected in a shiny surface or through a distorted lens, scenes are framed in non-realistic ways (one actor on top of the stairs talks to someone below rather than walk down to talk to them as you’d expect). At first I thought this was mostly Fassbinder choosing a deliberate, non-natural style of acting and framing for his cast, but as the film goes on I started to feel perhaps it wasn’t just a style but a deliberate move to create a feeling of wrongness, that the people and places simply aren’t quite real, and it does add to the increasing sense of disconnection and confusion Stiller is experiencing.

This is a very unusual, thought-heavy slice of 70s science fiction, and while the look – many of the offices are designed to look ultra-modern, except what was ultra-modern in 1973 looks unbelievably kitschy and dated now – has not aged well, the concepts and the depiction of a man losing his grip on reality, and perhaps even discovering that there is no reality, remains very powerful and compelling, even in our post-Matrix world (the film even boasts a scene where Stiller exits Simulacron via a phone booth – sound familiar??). Here is a remarkable piece of German film and science fiction history by a major cinematic figure, lovingly restored by Second Sight, collaborating with the Fassbinder Foundation, and being issued in a limited edition packed with extras (featurettes, interviews, documentary, booklet and more), this has clearly been designed for the serious lover of cinema.

The limited edition Blu-Ray of World on a Wire is released on February 18th.

The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band,
Directed by William Friedkin,
Starring Kenneth Nelson, Robert La Tourneaux, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Peter White, Reuben Greene, Leonard Frey

If there’s on thing I’m not ready for it’s five screaming queens singing ‘happy birthday’.”

Here’s an unusual slice of cinematic history for film fans: an early work from a director who would go on to be one of the major American helmers, William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). The Boys in the Band also stands out as one of the first mainstream movies about gay culture, with an all-gay cast of actors, still not exactly a regular occurrence today, remarkable for 1970. Adapted from Mart Crowley’s hit Broadway play (Crowley adapted it for a screenplay himself), it also boasts the original stage cast. The film was, unsurprisingly, controversial at the time (and since), not just with more conservative audiences uncomfortable with gay culture being so openly displayed, it also split some of the gay community, with some angry at the way it portrayed gay men, others were delighted to see gay lives being portrayed on the big screen.

The plot revolves around a birthday party for Harold, one of a circle of friends, all gay men in New York, with Michael (Kenneth Nelson) setting up his apartment for the party and welcoming his other friends who arrive one by one. Birthday boy Harold is the last to arrive, fashionably late (one can’t help but feel deliberately so, especially given his prickly character), and a good bit of the running time actually passes with the friends exchanging gossip and small talk, mixed with barbed comments, until he arrives. Despite being a circle of friends it is clear there are a lot of cracks and a lot of tension in this group too, and those are heightened by Michael’s straight friend Alan appearing during the party (he has known Michael since college and doesn’t know – or claims not to know – that Michael is gay).

And Harold arrives. Harold the thirty-something gay Jewish man in his green velvet suit and tinted glasses, a tongue barbed like a rose bush and with a dry, often cruel wit that’s like Oscar Wilde lines shaped into a rapier, perhaps the one person in the group who has an even sharper (and oft-times nastier) wit than Michael, and he takes savage delight in reminding him of that fact as the evening progresses. The party passes through stages rapidly, from a happy period as they prepare for the evening (comments are exchanged, but they feel like banter rather than nasty at this stage), then it starts to become uncomfortable with Alan’s arrival, then when Harold appears the comments become sharper, nastier, confessions come, arguments, secrets revealed.

In many ways the film shows its theatrical roots – the vast bulk of it is all set in Michael’s apartment, and you can see how that worked well for a stage performance. The thing is that apartment is essentially a crucible in which the different friends and their simmering passions and resentments can come to the boil, there is no need to open it out to other locations that cinema can use, and it is to Friedkin’s credit that he understands this and resists any attempt to insert unnecessary settings or imagery, he shoots around the apartment and the cast, putting us right in there with them.

It can be argued that despite the all-gay cast the film (and play) suffer from having too many stereotypes (the sashaying overly effeminate one, the straight acting one, the super promiscuous one, the gorgeous but dumb one etc), and while there is some truth to this, as Mark Gatis notes in one of the disc’s extras this was one of the first times these types were shown so prominently in mainstream cinema (Gatis is interviewed in the extras as he is acting in a revival of the play), and as he further points out, those characters aren’t claiming to represent every different kind of gay person, but they do make a good selection to try and shine a light into a group that hadn’t been featured much outside of underground cinema till then. And of course this pre-dates the awful horror of the AIDS crisis a decade or so later, and even pre-dates the events of Stonewall, and we have to take it in that context.

Those barbed one-liners and comments are one of the jewel’s of Crowley’s script, they flow pretty much from the start – Michael showing Donald to the guest room, pointing out he got him his own toothbrush as he’s sick of Donald borrowing his. “How do you think I feel?” retorts Donald. “Oh, you’ve had worse things than that in your mouth…,” replies Michael, archly. Or Michael commenting about “tired fairies” and “screaming queens” at the party night, Donald asks good-humouredly “Are you calling me a screaming queen of a tired fairy?” “Oh I beg your pardon, there will be six tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer,” responds Michael.

The lines just keep flowing like that and had me smiling and laughing at their tartness, but as the party goes on the comments become increasingly cutting and painful, it almost seems like they hate each other (in one very emotional scene Michael sobs that they have to learn to stop hating themselves so much), and yet… And yet there is far more going on here; while those vicious, bitchy lines escalate from nasty barbs to poisonous harpoons there is also a feeling that they are all still connected, still friends, that they need each other, that they can only be this dysfunctional around each other in a way they can’t in the rest of society (and isn’t that the case with many of us and our friends? Only around them can we really be that vulnerable or wrong-headed and yet still be accepted). Each of them exposes their weaknesses and wishes, and for me that took them past any “stereotyping” and made them real people that I could emote with and empathise with.

This is a delight of sharp-toothed wit, a rare early mainstream cinematic exploration of queer culture and lives, and an important entry on the film-roll of a major director (Friedkin says that it is one of his films he is still very proud of), and for all those reasons it’s great that Second Sight are bringing it back to film lovers. You’ll find yourself saving some of those biting one-liners to use yourself at some point.

The Boys in the Band is released by Second Sight on Blu-Ray (with a bunch of extras, including the aforementioned Mark Gatis interview, and commentary from Friedkin and Crowley), on February 11th, some fifty years from the debut of the play.

Film: psychological horror in The Resident

The Resident,

Directed by John Ainslie

Starring Tianna Nori, Mark Matechuk, Krista Madison

You could be forgiven for thinking the story concept for The Resident (also known as The Sublet in the US) sounds not unfamiliar – a mother and young child mostly alone in a new apartment with odd noises and things happening, it does stir memories of Dark Water and other such offerings. But Canadian film-makers Black Fawn are getting themselves a bit of a rep in horror circles (they also did The Bite which Garth reviewed on here last year), and there was something about this that sparked my Spidey-sense and told me this was going to be worth checking out, and so it proved, for while the main idea of mother and child in possibly haunted new home is far from new, The Resident plows a different furrow from others in that field, offering up a genuinely creepy, psychological approach.

Joanna (Tianna Nori), her husband and her new baby have to move into temporary lodgings for his new job, and right from the start this is an apartment block that just screams out that there’s something wrong. It takes several attempts buzzing the intercom just to get into the block, then on schlepping up the stairs (just what you want with a baby stroller) to the apartment for rent they find no-one there, no sign of the landlord. But the door opens and there’s a not telling them to look around but if they don’t like it then pretty much leave and don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out. Not exactly a warm welcome. Oh, and there is a locked room in the apartment. Which hubby surmises must be where the landlord stores his personal items, but which you just know is going to be something else…

There’s a palpable sense of unease right from the start, just viewing the apartment, but once they move in the sense of disturbance grows. Much of the increasing sense that things just aren’t right comes from Joanna basically being at home by herself with the baby, day after day, in a strange city while her husband is out at his new job. She doesn’t know anyone here and, mysteriously, she never seems to bump into anyone from the neighbouring apartments coming or going. But she does hear them. Sometimes. A banging, banging, banging on the walls and other sounds.

And this is where The Resident takes a different tack from some haunted apartment tales – director Ainslie wisely uses the more mundane, everyday elements of Joanna’s life as a new mother in a strange city to both heighten her feelings of isolation and dislocation and yet at the same time also make you second guess her state of mind. Like many new mothers she’s already dealing with major life changes – the physical and emotional sides of pregnancy and giving birth, then finding yourself now mostly at home on your own during the work day, totally cut out of your previous routines. That is a difficult thing for most first-time mothers to adjust to, and here in a new city she doesn’t even have friends or relatives to come round, take them out, babysit or help out, increasing her isolation, and it doesn’t help that her husband is busy with his new job and his stress there means he is less than supportive even when he is at home…

And I found this was the element that really made The Resident work for me – that real-world side of things, of Joanna trying to cope with her new life and baby and new home is something that is very easy to empathise with, and grounds the spookier aspects. In fact, it not only grounds them it also offers the viewer a dilemma – how much of the increasingly strange things that seem to be happening are real? And how many are the products of a woman in a heightened emotional state? And that really helps drive The Resident into a much more psychological level as the viewer is left wondering what is real and what is not – and realising that even if it isn’t real, the effect is the same on poor Joanna. And what if it is real, what are those noises from neighbouring apartments where nobody every seems to be home, what’s in that locked room, what happened here before… With a lean running time The Resident builds atmosphere right from the start and increases the psychological pressure throughout, not outstaying its welcome, so keeping the tensions nice and taught.

The Resident is released on DVD, on-demand and download by Second Sight from May 22nd; this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog