May 24, 2010

World on a Wire (1973)

West Germany

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

205 min

Fassbinder is most widely known as the prolific director of Sirkian melodramas that exposed the moral hypocrisy at the core of West German society in the post-war years, whether it’s the critique of Adenauer’s ‘economic miracle’ in ‘The Marriage of Maria von Braun’ (1979) or racial and generation divisions in ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ (1974). Fassbinder held an uncomfortable mirror to a country that had at least on the surface or in its own collective consciousness, had laid the ghosts of Nazi Germany to rest. Fassbinder reminded it however, that this ‘success’ was illusory and where it had been achieved, it had come at a price.

If Fassbinder’s reputation rests on these films, then this means that several others he directed that didn’t overtly address social, economic and political issues, could easily be unfairly overlooked. ‘World on a Wire’ is such a film. Certainly in the Fassbinder canon, it stands out as an oddity. Made for German television during one of his most personally creative periods (‘Fear Eats the Soul’ and ‘Effi Briest’ almost immediately followed), it’s an adaptation of the science fiction novel ‘Simulacron-3’ by the American writer Daniel F. Galouye. Although Fassbinder personally adapted the novel, one wonders whether it was his original idea to make this film. Given what we know of his prior and subsequent career, science fiction appears a strange direction, though Fassbinder might have seen it as an opportunity to wrongfoot his audience and critics and to demonstrate his versatility.

In a convoluted narrative that really needs to be followed closely in order to appreciate precisely what’s going on, the IKZ cybernetics institute has developed a simulation programme that features thousands of ‘identity units’ living as human beings, thinking they’re human beings, acquiring memory and consciences. Corporate paranoia and intrigue manifests itself in betrayal and murder, though we’re constantly asked to consider what we see; whether this is the real or simulated world, or whether indeed, there’s more than one level of simulation. Although this scenario sounds familiar to modern audiences; there’s parallels with The Matrix series of films, and Galouye’s novel was filmed in 1999 as ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, Fassbinder has a different emphasis from the traditional set up of science fiction films. He eschews any interest in action sequences, which are kept to a minimum. Instead, ‘World on a Wire’ is more of an intellectual and philosophical film, discussing the theories of Plato and Zeno amongst others. Fassbinder often employs his camera urgently (courtesy of his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, now Martin Scorsese’s DoP of choice) and the set design keeps the film rooted in the contemporary (e.g. 1970s) style rather than suggesting a more optimistic aesthetic of the future. His usual acting stock participate. All these elements taken together suggest therefore that Fassbinder had more of a personal investment in this film that one might initially imagine. It features numerous hallmarks of the classic Fassbinder film and style.

‘World on a Wire’ had been unavailable almost since its original transmission. It had never been broadcast in cinemas and had only been shown on German television on a few occasions. Thanks to Second Sight, an important moment in Fassbinder’s film making career has been restored and is now ripe for rediscovery.

‘World on a Wire’ is released by Second Sight films on 17 May 2010


December 28, 2009

The Box (2009)


Director: Richard Kelly

115 min

Few new directorial careers have been as turbulent as Richard Kelly’s. His debut feature ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001) is one of the decade’s most beloved cult films, though I have to admit to feeling fairly agnostic about it personally. It made a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal and has not only acquired widespread critical success but also a healthy commercial life on DVD. At this point, the world was Kelly’s oyster. Inevitably, however, fate had different ideas. ‘Southland Tales’ (2007), a dystopian comedy-drama featuring actors of such dubious calibre as The Rock, Justin Timberlake and Sarah Michelle Gellar might have premiered at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but the general critical consensus was highly negative. And with Hollywood an unforgiving environment, Kelly has almost had to begin from scratch and rebuild his reputation.

‘The Box’ is Kelly’s opportunity to do so. Small-ish in budget as Hollywood thrillers go ($30m), it has several things going for it. First, it’s based on a well-known Richard Matheson (of ‘I Am Legend’ fame) short story. Second, Cameron Diaz is the film’s main selling point and no doubt she perceives ‘The Box’ as the chance to flex her acting muscles in a way most of the frivolous films she works on don’t. And third, the score is performed by members of the acclaimed Canadian band, Arcade Fire. Given these core ingredients, you’d be forgiven for brash optimism. Yet there’s something about Kelly that seems wilfully self-destructive. He’s clearly a talented film maker, not a generic studio hack, but he manages to handicap all of his films in some way, potentially fatally. There’s no way he’ll ever deliver a straight down the line product, which is fine as it shows a willingness to try something out of the ordinary. However, credibility seems to be the last thing he’s ever interested in, and ‘The Box’ suffers from this too.

The essential conceit of Matheson’s short story is well established – a mysterious man approaches a married couple and offers them a sum of money to press a button that apparently will result in the death of a stranger. Kelly takes this concept but develops it, taking it into several different directions that sometimes seem plausible, sometimes don’t, that sometimes seem well handled, sometimes don’t. Great film makers often leave plenty in their films unresolved, to allow us, the audience to interpret the film in whichever way we wish. This is usually because the film maker in question has left myriad possibilities for us to comprehend. Kelly too leaves more questions than answers, though not quite in the same way. For instance, Kelly adds an extra-terrestrial dimension to Matheson’s original idea – that Frank Langella’s character is testing the human race to consider whether it’s worthy of survival – the selfishness of the married couple suggests not, but the issue of NASA’s explorations upon Mars and the husband’s role in all of this is left mostly unexplored. The library sequence too is a complete WTF moment and even the loose explanation for it, much like the scientific basis behind ‘Donnie Darko’ is resolutely unconvincing. It’s almost as though Kelly has these ideas and works them into his film regardless of whether they seem to make any sense or not or even seem relevant to what has occurred previously.

That said, even given the flaws of ‘The Box’ and there are plenty, it’s a film that strangely stays with you. Even the most seemingly trivial incidents begin to make you think. Maybe this is because the film seems so half-arsed in many ways, that you kind of wish it was better so you deliberately force yourself to try to comprehend it. Or maybe that’s just my experience of it. Still, it’s the kind of film I’d perversely recommend. I don’t think it’s especially good and much of the inevitable backlash it’ll receive is warranted, but ‘The Box’ as made by a different director would have been a completely different film – completely mediocre, a safe package, all strands of the narrative loosely, neatly arranged to “make sense”. Kelly at least deserves some credit for delivering something unexpected. It’s a head-scratcher, sure, and probably the most bizarre Hollywood film of the year.

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