Thursday, July 1, 2010
World on a Wire
World on a Wire is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's mind-bending sci-fi epic, a two-part, over three-hour examination of the nature of reality, thought and perception. Based on Daniel Galouye's sci-fi novel Simulacron 3, the film is concerned with the creation of simulated computer worlds, populated with synthetic, programmed beings unaware that they're living in a virtual reality rather than a tangible flesh-and-blood world. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is appointed to become the technical director for this "simulacron" computer system after the project's previous administrator seemingly has a mental breakdown before dying in an accident. Almost immediately, however, Stiller is subjected to tremendous pressures and odd incidents relating to the computer and the company he's working for. There's some kind of industrial intrigue going on — the company's director, Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau) wants to use the computer to benefit his corporate friends — and bizarre events make Stiller doubt his own sanity. A man (Ivan Desny) tries to tell Stiller about the strange circumstances of his predecessor's death, only to disappear into thin air — and soon enough, no one even remembers that this man ever existed. Stiller experiences other strange visions, and is beset by crippling headaches almost constantly, quickly developing a paranoid outlook that encompasses nearly every moment of his day and everyone he meets.
It's obvious enough where all of this is heading, even before Fassbinder explicitly states the twist in the final scene of the first part. Yet the film's careful study of the layers of reality remains engrossing, because Fassbinder's visual mastery is at its highest level here. There is little in the plot to justify the film's length, and the characters are, for the most part, doll-like ciphers prone to staring emptily into space, posing within Fassbinder's meticulously arranged compositions, caught in frames of mirrors, remaining static as the camera turns circles around them. Fassbinder underlines the film's central theme of perception by continually distorting and reflecting his images, emphasizing how what we see is dependent on the angle from which we're looking. In the film's opening scenes, Stiller's predecessor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) accosts two government representatives, asking them to look at themselves in a handheld mirror and describe what they see. They are not really themselves, he says, they are just images, images imagined by other people. Even beyond the film's sci-fi premise, this idea resonates: each person is the culmination of images created and maintained in the minds of others, and what we see when we look in the mirror is not necessarily what others see when they look at us.
To this end, Fassbinder inventively packs his film with mirrors and distortions. In his melodramas, such devices are stylized routes into character, picked up from Sirk, a way of positioning characters in abstracted relationships to one another, capturing two reactions in the same frame. Here, the perpetual mirroring emphasizes how fragile vision is, how easily it is subjected to distortions. When Stiller goes to see Siskins one afternoon in the latter's office, Siskins has a tremendous glass funnel perched on top of his desk. The curved glass distorts Siskins' face, rendering him at times multi-eyed and blurry, almost insectile, his smirk stretched out so that it seems to stretch across his entire face. It's a subjective image of Stiller's boss, a collection of attributes rather than a coherent image of a face. In the reverse shot, when Fassbinder turns the camera onto Stiller instead, his face is reflected in the shiny surface of the desk, but chopped in half, only his eyes looking out hauntingly as though trapped within this reflective prison, his mouth and the lower half of his face cut off by the desk's edge. The boss is distorted and magnified, his all-seeing eyes multiplied, while the employee is made voiceless and trapped; the mirrors don't lie.
Unless, sometimes, they do. Later Siskins visits the computer lab — with its funhouse mirror walls and clusters of TV screens — to watch a computer doppelganger of himself perform a song-and-dance routine as programmed by Stiller. Fassbinder frames the image so that we see the the TV monitor, and Siskins' warped reflection next to it, and layered on top of this, Siskins' back as he watches the screen. It's a man and, essentially, two false doppelgangers of himself, one computer-created and one a blurred reflection of himself stretched out across the wavy surface of the wall. Still another form of mirroring exists in the scene where Stiller goes to visit his sick secretary Maya (Margrit Carstensen). She is lying down, looking at herself in a mirror to put on lipstick, but because the mirror is two-sided, the side facing the camera actually reflects the offscreen Stiller. One side of the mirror then presumably shows her, while he appears in the other, so that the mirror becomes a link between them, their reflections joined like the image of Janus, two sides of the same head. The mirror divides and distorts, it reveals the truth, it connects people and shatters the illusion of a smooth, tangible reality. When Vollmer dies at the beginning of the film, he is seen through a sheet of cracked glass, as though reality itself has been broken by his departure from it.
Fassbinder makes these examinations of sensation and perception the film's true focal point. The ostensible thriller plot is inert, and the corporate intrigue simply seems irrelevant, to the point that when Stiller finds out the answers to questions relating to the corporate politics, rather than the more metaphysical mysteries he's really interested in, he simply laughs. There is an analogue here for those religious and philosophical ideas that insist that the world is essentially an illusion, or at best a warm-up for the afterlife. If the world is not real, or is only a secondary stage of reality, if the "true" life is on a higher plane of reality, it renders the physicality and events of the world somewhat moot. Once Stiller begins to believe that his world is only an illusion that's secondary to another world, he ceases to care about any of the things had previously occupied his attention: job, friends, love, even life and death itself. Does the world become irrelevant in comparison to the idea of Heaven? This would explain Stiller's "ascent" at the finale of the film.
So Fassbinder makes the whole film one big visual metaphor, his camera moves mapping out Stiller's quest for truth. During a meeting with Siskins and a government official, Stiller wanders around the large space of the office, swinging around on a chair in the foreground, then flinging open a pair of unusual double doors, the kind usually seen between neighboring suites in hotels. Finally, he appears again at the rear of the space, visible only from a distance in a mirror. It's like he's constantly searching, always peeking behind the doors, into closed-off rooms. He does a lot of spinning around in chairs too, like a bored and restless kid, eager to discover something new, or simply a man who wants to see the fullest possible 360-degree view of his surroundings. In one of the film's most playful scenes, Siskins and Stiller conduct an entire conversation while they're both spinning around in their chairs, rendering office politics goofy and funny.
These oddball touches, like a dance club populated with muscular Arab models and topless dancers, give the film its distinctively surreal Fassbinderian aura. It's a weird and disjointed film, perhaps a little repetitive, padded out with multiple scenes of Stiller trying to explain his theories to skeptical listeners. But the characters, flat as they are, make an impact, because Fassbinder has developed such a versatile troupe of actors that even when most of them are just making token cameo appearances (Eddie Constantine as a dapper but sinister businessman; Kurt Raab as Stiller's bald, oafish office rival; El Hedi ben Salem as a quiet, sensitive bodyguard) they are vivid and memorable. This is a fascinating experiment from Fassbinder, transplanting his usual cast and his Sirkian aesthetic strategies into the unfamiliar genre of the sci-fi thriller, with very compelling results.