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Films
by David J. Skal

FEMALE TROUBLE


THE "WAR on women" may have a new political currency of late, but misogynistic sex wars have been a sad science fiction staple for most of the genre's existence. An ever-welcoming refuge for socially awkward young men, unsure of their ability to understand or control women (or, perhaps more pointedly, their own feelings about women), pulp science fiction too often presented female characters as passive victims or decorative prizes—or a combination of the same when the damsel was rescued by the dude. And when they weren't being threatened or saved, they were a reliable source of trouble, if not outright treachery. There were similar patterns in other popular genres, but in science fiction it boiled down to women not being able to wrap their little heads around guy stuff like science, not comprehending or even believing in the importance of the Experiment, or the Discovery, or the simple reality of the Menace. In midcentury popular culture, there was truly nothing like a dame, especially if you were looking for a surefire monkey wrench. Plot templates improved considerably with the arrival of unprecedented numbers of female writers and readers in the 1960s and '70s, crusading editors (like Damon Knight) hell-bent on raising literary standards in the field, and the inevitable gender-bending that came along with genre-bending.

Hollywood, however, has always been slow on the uptake. Take Ari Folman's The Congress, a maddening misfire that has nonetheless received much praise for giving an unusually plummy role to an actress over forty (a luminous Robin Wright) in a story dealing imaginatively with the career difficulties of mature women in the film industry, and its double-edged technological fix. Audaciously, Wright's character is also named Robin Wright, who also appeared in The Princess Bride, and whose problematic script choices have confounded and dismayed the industry (The Congress was produced just before Wright's stunning, career-reviving turn on HBO's House of Cards). Wright's poor choices in men are also alluded to, but a Sean Penn cameo mercifully never materializes.

In short, the avatar Wright is presented as a classic Difficult Woman, needing a corrective intervention by come-to-the-rescue men. Her agent (Harvey Keitel) and studio head (Danny Huston, recently memorable as Jessica Lange's demon lover in American Horror Story: Coven), make her an offer she can't refuse, especially because she has no work and a (fictional) young son facing a progressive disease. They offer her "the last contract you'll ever sign," the permanent assignment of her digitized likeness and to Miramount Studios, which can manipulate and deploy it however they choose. The actress will be banned forever from any kind of public performance, even a school play, but will never have to agonize over a script again, will be financially comfortable for life, and will exacerbate the acid reflux of Hollywood producers no longer. In essence, the men are following a time-honored trope of mad scientist stories: eliminating once and for all the nuisance factor of women in order to pursue a technologically augmented, tacitly homoerotic, all-male reproductive paradigm.

The first forty-five minutes of The Congress are brilliantly executed. Here, for once, is a science-fiction film that lays out its premise with methodical intelligence and a character-driven plot, mesmerizing the audience in a manner that parallels the Faustian seduction of Robin Wright herself. The usually obligatory male bonding between the father-mothers (think Ernest Thesiger and Colin Clive) is jettisoned; here, agent and producer circle their prey as an efficient good cop (Keitel) and bad cop (Huston) with the same Mephistophelian, soul-stealing agenda. Wright gives the performance of her life—literally, in terms of the script, at least—scrutinized mercilessly in the domelike canopy of a motion capture stage. (The real thing is used, in case you've never seen one). When she falters mid-scan, the agent wrings emotion out of her with schmaltzy reminiscences, but we know deep down he's fighting for the biggest commission of his life as much as for his client. Digitized actors represent the end of his career as well.

Wow. By this time the uniform excellence of the writing, acting, and direction—not to mention the delicious skewering of Hollywood—should have you hooked, primed for the thrill ride that should inevitably follow in a classy update on a classic doppelgänger tale. Certainly the actress will have some dramatic confrontation or reckoning with the double that has usurped her public persona, with a Dorian-Gray-in-reverse twist: the double stays permanently young as Wright sees herself age. This could out-Stepford The Stepford Wives.

Then, just as the film should really take off, it skids off the runway. And it becomes an animated cartoon.

Most of what you may already have read about The Congress describes the film as "based on," "loosely based on," or simply "inspired by" Stanislaw Lem's 1970 novel The Futurological Congress, but "obliquely referencing" is more like it. Here, the Polish writer's hyperbolic satire is the diametric opposite of his most famous work, the thrice-filmed, austerely cerebral Solaris. Narrated by cosmonaut Ijon Tichy—a character appearing in other Lem satires as well—Congress posits a dystopic, chaotic world in which everything disturbing has been masked with mind-altering drugs. The cosmonaut attends the eponymous futurist conference, held in a massive luxury hotel in war-torn Latin America. The attendees, mostly members of academia, are initially oblivious to the revolutionary carnage surrounding them, until the water supply is spiked with "benignimizers" and the conference itself is drawn into the insurrection, the results of which aren't merely political but perceptual as well. In the densely hallucinogenic narrative that follows, there are so many throwaway asides that an endless number of films might be spun off, just from Lem's scraps.

So what does any of this have even remotely to do with making digital clones of temperamental movie stars? Not very much, and the result is a Hollywood version of a two-headed cow. After Wright has her essence appropriated, the film flash-forwards twenty years into an inchoate animated universe slapped together from equal parts Japanese anime, Yellow Submarine, and Max Fleischer cartoons, all meant to represent the next big advance in virtual reality—the chemical ingestion of celebrities and entertainment—and also to incorporate the ghostly skeleton of Stanislaw Lem's vision. But the visual result is so flat and retro that it's almost impossible for a 2014 audience, weaned on 3-D modeling and the hyperreality of videogames, to accept the result as in any way futuristic. The one good thing that can be said is that the animation style (or styles) is an homage to Lem in the sense of being closer to the publication date of his novel than to the twenty-first century. The only respite are some live-action scenes in which Wright witnesses the world scrubbed of drugs in all its futility and decay.

Folman obviously had nothing like the budget or simple creative control he demonstrated in his Academy Award-nominated Waltz with Bashir, the superb animated documentary about his own experience in the Israeli army in the 1982 war with Palestine. As the filmmaker revealingly told The Irish Times, "The European system of financing films made us do it whenever and wherever someone was willing to give us money." For The Congress, this included splitting the animation work over a period of years between studios in Germany, Luxemburg, France, Belgium, Israel, and Poland. Is it any wonder the result was a hodgepodge? And would it be too cynical to speculate that the reason Lem's book had to be incorporated at all was to secure Polish financing? Lem himself recalled that the famed Polish stage and screen director Andrzej Wajda was once eager to adapt The Futurological Congress as a film, but Wajda's vision "was simply too expensive," and, besides, a film would "require a Kubrick" for a full realization. It might not need Kubrick, but it sure would require a great deal more money than was spent on The Congress simply to realize a compellingly dreamlike vision for which this film serves as a mere doodle.

I don't know anything about Folman's Netflix habits, but arguably more important than Lem as a source of inspiration—or is it merely just a highly coincidental antecedent?—would seem to be Andrew Niccol's largely, and deservedly, forgotten 2002 rom-com S1m0ne, in which an aging art film auteur Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) responds to the scuttling of his major comeback project by a leading lady from hell (Winona Ryder) by replacing the unmanageable performer with a completely digitized understudy named Simone, or, more precisely, Simulation One, played by Canadian supermodel Rachel Roberts—coincidentally the director's wife—who went coyly uncredited for the film's theatrical release. It was an extremely lame publicity stunt. Did New Line Cinema really think all Canadians were idiots?

Taransky's film is a hit and Simone becomes an international star and Oscar winner who, of course, must maintain a Garbo-like privacy at all costs. The film's central, brain-dead conceit is only the first of many: Pacino's Viktor (as in Victor, you know, Franken-something) Taransky has created Simone all by his lonesome using the equivalent of home-edition CGI software. Of course, anyone who's paid even cursory attention to end-roll of any summer fantasy flick knows that it takes an army of artists and digital editors to bring a cartoon character, much less a human simulacrum, convincingly to the screen. Despite having no demonstrated computer skills, he also manages to generate and micromanage all of Simone's media appearances (remote interviews only, of course), ventriloquizing her interview responses himself through a voice synthesizer.

Viktor's former wife (Catherine Keener) is now the studio head, as clueless as Danny Huston in The Congress is calculating. Neither ex has completely relinquished the flame (that's the rom part of the com), and Keener's truly awful role is analogous to those retro wives in fifties sci-fi who are good at domesticity and emotion—just don't torment them with unnecessary cerebration. But if she was enough of a shark to head the studio, she would have instantly gotten to the bottom of "Simone" and immediately demanded a share of the software patent rights—which must be worth billions. Instead, she spends most of her time worrying that Viktor is having an affair with a woman who doesn't exist. The film never explores the myriad tricky consequences of its outlandish premise, which might have made an interesting and clever movie. Instead, it just keeps piling on more intelligence-insulting nonsense. The picture unreels like a committee-created nightmare, never addressing the questions most audiences will be most curious about. How, exactly, is Simone paid her superstar salary—or, more to the point, how is it laundered? Who needs to be quieted or eliminated to protect the secret? Now, there might be a story.

Both S1m0ne and The Congress repurpose and rechristen the famous Paramount entrance gate, which might say something about the dangers of aspirational overreach and compromise by talented independent moviemakers. S1m0ne's Niccol previously wrote, produced, and directed the infinitely superior Gattaca and scripted the critically acclaimed The Truman Show, so it's entirely possible he just second-mortgaged his soul to a Hollywood studio somewhere along the road to S1m0ne…just like Ari Folman may have made his own Faustian bargain. Folman stated, in all seriousness, that the sheer stress involved in making The Congress literally turned his hair gray. But there is no indication—at least not yet—that he is contemplating a digitally rejuvenated replacement to handle his next project.

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