By Bob Clark
There’s an interior-decorating philosophy that espouses the idea of using mirrors to make a small room look bigger. I don’t know if it’s related to fung shui, or perhaps just a very basic recognition of the power of duplicated imagery, but there’s something about it that can work rather well, and at times even do wonders. With one mirror, the horizon of a single room can extend just a little farther, and open things up just enough to stave off unconscious feelings of claustrophobia in the mind’s eye, if not in the actual ones for very long. Place another one in the room with it at an angle, and things open up even more, allowing you to curve space subtly with reflected reflections, building a new and artificial kind of architecture through the location’s subliminal atmosphere. Finally, put a pair of mirrors directly across from one another and you have that classic barber-shop parlour trick of infinitely extending reflections receding into both directions, that little feat of magic that Orson Welles put to such good use near the end of Citizen Kane and Carl Sagan used to similarly impressive import in one of the later episodes of Cosmos, expressing the inherently evasive concept of eternity itself.
Plenty of filmmakers and artists have exploited this potential for mirrors as instruments of mind-bending challenges of time, space and pure mathematics– some ten years ago I can remember a recreation of a Yayoi Kusama installation, full of polka-dotted rock formations extended in all directions by an entirely mirrored room, while strolling through a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art. Recently I had another encounter with the mirrored-lens visions of uber-reflective expression at MoMA while catching a rare screening of a newly remastered World on a Wire by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a work which has long gone unseen since its original broadcast as a two-part miniseries for German television in 1973, and expands the famously bold director’s body of work to include science-fiction alongside all the old familiar places of Douglas Sirk melodrama and World War II era expressionist musicals. But not only does this film show Fassbinder’s take on sci-fi– it also manages to tell one of the first cinematic depictions of virtual-reality, long before the likes of Tron, The Matrix or Inception, and with a surprisingly dexterous hand, especially when it comes to presenting various layers of simulations.
Based on Simulacron-3 by American sci-fi novelist Daniel F. Galouye, the film follows Dr. Fred Stiller, an up-and-coming scientist at a German cybernetics institute which has developed a complex and precise virtual-reality world full of artificial-intelligence units, all of whom believe they’re living lives as real as the designers who programmed them. While there’s various intrigues including the mysterious death of the computer’s inventor, the shady dealings of the institute’s CEO and his connections to corrupt steel industries and a pair of love-affairs so charmingly naive in their romantic and erotic superficiality that they feel a bit like a gay man’s fantasy of what straight men fantasize about, the main focus throughout the three and a half hour running time is the question of the computer-matrix’s reality and what it means about the reality that Stiller himself calls home. For modern viewers weaned on so many later VR headtrips, of course, so much of what this adaptation covers may seem like a comically forgone conclusion right from the start, and thanks to Fassbinder’s artifice that feeling can at times be painfully magnified– setting much of the film through largely white real locations with sprinklings of bright primary color furniture and office-supplies thrown in (shades of THX 1138, Solaris and Alphaville abound, including a cameo from Eddie Constantine) and directing with carefully choreographed long-takes that fill the frame with as much visual information as possible (loud paintings, nude statues, blinking video screens), it’s easy to assume right from the start that Stiller is living in an artificial reality, if for no other reason than no actual decorator in their right mind would expect people to live in such gaudy squalor, even in the 70’s.
There’s a playful quality to the artificial self-awareness, though, that makes it all not only palatable, but strangely beautiful. When Stiller visits a funky pool party that resembles a cross between a Bond villain’s lair and Studio 54 and feeds lines to grotesquely dishy dames that remind you of the rumors that Mae West might’ve been a drag queen in reality, it comes off as a rolling, beautifully photographed lark. When he calmly dodges a windfall of bricks from a construction-crane (that was hanging over his head like a cartoon piano in a previous shot) and calmly palms a lighter from the corpse of a woman killed by the collapse (who had just been blatantly hitting on him just moments before), you don’t bat an eye, either, and half expect him to do a double-take straight to the camera and break the fourth-wall just as Bugs or Daffy were wont to do after casually surviving a near flattening. Men and women are polished, dolled-up and posed to look like mannequins and air-brush models, all of them betraying a beautiful kind of advertising artificiality prevalent through German films and music at the time– one almost expects the members of Kraftwerk to stand among the robotic drones and add their own music to the sloppy synth score. In moments like these and plenty others throughout, Fassbinder tests the limits of his simulated worlds just as much as his characters themselves appear to be doing at times, pushing all manner of social and physical boundaries in order to find out just what’s real and what isn’t, and what might be the crucial undercover agent to help jump from one level of reality to the next.
At the same time, all that self-conscious artificiality can be a little distracting at times. While many of the mirror-shots that Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Balhaus compose are brilliant, just as many of them feel a little too forced to be worth the strain it puts on the eyes. The same can be said of the comedy of the film’s “plastic qualities”– yes, it’s amusing and even laugh-out-funny to see Stiller dodge, run and leap from cartoon crashes, Langian lynch-mobs and an exploding cottage that looks forward to Lynch’s Lost Highway in one genre pastiche after another, but after a while a kind of parody-fatigue begins to set in, and you find yourself waiting for Fassbinder to simply take his material seriously again. Though it shares many of the same concerns of the sci-fi Alphaville, with a computerized reality and contemporary location-shooting standing as an in-plain-sight future, at times the film feels much more like Jean-Paul Belmundo’s post-Godard effort La Magnifique, where a writer’s pathetic real-life is intercut joyously with his ridiculously over-the-top spy novel antics. That movie was able to succeed because of the way it balanced itself between the grounded mundane flavor of ordinary life and the fantastic quality of the author’s imagination, but World on a Wire offers no such juxtaposition– every level of simulation and reality is just as surreal as the next, and every moment is so crammed full of visual and narrative density that the mere act of watching it can become exhausting even before you factor in the three and a half hour running time.
Perhaps this feeling would’ve been a little less pronounced while watching it on television, where it was originally intended, with commercial breaks interrupting Fassbinder’s unrelenting vision, and indeed it’s tempting to imagine the miniseries as being designed with those polished, glossy advertisements occasionally breaking the action in mind when he filmed all those air-brushed mannequin extras. A major part of the story does revolve around the commercial abuse of the computer-simulation world for mere economic gain, so it makes sense that the film is filled with so many people, places and things that look like they belong in the pages of a catalogue, a little like the too-good-to-be-true domestic interiors of so many late Bunuel films or the famous Ikea nesting-instinct sequence from Fincher’s Fight Club. Plenty of other sci-fi movies like THX 1138 and Brazil had plenty of focus on consumerism and even commercial imagery, but Fassbinder’s work here is able to articulate it in a much more intimate and naturalistic feeling, even when he’s giving us another bald-faced virtual reality. It wouldn’t be until John Carpenter’s sublimely ridiculous They Live that we would see a wool-over-the-eyes paranoia satire with this same fervent mix of nightmarish dark humor, telling jokes that serve as gestalts to release so much pressure building up from stewing in the juices of one’s own adrenaline-soaked fear. It’s perhaps this aspect which helps excuse the more formulaic aspects of the film’s narrative, especially its happily-ever-after-in-the-real-world ending, which doesn’t even offer up the consolation prize of an “or is it?” stinger. If it is a little too formulaic, perhaps that’s only because it’s telling a kind of science-fiction that’s so inherently about formula, to begin with. Every simulation has to follow some kind of pattern, after all, just like the shells of all those turtles stacked upon one another, all the way up and down. Even mirrors staring back onto themselves provide a formulaic reflection of reality, one after another. It’s only thanks to that infinite of repetition that makes possible the most human of all inventions, and the one that lets us know we aren’t dreaming without a pinch– surprise.