blackvenus

Abdellatif Kechiche, The director behind Blue is the Warmest Color, one of my favorite films of 2013 (Film Review: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ and the pain of loving), has a very rich filmography that few have seen in the U.S. in its entirety. Two of his previous films (2000’s La Faute à Voltaire [a.k.a. Blame it on Voltaire or Poetical Refugee] and 2010’s Black Venus [pictured above]) never received commercial theatrical runs in the U.S. As far as the other two, Secret of the Grain (2007) is thankfully available via the Criterion Collection (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link) but his second film, Games of Love and Chance (2003), went of print when its distributor, New Yorker Films, went temporarily out of business (if you’re lucky, Amazon will have one for sale by re-sellers).

So that’s the situation of Kechiche’s filmography in the U.S. But I had the chance to see all of his films, two in 35mm, no less, thanks to a preview by the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the French Embassy. I processed the French-Tunisian writer/director/actor’s career, and was able to sum it up in a preview in the Miami New Times’ art and culture section last week. Not enough seemed to have recommended it via social media, but I am very proud of it. You can read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below, just click the image:

NT Arts

I hope the first weekend went well for the retrospective, which included Kechiche’s powerful debut, La Faute à Voltaire and the deeply moving Games of Love and Chance. This weekend comes his two later films, also to be shown on 35mm, The Secret of the Grain and Black Venus, which — forget about Blue — stands as his most controversial film. I’ll let what I say about the movie in the Miami New Times stand. Believe me when I say it’s a bold but vital film.

I would like to add, however, that Kechiche’s knack for capturing earthy moments between people in a vivid, natural manner, which I praised so much in my review of Blue, is no fluke. All his films feel as though they come from life. His endings are special in their lack of resolution but their inspiration to rattle the viewer to consider his storytelling decisions for deeper insights into life. After all, in our own lives, we all only get one real ending, no? His films all feel like experiences, and if you live near Miami, you should not miss the opportunity to see these two later films in his career on the big screen and in 35mm, no less. I’ll leave you with these movies’ trailers.

Hans Morgenstern

Catch the second part of Kechiche Before Blue this weekend at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. The Secret of the Grain shows at 1 p.m. this Saturday and Black Venus screens Sunday, at 1 p.m. Details and tickets can be found here (that’s a hot link).

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Me and Earl posterSince its buzzy debut back in January at Sundance, I am sure the issue has come up a billion times: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has an issue with tokenism. During a preview earlier this month it was hard to keep my mind off how isolated the lead character is from his peers, and it translates in the movie in an egocentric manner that becomes hard to shake off for far too much of the movie. By the time the payoff arrives, the cost feels too high, and you just want to be rid of this titular “Me” character.

Thomas Mann gives Greg an awkward charm for a guy who does not wish to stand out at his high school. He is ironically gregarious, trying to make friends with everyone, from goths to jocks, as to blend into the background. Yet, the only person he considers a friend, but refers to as his “co-worker,” is Earl (RJ Cyler), an African-American kid from a destitute neighborhood he has known since childhood. They make home movies together that are naïve-art adaptations of classic movies (their version of The Third Man is entitled “The Turd Man”). But this collaborative relationship and shared affection for the film canon and their smart aleck reinterpretations never seems to fulfill him. It is only after he gets to know terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke) that he finds a true friendship and a genuine urge to create something original at the casual behest of Earl. That he has to learn this from a “dying girl” offers a grim premise that could have said a lot about the disconnection of earthy, grounded-in-reality relationships had the film presented us with solidly developed characters in scenes that don’t feel trite and falter to their manipulative, sentimental designs.

No one is allowed to stand out beyond Greg, and it’s hard to find him likable because the character only seems driven by exterior forces. His mother (Connie Britton) is the one who pushes Greg to spend time with Rachel after she is diagnosed with Leukemia. After he shows up at Rachel’s house, he is invited in by her ridiculously depressed, wine-swilling mother (Molly Shannon). Rachel sees through the farce of Greg’s appearance. Still, after a cynical chat in her bedroom about her prognosis and the abundance of pillows in her room and Greg’s reference to masturbation, Rachel is charmed. The viewer gets an easy way in to Greg because Rachel, a cancer-stricken cipher, who shows little autonomy, is reduced to a person trapped in her bedroom filled with craft projects of her design to characterize her.

Earl suffers his own reduction. He is Greg’s sidekick who either offers callous statements (his catch phrase seems to be “Did you feel dem titties?”) or profound statements that shake Greg image-abd1674e-0988-4c0f-9fc6-0215f92bbc39out of his somnambulant egotism. Earl has an older brother (Bobb’e J. Thompson) who figures into the film in flashbacks to the younger days of the two friends. He’s a mere bully who sits on the porch to his family’s ramshackle house and sicks his pit bull on Greg whenever he comes by. There’s not much more to say about Earl, as the only benefit of his presence is as a kind of conscience for Greg, when he needs it. Otherwise, they have a miniscule almost ambivalent relationship.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, brings his talents from television (“Glee” and “American Horror Story”) to infuse the film, adapted for the screen by Jesse Andrews who wrote the original novel, with a saccharine preciousness that grows tiresome quick. Gomez-Rejon overwhelms the drama with wearisome references to Criterion Collection DVDs, making for a convenient litmus for Greg and Earl’s taste for cinema and — God forgive him — about 20 pieces of music from Brian Eno’s catalog of early masterworks, even including obscure collaborations with Krautrock greats Cluster. It’s great music, but beyond a few seconds of atmospheric extra-diegetic melodies for transitions between scenes, the music never has space in the film to meld with the drama and settle in as thematic. Peter Jackson did it much better a few years ago in The Lovely Bones (Brian Eno and The Lovely Bones), a film for which Eno also composed or reshaped his music. The only exception is the use of “The Big Ship” during the film’s climax, a piece that also accompanied a similarly dramatic moment in The Lovely Bones, so even the decision to allow that piece to breath in Me and Earl feels like it loses some credibility. 

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl

Criterion product placement and the abuse of Eno’s music can hardly save this film from its problematic story. Referencing so much great art does not transfer over to Gomez-Rejon’s film. Early on, the film is weighed down by the tropes of high school malaise, and when Greg finally comes to his revelation that he has lost a friend, the film hits every trite note that turns loss of a loved one into sentimentality to weary effect. Depending on what triggers the tears for you, the filmmakers try to bring it up. Sure, there were people sobbing all around me in living surround sound, but all I saw was manipulation of heartstring plucking.

Beyond its precious tone that minimizes death to a sentiment, obscuring an egocentric story about a kid who (maybe) learns empathy at the cost of losing a friend to death, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has that bigger issue: tokenism. A chance for Greg, a white kid, to learn about his best friend and recognize him beyond “co-worker” is never developed. They pair up as outcasts who never connect. Even worse, Rachel is presented as a darling young person about to die throughout the film, as if that’s the only thing that characterizes her as a human being. For all its sincerity, the movie is ultimately a disappointing appropriation of cool without genuine heart that plays the audience in a rather condescending way. A lot people will love it, but it’s only because it’s pushing easy buttons that make us human. Still, there’s nothing really human about this movie, which feels like was produced by an algorithm instead of someone with heart.

Hans Morgenstern

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 (references to sex, drugs with some salty language). It opens in limited release at several multiplexes in our Miami area (visit this page for dates screening locations near you in other cities). For indie supporters, it opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on July 1. All images in this review are courtesy of Fox Searchlight who also invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Ida - 5

Ida, the new film by Pawel Pawlikowski, already stands as a favorite film of 2014 for this writer. I’ve seen it about three times already. It’s a beautifully shot film that more impressively harbors a multi-layered story featuring outstanding performances. My relationship with the film began when the director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival asked me to introduce it during the festival, earlier this year.

A couple of months later I wrote my review. Reverse Shot, a film blog/magazine co-founded by Michael Koresky, a critic whose name I grew familiar with from reading Film Comment and who now holds one of the best jobs any cinephile could desire: staff writer at the greatest home video company ever: The Criterion Collection. After sharing my Blue Is the Warmest Color review with him and receiving some positive feedback, I pitched him a review of Ida for Reverse Shot. He accepted and warned me it would be an intense editing session, and he did not disappoint. The last time someone edited my work with such vigor was when I wrote feature stories for the Miami New Times before the Internet age. It was challenging but refreshing. Above all, I think readers of this blog will still recognize my voice in the final review. Read it by jumping through the headline and by-line below:

Keeping the Faith
By Hans Morgenstern

Now Ida finally arrives in South Florida for a theatrical run. Particularly notable is the fact that it will be screened in that now dying, classic format, 35mm. The Coral Gables Art Cinema is the only movie house of the many theaters in South Florida that will present the rare print. All details about South Florida screenings can be found below. A shout-out to MJFF director Igor Shteyrenberg and Michael for inviting me to explore this movie with a depth I seldom have the luxury to experience, and I still love it. Take that as testament to the strength of this film.

Hans Morgenstern

Ida runs 80 minutes, is in Polish with English subtitles and is rated PG-13 (there are scenes of nudity and references to violence). It opens in South Florida this Friday, June 20, at the following venues:

Miami at Coral Gables Art Cinema (in 35 mm)
Key West at The Tropic Cinema
Fort Lauderdale at The Classic Gateway Theatre
Boca Raton at Living Room, Regal Shadowood
Delray Beach at Movies of Delray,
Lake Worth at Movies at Lake Worth & Lake Worth Playhouse
 
Expanding 6/27:
And 8/1:

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Though it was David Bowie‘s first starring role in a feature film, Nicolas Roeg‘s 1976 movie the Man Who Fell to Earth is far from a star vehicle, and much more a movie firmly in place with the ambiguity of narrative immersed in the striking visuals of the Roeg canon. Of course, Bowie’s performance as an extraterrestrial on film inspired no-brainer comparisons to his alien rocker character on stage: Ziggy Stardust, a musical persona he had only just retired in 1973. Also, Bowie’s fey manner, inhumanely skinny frame, pale skin and shock of orange hair suited the movie so well the man himself seemed a special effect. Even now, on its 35th anniversary, as the film finally makes the rounds in its original director’s cut at US art houses with a newly restored 35mm print or HD theatrical projection via Rialto Pictures, Bowie stands out among the other iconic seventies-era players in the film (Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Candy Clark). It’s fitting his character, unlike the others, never ages in the film. It suits the film that the iconic Bowie has grown more immortal with age, continuing to influence generations of musicians. For Bowie fans, it is easy to watch the movie just to watch the man in action at the peak of his creativity. On the commentary track of the now out-of-print Criterion disc, Bowie noted that he began recording bits of his influential experimental pop albums Station to Station and Low while acting in this movie, assuming Roeg wanted him to score the film, too. Instead, John Phillips offers a widely varied score from atmospheric to funky, but still always dated and firmly stuck in the age of the mid-seventies.

But the movie stands the test of time as something other than a platform for Bowie-ogling*. This movie is also a distinctly Roegian work. Bowie himself decided to work on this movie based on the Roeg films Walkabout and Performance (which featured a rocker Bowie admired: Mick Jagger [again, see commentary track]). Bowie even admitted to never having read the script before agreeing to act in the movie (ibid).

Often compared to Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), the original 1963 Walter Tevis novel the film is based on, the Man Who Fell to Earth offers a moral tale about power and corruption. In the movie, Bowie plays an alien who lands on Earth in search of a means to restore water on his dying planet. He assumes the alias Thomas Jerome Newton, a British businessman with a briefcase full of patents that should make him the money necessary to fund a private space program that will somehow save his planet. However, he does not figure in the eccentricities of Earthlings— with their liquor and sex— and things get tough for Tommy fast. It’s a straight up enough story that almost comes across as a simple fable. But Roeg takes it to a whole other level, seeming to deconstruct the source material, converting the story into a purely cinematic experience.

Gone are key dramatic sequences that connects the downward spiral of the alien. When Thomas meets Mary Lou (Clark), the hotel maid that becomes his companion on Earth, she rescues him from the odd gravitational effects of an elevator. Distraught, Mary Lou carries the incapacitated Thomas to his room. After he vomits up some clear ectoplasmic goo and she wipes his bloody nose, she seems relieved to have not killed a hotel guest. Who would figure these two would end up together? Well, the following scene, both are hanging out in the room. She is dressed for a night out, drunk and pushing liquor on Thomas, who refuses, happy with only water and Aspirin. In the next scene, they are living together and she’s bringing him “that white wine you like.” Up to that point, the film went out of its way to point out Thomas did not drink, but then, all of a sudden he is drinking.

The movie is filled with convoluted narrative compromises like that. As Thomas establishes his corporation World Enterprises, at the start of the film, Roeg also parallels the story of Dr. Bryce (Torn), a university chemistry professor in the habit of sleeping with freshman female students who also seems to be a consumer of World Enterprises’ products (including a camera with self-developing film). Just as his superior at the university seems ready to fire him, he quits. Next thing you know, Bryce is working on a fuel project for World Enterprises, snooping out Thomas as something else than human. Again, as explained here, it all seems simple enough, but Roeg seems to obscure the flow with quick cuts, camera sweeps and zooms, punctuated by sudden bursts of blaring music. It’s as if he is purposely trying to distract the audience away from the story, and insisting they simply watch the movie.

There are many instances of odd visuals and sonics that serve as transitions. An early one occurs when Thomas seals the deal with patent lawyer Oliver Fransworth (Henry) to start a company. Thomas looks out into the night sky where a crooked line of dots expand and burst into fireworks but all one can hear is what sounds like the quiet swell of soft music that sounds like the calls of humpback whales. Later, as things begin looking grim for the drunken, corrupted Thomas, there is an image of him in alien form tumbling in space in what looks to have been formed from sputtering time-lapse imagery to the grim sound of Gustav Holst ‘s famous orchestra of “the Planets.” If you blink, you might miss the moment, as it lasts but a few seconds. Complicating matters is that it appears in the movie just as Thomas and Bryce sit in the desert outside some dilapidated house where Thomas seems have taken residence (why or how long he has been there is never explicated), in what seems a quiet moment. The orchestra swells, and thoughts seem to turn to Thomas’ dying family. Then comes the tumble and fade into an frantic scene of reporters crowding Thomas in a head-to-toe body suit, as he walks to the space ship that should carry him home. Over the din, is the chatter of news reports, talking about Thomas, World Enterprises, Farnsworth. Roeg cross cuts to Fransworth seeming to pay-off an hysterical Mary Lou to let go of the man. “I don’t want your money, I want Tommy!” she screams. It’s one intense, penetration after another into the narrative. You barely notice that Thomas is actually being kidnapped.

When World Enterprises ultimately collapses, reasons are never explained, but terrible things follow, and Thomas ultimately becomes a science experiment and finds himself stuck on Earth. But understanding how things happen in the movie seem of little importance to Roeg. He still manages to squeeze emotion from these proceedings with stirring abstract imagery. There is one death scene that offers pure cinematic poetry of music, editing, lighting and sound. The routine and wordless reflection to the loved ones Thomas has left on his dying planet appear in the film for only a few moments at a time, like some alternate reality squeezing into the cracks of Thomas’ life on Earth. Roeg is creating a film flowing of memories, exploiting the power of the medium to maximal effect while subverting expectations of narrative, bringing to mind the style of Jean-Luc Godard, if maybe he had taken speed.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is indeed so striking visually, it (and other Roeg films) inspired one of Big Audio Dynamite’s early hits. As Mick Jones, BAD’s frontman, and former Clash singer/guitarist, sings on the 1985 single “E=MC2: “Space guy fell from the sky/Scartched my head and wondered why.” The video even featured many clips of Roeg’s movies:

Back in that era of cinema history, science-fiction offered an invitation to filmmakers to not only explore other worlds and make technology, it also meant you could do what you want with the basic tools of cinema. Released the year before Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’ Star Wars, Roeg’s film came at the end of the sci-fi film as intellectual genre/abstract cinema pieces, a revolution famously pioneered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With Spielberg’s human and relatable touch, Close Encounters brought sci-fi down-to-earth while Lucas made no secret of the Flash Gordon serial influence on his movie, which opened the floodgates for the return of simplified popcorn sci-fi, including such dreck as Roger Corman’s Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars.

It’s wonderful to see the return of films like this one and World on a Wire (which I reviewed here: Fassbinder’s prophetic 1973 sci-fi work ‘World on a Wire’ finally sees theatrical release) to cinema houses. For the Man Who Fell to Earth‘s 35th anniversary, a restored 35mm print has been struck of the 139-minute director’s cut. I had an opportunity to preview the digital transfer of that print ahead of its release at the Miami Beach Cinematheque over the weekend. It’s not too far removed from the Criterion blu-ray in quality, but the cinematic presentation cannot be beat. In the projection of the film, my litmus test was to see how badly the orange of the opening titles bled into the image, but the picture was clean and crisp.

You can even easily overlook the grain contrast of the archival images of a rocket separating in space versus the shots filmed of it “crashing” to earth. There is nothing to gripe about with this film, technically, and is dynamism image-wise is never compromised by this new image. Even the shadows are painstakingly clean. The datedness of the film is wiped away to allow the image to breath in full effect on the screen. For a movie that indeed exploits the cinematic medium as brilliantly as this, one has to see it in the theater, and the pay off is immense. I’ll leave you with Rialto’s new trailer for the film:

And for fun, here’s how the movie was first sold to American audiences in a trailer suitably featuring no dialogue from the film (As the voice-over [by William Shatner no less!] puts it at this trailer’s opening, “This is one of the most unusual films you will ever see”):

The Man Who Fell to Earth will premiere in South Florida in newly restored high-definition digital projection, Friday night (Sept. 16), at 8:50 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It will play through Wednesday night (Sept. 21), at 8:50 p.m. each night. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check The Man Who Fell to Earth’s website for its screening schedule.

*Some Bowie fans will be happy to know that, yes, this the famous, original cut that features Bowie frolicking in bed with Clark in all his natural glory, a scene which the original US distributor decided to cut from the first version when it debuted in the US.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

A three-hour-plus sci-fi experience, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), seemed to have existed as mere legend in the filmography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as it has rarely screened since its debut on German TV in 1973. The fact that it focused on virtual worlds within computers added to a brewing interest over the years, as it seemed to foretell the current age we live in. More prescient than ever, it is finally making the rounds at art house cinemas across the US.

However, as prophetic as this film seems to be, this ain’t no Matrix or Blade Runner, two films I have read it often compared to. Casual Fassbinder fans or world cinema fans and especially fans of the Matrix should be fairly warned: This is Fassbinder at his most sluggish.* World on a Wire’s pace may present nothing short of a challenge for those accustomed to the “bullet-time” shooting of today’s sci-fi. The long pauses the actors seem to take between sentences, as if everyone must ruminate before saying the next sentence, is a Fassbinder stylization that can certainly grow weary over a few hours.

First screened in two parts on German TV (Part One is 105 minutes while Part Two runs 107 minutes), the theatrical experience puts both together for a runtime of three hours and 32 minutes, and the action develops slow, as strange, incongruous mysteries continue to pile up in the narrative. A man vanishes from one moment to the next, practically in front of the eyes of our hero, setting him off on an odd wild goose chase to get to the bottom of the disappearance. By the same token, falling equipment can crush a woman as our hero speaks with her, but he can still carry on with his stroll with nary a change on his face. Throughout the movie people walk through scenes with mostly blank looks. Women especially act like vapid mannequins. It’s as if Fassbinder made the movie not just for another time but another dimension of humanity.

The protagonist is a buff computer engineer in his mid-thirties. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) comes to head the Simulacron project at the Institute for Cybernetics and Futurology after his predecessor, Vollmer (Adrian Hoven) dies following what seems a nervous breakdown. The Simulacron, a giant computer (this was made in the seventies when data was stored on tape, after all), simulates the real world by populating an artificial world within it with “identity units.” These artificial people are given all the characteristics of humanity excepting the notion of the Simulacron, so the world “above” exists as an observing and unknowable God to the identity units “below.”

Corporations want in on the government project to simulate and therefore foretell future scenarios and bank on them. Stiller resists, however, showing concern for strange goings on like that sudden disappearance of his associate, Guenther Lause (Ivan Desny). He soon begins to wonder, is he in control of a simulated world or part of one? At the core of this question, is whether reality, or existence for that matter, is re-defined when humanity becomes reliant on computers to make decisions. Are we in fact giving up free will by investing in a computer-centric world? It’s an appropriate question in this contemporary time.

The result is at times prophetic, though often meandering and a bit indulgent. This is indeed Fassbinder in his element, and those who miss him will celebrate the restoration of this film. Those unfamiliar his style should be prepared to know a little something about his unique filmic flourishes, and how this film might fit in with the renaissance of the science-fiction film genre, a genre otherwise unexplored by Fassbinder.

Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi movies had just become something more than cheap, escapist camp during this period of movie history. 2001, which followed a script written with sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke, truly opened the genre to philosophical questions. In 1972, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky offered Solaris, adapted from the novel by Stanislaw Lem, as his response to Kubrick’s movie. Though 2001 and Solaris are held up as some of the greatest works of serious science-fiction cinema, World on a Wire became forgotten. There are probably many reasons for this. Fassbinder was much more prolific than either Kubrick or Tarkovsky, which meant World on a Wire was sort of lost in the shuffle of his output. Fassbinder would also not become appreciated as a serious filmmaker until practically after his death.

It is a shame that World on a Wire, based in Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 American novel Simulacron-3, languished for as long as it did, as Fassbinder dives into the implications of alternate realities with aplomb. He certainly tries to raise the film to the higher level of sci-fi of 2001 and Solaris, even if the results do come across as a bit uneven. One factor maybe that Löwitsch had been drunk throughout the filming. “[He was] never not drunk,” according to Ulli Lommel, who played both the journalist Rupp in the movie and worked on the film’s art direction while also taking the assignment as Löwitsch’s “chaperone” (ibid).

Knowing Fassbinder, his acceptance of such behavior from his lead, a regular of his films, should come as no surprise. If punk rock has an equivalent in cinema, it might have been Fassbinder. He embodies the spirit of the German New Wave of the sixties and seventies, which famously included Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, as he jumped into film making despite his rejection from the Berlin Film School. He seemed to make films as a primal desire he could not keep at bay. His movies were raw works driven by an unstoppable desire to create, hence resulting in such messy, passionate works such as World on a Wire, which can still show a very literate knowledge of mise-en-scène and cinematic technique. With World on a Wire, Fassbinder even seems to give a nod to Kubrick with the presence of classical music during some scenes and the sometimes indulgent use of a tracking camera.

As it was rarely screened until now, most Fassbinder fans will only know World on a Wire as a sort of lost gem from the prolific director who only stopped making movies after he died at the age of 36 mixing illicit drugs and sleeping pills. He still managed to direct more than 40 films over the course of 16 years of film directing, some with epic run times.

Despite an enfant terrible reputation, Fassbinder also had a highly attuned insight into humanity, particularly of his peers of post-war Germany. He was not afraid of criticizing his countrymen, and did it ever piss them off. However, as he is dealing with an alternate reality in World on a Wire, the people populating the film maintain an enigmatic quality. A true sense of humanity does not come until the movie’s very last scene. This is not the incite-worthy Berlin Alexanderplatz (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), released in early 1980. Germans protested in the streets during the broadcast of his famous 15-hour television series, which he adapted from Alfred Döblin’s German novel that captured Germany between two World Wars. A thoughtful tribute to the mini-series, which had a theatrical release in the US in 1983, by contemporary German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) can be found here. Tykwer notes the protests alleged a dissatisfaction in the quality of sound and images, but below it all was a painful exorcism of the dark German spirit.

In comparison, World on a Wire seems like a tamer work in Fassbinder’s oeuvre. It offers some quirky, if uneven qualities. As already noted, the acting varies, and many characters, especially the women, seem to populate the film as if in a trance. There’s on off-putting inconsistent use of zoom outs and zoom ins. It features a strange soundtrack recalling 1956’s Forbidden Planet, of occasional and oddly timed electro/synth stings and noise, punctuating certain actions. At times, these cues appear at arbitrary moments, adding to the movie’s off-putting surreal quality. It’s as if this movie indeed came from not only another time and place but an alternate universe.

As opposed to Berlin Alexanderplatz, World on a Wire must have baffled viewers upon its first broadcast on West German television more than angered them, leading me again to think of another reason this movie sort of languished at the back of Fassbinder’s filmography. It was just too ahead of its time. But nowadays with virtual reality, the Internet and role-playing games like the Sims, World on a Wire could very well be easier to comprehend. A millennial view would probably take for granted some of the film’s then idiosyncratic notions. For instance, living a simulated life inside a computer. In fact, the incongruously dressed people at a party around an indoor pool, some just standing, most barely moving, could be seen as a field of Avatars awaiting commands from their users. Quirks like that give the film a special, almost surreal atmosphere coupled with a prophetic air. Though Fassbinder did not invent the Sims, he indeed seems fascinated about the multi-dimensional aspects of such a world. Users of the Simulacron can peer into it with black and white monitors set up around the computer, though to interface with it, they must don helmets, the design and idea of which seem to foretell the virtual reality trend of the nineties.At the start of the film, we are introduced to this alternate future during a meeting of officials with vested interests in the Simulacron. Vollmer soon confronts secretary of state Von Wielaub (Heinz Meier) with a handheld mirror and tells him: “You are nothing more than the image others have made of you.” Von Wielaub huffs and puffs angrily at the seeming affront, but it is a truth not only functional in alternate reality but life in general, a testament to the philosophical aspects of this movie.

Throughout World on a Wire, mirrors and reflections on glass offer continual signposts for meditating on Vollmer’s revelation. But the truth of what is actually going on in the movie does not reveal itself to Stiller until the very end of the film’s first part, though, as already noted, Fassbinder drops incongruous little clues throughout that are sometimes unsettling and other times more subtle. I would rather not spoil what Stiller learns at the end of this first half of the film, as some might figure it out on their own, very early on, and if you can glean a guess from earlier scenes where this is going, the film might already begin to feel a bit tedious.

But something that does make the unfolding action more interesting throughout is realizing that the World on a Wire at stake is a fear of losing the self, an idea that certainly also looms large today in a different sense from what it meant in the cold-war era that produced this movie, just over the Berlin Wall. The central mystery at the film unfolds at the pool party just after Lause tells Stiller, “Do you know what fear is?” A glass falls, Stiller turns away, distracted. He then looks back to find Lause has vanished. Stiller then becomes obsessed with Lause’s sudden disappearance, and no one seems to know who Lause is, despite his seeming closeness to Simulacron from the outset. Could Stiller’s sense of reality be falling apart? Appropriately enough, the institute where he works, has a psychologist on hand to take care of any doubts in the minds of their people. Franz Hahn (Wolfgang Schenck) tells Stiller he understands why his nerves might be frayed and reminds him of a key part of his job on the Simulacron project: “You can add or delete people at will. This leads to feelings of guilt, depression and fear.” This is testament to today’s world of alternate realities that people constantly participate in with such nonchalance. What are we doing to our sense of self on such interactive platforms such as Facebook? It is only after Stiller seems to make the ultimate sacrifice at the film’s very end that he makes the joyful, simple declaration: “I am. I am.”(Read about the poster artist’s process: here)

Janus Films has undertaken the film’s distribution, so expect a Criterion Collection release, according to a close source at the studio. As can be expected by such participants like Janus and Criterion, known for some of the best film and DVD restorations in the medium’s history, the picture quality of World on a Wire is amazing. The well-timed cinematic release has already played a handful of cities, and MBC will screen it in HD. Framed in 4:3 ratio for television and shot on 16mm reversal film, which does not exactly offer the finest grain image, New York’s Museum of Modern Art worked with Juliane Lorenz, the director of the RWF Foundation, and Michael Ballhaus, the movie’s cameraman, to produce a new 35mm print, which is also now making the rounds to a select few cinemas (three-and-half-hours of 35mm makes for a lot of 45-pound canisters). It had its debut more than a year ago at MoMA.

Where I live, World on a Wire will hit the big screen thanks to an exclusive engagement at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, from Friday to Tuesday, July 29 – Aug. 2, at 8 p.m. each night (the theater’s director, Dana Keith, assured me to expect an intermission between the film’s two parts, for those that might need a break). Other screening dates across the US, including some in 35mm can be found here, and do not be afraid to write the distributor a line to ask about a nearby screening in your town (see their email address at the bottom part of the film’s official homepage).

*Allow me one note on the title theme, the gorgeous, listless instrumental, “Albatross” by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, which makes a great musical accompaniment to this equally indulgent review:

Though the film is filled with an odd array of burbles, squawks, hums and shrieks of period synth noise by Gottfried Hüngsberg as well as diagetic classical music, this choice of music for the title sequence, which does not appear until the end credits of Part 1 of World on a Wire reminds me of the music Neu! would make if they were more chill. With its softly strummed guitar and the whine of a slide guitar, the piece sounds like Krautrock on Hawaiian holiday.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)