Mind Blowing Movies: World on a Wire (1973), by Erik Davis
[Video Link] When you think about movies that blew your mind, you often think about flicks you saw when you were an adolescent or even a kid, when there was so much room for the explosion to occur. For me, it was movies like Alien, Nick Roeg’s Performance and Walkabout, Repo Man (“plate a shrimp”), Silent Running, 2001, Apocalypse Now, and, yes, the original Star Wars, which I lined up for on opening weekend. Getting older, your worldly and cultural map inevitably gets filled in, and a certain knowing jadedness settles over your responses. Films refer to other films; they make their extraordinary moves in the shadow of other extraordinary moves. It becomes harder for the films you see to fuel the proper escape velocity of amazement, fear, and bent cognition that make for the authentically blown mind.
I am happy to report, however, that it still happens, at least to this sublimity-seeking mind. Just last week, I saw a film that I had never heard about until a month or so ago: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s two-part 1973 TV SciFi drama World on a Wire. Now Fassbinder is no obscurity, and the true film buffs will have already notched their belts with this one, which was restored and bumped up to 35 mm from its original 16mm Kodachrome stock a couple of years ago but only recently released on DVD. Fassbinder, of course, was the most harrowing and brilliant of the New German Cinema maestros in the 1970s, and his gritty, disturbing, and fabulously over-the-top melodramas—like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and The Year of Thirteen Moons—were staples of the art house cinema circuit within which I was schooled as a young man coming of age during the autumn of celluloid. World on a Wire was Fassbinder’s only science fiction, and he made it a few years after swerving from his bracingly avant-garde early anti-movies towards a more engaging and sophisticated appropriation of Hollywood forms. In 1973, Fassbinder was still the enfant terrible of German cinema, renown for prolific genius and personal hedonic depravity, but for whatever reason the TV station WDR gave him a lot of money to make a two-part, three-hour TV movie out of the American SF writer Daniel Galouye’s 1964 book Simulacron-3.
Staying reasonably faithful to Galouye’s book, Fassbinder and his tele-play collaborator Fritz Müller-Scherz present a fast-moving mindfuck cyber-thriller that is eerily prophetic of Blade Runner, The Matrix, and any number of posthuman nightmares and clammy cybernetic conundrums.
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I first read Robert Anton Wilson in 1985, which also happened to be my Weirdest Summer Ever. After freshman year at college back East, I went to Berkeley and lived with my high school girlfriend in Barrington Hall, the most legendary and notorious of Berkeley's student-run co-ops, already sunk into a long sunset of countercultural haze. The place smelled like cat pee and cheap incense, and the cries of weird rituals and speed deals gone awry echoed through hallways covered with wondrous and faded hippie murals. Graffiti captured the unnerving tenor of the place: a large "LSD" had been spray-painted on Haste Street to the north in order to jog the memories of any high-flying trippers who might have made their way to the roof, while a mystical phrase from Lao Tzu -- "Those who know do not say, those who say do not know" -- somehow took on ominous overtones once it was tagged across one wall, a hint of the foreboding secrets and cosmic conspiracies that would nip at my heels all summer long until by the time I fled east I barely escaped without a drug addiction or, even more dangerous, the unspoken Answer to the Riddle.
It didn't help that I spent the summer reading Aleister Crowley, Phil Dick, the Principia Discordia, and Robert Anton Wilson, especially the Illuminatus! Trilogy, Prometheus Rising, and Cosmic Trigger. Or maybe this was the only stuff that actually did help -- and especially RAW, who taught me, as he taught so many others, to nimbly dodge the gravity wells that threaten to suck us down the various informational reality tunnels that make a Swiss cheese of our consensus trance. A year ago I traded a bunch of books to a Russian teenager who sent me a couple of samizdat copies of my book Techgnosis, translated into Russian. He liked Terence McKenna and wanted me to send him more books that would tug the silly putty of his world with humor and verve. He was about the same age I was when I had my Weirdest Summer Ever. And so RAW -- and especially the two indispensable nonfiction books listed above -- topped the list. He appreciated them. Read the rest
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