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.
As in Ridley Scott’s PKD remix, the protagonist here—a computer scientist played by Klaus Löwitch—is modeled on a hapless noir anti-hero, one of those earnest and alcoholic detectives who get lured into a paranoid Chapel Perilous and go crazy at exactly the same rate at which they discover what’s really going on. There is no need to rehearse the plot or its big ideas, whose concerns with corporate shenanigans and self-conscious algorithms will seem at once unsurprising and incredibly satisfying to folks who ply the waters of the digital simulacrum. Indeed what blows the mind about this movie is not so much its novelty, but the prophetic thoroughness and satiric bite with which it lays out some of the more dystopian, capitalist, and ontological possibilities of virtual worlds. The Matrix was smart, but The Matrix did not meditate on Xeno’s paradox. Despite its age, World on a Wire seems almost ahead of the game: a gnostic glitch track stripped of all transcendence, a black iron prison with a wan light at the end of the tunnel. I could say more, but why spoil it? Instead I’ll just pass on one of the film’s more resonant lines: “What would a glitch be like?”
Concept alone will only get you so far, however—Galouye’s book was also remade in 1999 as The Thirteenth Floor, a decent film that did not so much blow your mind as toot on it like a penny whistle. The authentically blown mind requires the multiple dimensions of film’s gesamptkuntswerk to move towards brilliance. World on a Wire has it all: extraordinary sets, props, costumes, actors, soundtrack, camerawork. Like David Lynch, Fassbinder used a lot of famous or sentimental actors who for various reasons had become has-beens; like Lynch, he wanted to invoke an uncanny sense of unreal familiarity. Most of us won’t recognize these folks, of course (I didn’t for the most part), but we will recognize the different film genres that Fassbinder is playing with—post-Kubrick science fiction, expressionist European horror, the police thriller, the noir—all of which contribute to the film’s eerie air of artifice. The movie was shot in Paris, whose designers were clearly getting good and loopy at the time, and the space-age bachelor pads and bleak construction sites open a portal into the chilly 1970s analog of the Gernsback continuum. The early 70s was a great era for garish and melancholic pop futurism, and in Fassbinder’s frame, quotidian objects—bubble-gum orange rotary phones, blinking punch-card computers, blobtastic Corvettes—take on the tacky and fantastic nostalgia reserved for futures now irretrievably past. The sound track moves from ironic schmaltz to eerie and sometimes aggressively grating analog synths that themselves seem to intervene in the narrative, while the movie’s concern with constructed identity is mirrored in the camera’s obsession with mirrors and glass, some of whose reflections are brilliantly orchestrated in a number of memorable tracking shots. Even goofy sweaters and floor designs mimic abstract, recursive patterns, as if the film were being algorithmically generated before our eyes. We must remember another of the film’s koans: “the real cigarettes are elsewhere.”