World on a Wire | Friendship’s Death
Science fiction has been stereotyped as a «light genre» that doesn’t fit into the canon of the «high cinema». But there’s not enough space on this page to list all the directors who were fascinated by the opportunities sci-fi presents: Jean Renoir (Charleston Parade), Fritz Lang (Metropolis, Woman in the Moon), René Clair (Paris Asleep), Abel Gance (End of the World), Mario Bava (Planet of the Vampires), Robert Altman (Countdown, Quintet). Obviously, Stanley Kubrick and Richard Fleischer. The French New Wave also sallied into sci-fi-land: Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard), Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut), Je t’aime, je t’aime (Alain Resnais), La Jetée (Chris Marker). All that, and the rich Soviet tradition... In other words, the history of cinema itself can be seen as the history of science fiction. It let directors speculate on what is memory, human conscience, imagination, and, therefore, art in general.
The year 2001, once filmed by Kubrick, is already in the past. We live now in the times that seemed unachievable to many directors. Are the films stale? By no means. Were they accurate in their prognosis? Often they were. Now is probably the best time for a sci-fi retrospective. Last year demonstrated that the demand for independent science fiction films is still there. The most discussed recent pictures have been Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravitation, and The Congress by Ari Folman. Technical progress has also influenced how we watch these films and how we perceive the history of cinema that hasn’t yet been written in earnest.
The program has been put together to illustrate how different science fiction can be. It includes five films from five countries. It encompasses various decades: from the 60s up to now. It contains work by classics and first-time directors alike. Its driving force is Fassbinder’s World on a Wire — a visionary masterpiece, a prophetical encyclopedia of sci-fi, and at the same time an almost undiscovered film, one of the most unfortunate gaps in cinema history that we’d like to fill.
Learn to fantasize — demand the impossible!
Boris Nelepo, film critic, Seance magazine contributor, the Russian film consultant for the Locarno Film Festival
1957. Mysterious invaders enter the city. They are confronted by a group of young people leading double lives. Their leader is Don Porfirio, he masterminds the resistance. They have yet to find out that the forces are unequal.
Hugo Santiago is a director from Argentina. He started as Robert Bresson’s assistant at Procès de Jeanne d’Arc. Invasión is his fascinating debut, with Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares as writers. The trio worked on Santiago’s next picture, Les autres (1974), which was highly appreciated by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Santiago lives and works in France; there, he made an enigmatic thriller Écoute voir... starring Catherine Deneuve.
Borges was happy with the collaboration, «I wish to state that Invasión seems unlike any other film I have seen, and may very well be the first example of a whole new imaginative genre». He was correct: today, Santiago’s debut is a classic example of «le fantastique argentin».
Half-deserted ghostly Aquilea is a made-up city portrayed by a recognizable Buenos-Aires of the late 60s. Invasión is doubtlessly a city symphony — a film born from the contrast between an invented place from the past and a real late 60s landscape. As Don Porfirio puts it, ‘The city is more than its people».
Filmed in a turbulent era for the Argentinian politics and society, Invasión seems to forestall the notorious Dirty War. The military authorities prohibited to show the film on TV, and in 1978, they stole eight of the original negative reels. Only a couple of decades later did Santiago locate the missing parts and restore the picture. Bioy Casares explained the concept, Invasión modernises the theme of The Iliad: it does not praise the shrewdness and effectiveness of the conqueror, but rather the courage of a handful of warriors ready to defend their Troy».
21st century. A game called ‘The big hunt’ is immensely popular. «Why control the births when we can increase the deaths?», a TV host explains. Those who survive ten rounds — alternating between the hunter and the victim — get one million dollars. Caroline from the US is one victim away from victory; her rival is the dashing Marcello from Rome.
Elio Petri’s fourth film is a screen adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s short story Seventh Victim. A deadly survival game is one of the most favoured cinema plots. For example, as early as in 1932, the director of the first King Kong, Ernest B. Shoedsack filmed The Most Dangerous Game; the action, however, took place in the present, and not in the future. Petri’s film and Sheckley’s books doubtlessly influenced the recent Hunger Games, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger — and even the Austin Powers series. Even today, the film is a ravishing, unique spectacle. Elio Petri has often been labeled as ‘political’ director. Of course, in his film there is a place for satire on the consumerist society and the power of television, but the director is by no means less fascinated by the opportunity to dye Marcello Mastroianni blonde and dress him and Ursula Andress in unthinkable clothes. The crew was inspired by Balenciaga’s apprentice, the
French designer André Courrèges who in 1964 presented his revolutionary collection ‘Space Age’. The 10th Victim is a fabulous document of both the pop-art era, and that intriguing period of Italian cinema when authors’ fantasy made anything possible, and Marcello Mastroianni was second only to the rising star of James Bond played by Sean Connery.
«This story takes place in a far distant time, a time of violence. All throughout Europe, a silent war was spreading. In a city there lived two sisters…» Lisa and Joane work in a mysterious industrial complex. They are only 20 years old; they are only trying to find their way in life and this scary world.Virgil Vernier is a promising director. In 2010, the reputable magazine Cahiers du Cinéma included him in the list of «French Filmmakers of tomorrow». His mid-length Orléans (2012) proved that the wage paid off. Vernier, who probably hadn’t seen Gleb Panfilov’s The Beginning, wove his picture from Jeanne of Ark fantasies and an almost documentary portrait of the Maid’s town. Now Vernier is back with a full-length feature debut (it premiered in Cannes), where he clashes dreams and reality even more boldly. Les Mercuriales is the name of the twin towers built in a Paris suburb in 1975. They are part of a large architectural project that was halted after an economic crisis. Today, they are a reminder of the past, a shard of time. Filming with an exquisite 16-mm camera, Virgil Vernier turns them into a symbol of a future world in which Europe is plunged into a weird state of uncertainty and anxiety. He captures the unique beauty of suburban landscapes, deserted places, dead ends, empty roads, and walls dissected by graffiti, while trying to see the future in them.
Mercuriales is an existential science fiction film without special effects — thus it reminds of the best French examples of this genre: Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime and Jean-Charles Fitoussi’s Je ne suis pas morte. It is an experimental picture, and its narrative is like a river — so smoothly it flows from one character and space to another. Structurally, it resembles Georges Perec’s novel Life, a User’s Manual. Wonderful work by electronic music composer James Ferraro also contributes to he mysterious atmosphere. There’s a sudden Russian echo: one of the characters is listening to Kino, while translating the song Wake up, It’s Love from Russian into French for her friend. What lse can one listen to after the war?
Henry Vollmer is the creator of a ground-breaking computer project «Simulacron» which can simulate a full-featured virtual reality. He dies abruptly, after having spent several days in the state of confusion. The new project leader is Dr. Stiller whose friend suddenly disappears.
In 1973, Rainer Werner Fassbinder filmed one of his most unusual pictures, but for decades World on a Wire has remained a rarity known only to cinefiles and undiscovered even by many of his fans. The two episodes were filmed in 44 days, in 16 mm TV format and are Fassbinder’s only attempt at sci-fi. For the New Wave directors, science fiction was something of a genre exercise. But Fassbinder created an earnest visionary film that was in tune with two other classic 1973 sci-fi movies: Michael Chrichton’s Westworld and Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green. These are not the only close relatives of World on a Wire: the 27-year-old Fassbinder anticipated Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers.
World of a Wire is a screen adaptation of Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3 — one of the early attempts in literature to describe virtual reality. It is remarkable that later, in 1999, the picture’s cinematographer Michael Ballhaus together with Roland Emmerich produced another screen version of the same book — The Thirteenth Floor.
Despite its genre, the film preserves the aesthetics of the mature Fassbinder who at that time found inspiration in Douglas Sirk’s work. People closest to Fassbinder appear in secondary roles: Ingrid Caven, who had been his wife for two years, director Werner Schroeter, Austrian actor and director Peter Kern.
In his film, Fassbinder equals imagination, memories, cinema and virtual reality. Cinema critic Ed Halter has remarked that Fassbinder uses the world of computer simulation as a metaphor for directing — and that makes World on a Wire even more personal and partly autobiographical.
1970,«Black September». An alien robot named Friendship arrived from Procyon with a peace mission. By mistake, instead of MIT she finds herself in the war-ridden Amman. A disillusioned and cynical British journalist called Sullivan becomes her only friend.
Peter Wollen is a British film historian, theorist and experimental director. In his famous book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema he was among the first to introduce structuralist and semiotic methods into film studies. He also contributed to the screenplay of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Professione: reporter. Together with his wife Laura Mulvey he directed six experimental pictures inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s work. Friendship’s Death is his only solo work. For the then-27-year-old Tilda Swinton,
it was a third film. Peter Wollen explains his concept: «I am fascinated by science fiction. It dominates the writing of our time far beyond the confines of the genre — Ballard, Borges, Burroughs, Calvino… I wanted to graft the SF concepts of the robot and the extra-terrestrial on to a precise and authentic moment of history: Amman, September 1970. This would give me a framework in which to explore questions about the place of machines in human culture, the relation of reason and violence, the nature of evolution and the strangeness of the human body».
In terms of the storyline, Friendship’s Death reminds of the recent Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer, but its atmosphere is closest to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. Take Friendship’s monologue on her feeling pain when someone mistreats a typewriter, because it’s her closest relative, while a vacuum cleaner is a scavenger and reminds her of rats. Friendship’s Death is a hymn to curiosity. To live is to be fascinated by science, art, politics and humanity; that is, to experience the world.