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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: World on a Wire

Back in 1973, when science fiction movies were awful, Rainer Werner Fassbinder made his only foray into the genre, a two-part 212-minute television miniseries, World on a Wire, which was broadcast twice in Germany and then largely forgotten until it was restored as part of a general interest in Fassbinder’s legacy, and has been released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.  Not only does the program turn out to be an outstanding accomplishment for its day and a still very rare example of a successful adaptation of a science-fiction novel to film, but its relevance has not diminished in the slightest over the ensuing decades.  Way, way before The Matrix, before Blade Runner and before umpteen Japanese anime tales, Fassbinder not only understood the epistemological paradoxes of cyberworlds, he understood how to communicate those paradoxes to viewers in an entertaining and engrossing manner.  The film has almost no special effects, and conveys its fantasies through conversations, ideas and dramatic conflict, which are staged with Fassbinder’s prodigious sense of cinematic design.  Filled with mirrors and with the camera often rotating in circles upon circles, the film is not only aesthetically captivating, it has a fully accessible narrative and a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

Based upon a novel by Daniel F. Galouye, which also served as the source for the under-appreciated 1999 feature, The Thirteenth Floor, Klaus Löwitsch stars as a scientist involved in a partially government-funded project to create a fully functioning virtual world, so that various economic and social trends can be accelerated for the sake of prediction (with private manufacturers bribing project officials to obtain marketing tips).  Glitches begin to occur, however, and soon the hero, who looks very much like David Janssen in The Fugitive, is on the run for the supposed murder of his supervisor.  At the same time, he discovers that characters within the virtual world may have become independently cognizant of their situation, and that on another meta-level, he himself may be simply a virtual character in a greater cyberscape. 

Fassbinder balances the ambiguities and the complexities of the premise with camera movements and character blocking that are themselves metaphorical.  When a character walks behind a partition, he ‘disappears’ and when he ‘reappears’ as the camera circles around and catches him strolling in a different part of the room, is it really the same person, has he been replaced, or has the whole setting been readjusted while he was absent from view?  Which side of the mirror is the reflection and which is the original?  The film constantly taunts a viewer’s presumptions about the realities of what is being observed, and goes around and around with its teases.  The women in the film are all dressed in an ever so slightly exaggerated manner, as if their outfits had not been chosen by the feminine tastes of the characters themselves but were instead the attempt of unseen geeky code writers to replicate what they thought the women should be wearing.  Many of the characters, especially the secondary characters, act stiffly, as they do in other Fassbinder films, but here their inertia can immediately be interpreted as insufficient programming.  Even the appearance of many wonderful German actors in cameo parts—readily calling forth allusions to Alphaville, Eddie Constantine also shows up briefly—and the film’s use of so many of Fassbinder’s ensemble favorites, creates distinctive parallels between the film’s virtual worlds and the film itself as a virtual world.  Meanwhile, in America, the best science fiction, if you can even call it such, that anybody could come up with at the time was Zardoz.  In comparison, World on a Wire is a genuine film of the future, in the very best sense, and between the intricacies of its story and the infinite discoveries within Fassbinder’s style, now that the film has been resurrected, it will captivate viewers for decades to come.

The full screen picture looks as good as can be expected, with some sequences appearing smooth and slick, while others, although bright and sharp, still seeming a little aged or vaguely compromised.  Considering the source, it is clear that the presentation is as good as it is going to get.  The monophonic sound has noise in some sequences—as if the more times the action within the film has been replicated, the more it has begun to degrade—but is mixed with a strong sense of purpose and is worth amplifying.  The show is in German with English subtitles and comes with a trailer and two excellent retrospective pieces that analyze the film and explain how it all came together, running a total of 85 minutes.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon