A Leggy Blonde, a Cartoon Dreamworld, and a Pharmaceutical Corporation . . . What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Film: The Congress
Director: Ari Folman
Adapted from the novel The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem

“For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the system of ’brainwashing under freedom’ to which we are subjected and which all too often we serve as willing or unwitting instruments.”
-Noam Chomsky

Ari Folman, an Israeli film director, screenwriter, and film score composer, took some pretty broad liberties with the novel The Futurological Congress: “I was looking for a new, more current dimension to the allegory of the communist era in the book,” he says in a recent interview. In the novel the enemy was a communist dictatorship, but in the film the satanic entity is the entertainment business.

The implied goal of technology is to eliminate pain, work, ugliness, and inconvenience, and so in this sci-fi story we find studios digitally sampling actors to create digital doubles that, unlike real actors, are never late, disagreeable, or demanding, and that never grow old.

In the process of looking for a room in which to construct the digitizer for the film, Folman was amazed to discover that the fictitious technology described in the screenplay—a huge room that records actors’ physical forms as well as every facial expression and gesture in their repertoire, using all that data to create a digital actor—actually exists now.

Robin Wright, who plays herself, has not had a happy life as an actress, and now she’s being offered a way out. But she refuses. Why? Because the studio’s demand to use her digital double to play whatever role it chooses somehow smacks of totalitarianism.

Her agent argues: “You were always their puppet!” In other words, she has already been fetishized and depersonalised, at great personal expense; so why not cut all the aggravation of actual acting and just take the money and run?

But she doesn’t want to feel as if the studio owns her identity. Again her agent offers some moral persuasion:

“If you failed to do what they asked you to do, you would cease to exist, for Christ’s sake!” he bellows, implying that her only reality is as a character on a screen. Apparently she’s already unreal.

Robin isn’t buying it. Somehow she feels invested in her identity, as if the studio’s iron control of her sample would signify a kind of unlawful control of her true self. In the story the film executives keep repeating that Robin makes bad choices in everything and that this pisses everybody off, but she demands the right to retain her freedom of choice even if no one else likes it.

In order to convince Robin of how advanced this technology really is, they show her a clip from a scene that uses a digital actress. It’s quite fitting that in the scene a woman can just barely cope with the thought of her man cheating, but the fact that he voted twice for each of the two Bushes is utterly unbearable to her. Point being: in the entertainment world’s version of events, ideology trumps love (Slavoj Zizek, I hope you’re watching).

In spite of her reservations, Robin is eventually compelled to sign the contract because her son, Aaron, suffers from Usher syndrome, a genetic condition that’s slowly destroying his hearing and eyesight. He needs her, and she’s aging out of the star maker machinery fast, and so getting fewer offers of work. She needs money to free her to care for her son.

After years of caring for Aaron while her sampled self stars in countless movies, Robin is a special guest at “The Congress” and to appear at the place the studio has created and where the congress is meeting, she must alter her consciousness with a specially developed drug that subjugates collective consciousness, allowing all participants to enter the animated city of Abrahama, where they can be and do whatever they want as cartoon versions of themselves.

Abrahama City simulates an intense, pain-free experience, and it looks like it was designed by R. Crumb and Georgia O’Keefe, the images ranging from divine to demonic. Robin is encouraged to believe that it’s she who controls her reality here: “Everything is in our mind. If you see the dark then you chose the dark,” a robot explains when her lights go out.

The propaganda violently shoved down the throats of the avatars in the animated city is that they can now consume drugs that free them from all pain and that allow them total freedom of choice. The engineers of the brave new world are practically crowing that they’ve replaced God.

Robin is eventually punished for speaking the truth in an anti-truth world, and is frozen for twenty years. Tellingly, the guy who freezes her is the same guy that had put her in the sampling dome to begin with.

The animated fictive reality is lovely, posh, devoid of suffering, and utterly dreadful, desolate, and dead inside, as Robin learns in the harshest possible way.

The film loses points for segments of dialogue that are just a little too lame to believe, but gains them back for its careful attention to a subtext that, from the beginning, unravels and instills a profound message. For example, when Robin’s son Aaron talks about the euphoria of flying his kites under descending airplanes, his speech sounds terribly contrived, but his words point to the intensity of real experience, which can never be simulated, and suggest a deep desire for a love affair between art and technology, something Francesco Casetti would refer to as a manifestation of the drive within film itself to negotiate the union of art, nature, and technology.

As a female character, Robin is rivaled only by Ingmar Bergman’s film women in the sense of being fully human, with a depth of sensibility and moral character that make her physical beauty seem a trifle. Her relationship with the character Dylan is so poignantly, beautifully real; even though they entered their relationship as animated avatars, their love is devoid of artifice—open, honest, vulnerable, and blessed.

The Congress manifests nine of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

• It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
• It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
• It stimulates my mind.
• It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda.
• It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
• It’s about attainment of the true self.
• It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
• It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
• It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

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