February 16, 2016

The Congress

Wow. No words to describe it. They should've sent a poet. In this "documentary", Robin Wright, who you might know as The Princess Bride or Jenny from Forrest Gump, plays herself. She is now over 40, her career is running to an end and she accepts or gets pressured into accepting one last contract from MiraMount. In exchange for a large payout, the studio gets to use a virtual copy of her in any manner they see fit.

I am going to cut it there cause really, the less you know, the better. Suffice to say that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that events set in motion by the description above will have consequences far beyond any one person. The film is very loosely based on a story from Stanislaw Lem and has been criticized for not sticking to the source material but personally I am glad that they decided to add and spin so much that you end up with something almost completely new.

The Congress couldn't be any more different from Ari Folman's previous theatrical release, "Waltz With Bashir", the both thematically and visually dark documentary on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Instead, The Congress is a vibrant explosion of colorful imagination. About the only thing that stayed the same is the mix of live action and powerful animation. Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti add a bunch of class to the live action and the animation, probably some of the best I've ever seen, really doesn't need any help.

I don't want to create impossible expectations but for me this is the most fun I've had in the cinema since The Tree of Life. No, this is not 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is the sort of film that takes many liberties with story and pacing, more concerned with making you think about a variety of interpretations than telling a sharply defined completely coherent story, although there are some of those too. Some aspects don't make sense and would look like plot holes in any other film but I am willing to forgive here simply because it feels right here. Dreams, different realities and the truth are things you can play with. I'll save the spoilers for when the rest of the world gets to see it.

This is not something everyone will enjoy but I am pretty sure that anyone who sees it is unlikely to forget it any time soon.


I love films that introduce a ton of dots and then leave it up to you which ones you want to connect and what their relationship should be. The Congress contains a stunning amount of layers and can be interpreted in many different ways. The open and at times almost lucid dream like approach to everything from narrative to visuals and sound sure makes it hard to put into words what you think you saw. There are single scenes that contain so much meaningful background porn that I could fill a page on them. Although the animation might not be for everyone, I think it looks great. There's also Max Richter's hauntingly beautiful score which adds another few gigatons of emotion and all this truly adds up to an enormous explosion out of leftfield. Amazingly it didn't make much noise upon arrival but I am pretty sure that, as we go forward, it will be cherished by its ever growing audience.

Now for some more meaty thoughts; This review will be as disjointed as the film so I am just going to throw out a bunch of random thoughts, make of them what you will.

One of my favorite characters was Jeff, the head of MiraMount. Originally, during the live action part, most of the stuff that comes out of his mind is prophetic, as we move into the animated zone he becomes more of a prophet of doom and ultimately an instigator of said doom. The way he says "this is not science fiction, it's a documentary" about Triple R (Robyn's SF film) which also pointed back to the live action (today) really drives home that the first half hour of the Congress is reality today. The next half hour we move into the near future with Ms. Wright's scan becoming the focal point through which we ultimately get to see the birth of a new world.

Each time she meets Jeff, the Miramax head, he shakes up the world. The embodiment of blind, profit driven disruption, the kind that places dollar signs above life and creativity? The first time they meet he tells her that actors of flesh and blood are a thing of the past, the second time they meet, he's moved a level up, now it's no longer just the actors that get scanned but also the environments which means most people are let go because they no longer need a set crew, make up artists, lighting experts, designers, prop makers, ... Their next meeting takes place in the animated zone. The consequences of his disruptive actions are becoming far more severe. MiraMount has spread its tentacles to other industries and thanks to the development of a new drug the magic of cinema has left the big screen and entered the real world. This new drug seems to take over the interface between sensory input and experience and allows the traversing signals to be modulated. It conjures up vivid and realistic hallucinations which allow consistent and even shared alternate realities. First the drug was rigidly defined and its effects limited in time but as research progressed the drug became more potent, ultimately allowing users to take control over their hallucinations which sets them free but disastrously also closes the feedback loop between want and get with enormous consequences. The last time Wright meets Jeff, he has basically fired everyone that had anything to do with movies. He's still in entertainment but now only sells drugs or "experiences". Things take a turn for the worse when MiraMount starts losing control over its product and global unrest sparks violence.

Ultimately we end up in what I would describe as something similar to a post singularity environment. When the world goes almost completely animated and everyone can be whoever they want to be and do whatever they want to do. What you think is what you get. That in The Congress this is achieved through controllable hallucinogenics doesn't matter much as the result is pretty much indistinguishable from digital reality substitution, programmable matter or a virtual life. The parallels you can draw between these approaches can be quite surprising. In all these worlds the lag time between imagination and instantiation is basically zero.

Some more thoughts;

The Wright family, thanks to Aaron's disease was the first one that really learned to fly? I have the feeling that there is more to the wright/flyers/Wright brothers connection but I'll probably have to see it again to unravel that further.

The animated zone as a liberal offshore island.

Can you be yourself as someone else? If you relive someone else's entire life, how much of the original you would be left?

Do you take the red pill or the blue pill? Here the pill is chemical instead of digital in nature but here too you could very much hold the opinion that life inside beats the Zion outside.

Does her animator know more about herself than she does?

Should the human race die happy or should we toil in misery? It almost looks like mankind has collectively decided to euthanize itself in the most painless way possible.

Alternatively, are we simply machines that got tricked and manipulated by chemicals to willingly and happily engineer our own demise?

I also really liked how they introduced Aaron and his "illness". Giamatti doesn't yet know how right he is when he says of him that he was born before his time. His condition could be seen as an evolutionary step up because in many ways his mind functions similarly to those who later on end up taking the drug. Before the "singularity" he heard what he wanted to hear and was wrong, after the "singularity" he really hears what he wants to hear and becomes "wright"?

It's not explicitly stated but I can imagine that Aaron would be much better adapted to living a life in a world you shape yourself compared to living a life in the world forced upon him in which he grew up. After taking the drug his condition is likely to work in symbiosis with the drug, boosting his ability to perceive creatively, to play with what is real, to new heights.

It's especially interesting to connect his "illness" with a statement from Jeff who at one point says we make movies so we don't have to read books. The less information you get, the more blanks you fill in yourself which is what makes a story more personal. In this sense a movie is a pre-chewed book, largely the same for everyone who lays eyes upon it. Aaron has the ability to always spin his surroundings and experience into something uniquely personal so for him every movie and life itself will likely be about airplanes or something he cares about. In many ways it's a biological analogue for the digital filter bubble. It comes with both pros and cons.

I could talk about this flick for hours and hours. There are many other dots I haven't pointed at yet, like the meaning of identity in a world where it can be copied and replicated to someone else, but likely you've connected your dots a bit or completely differently so first I want to hear your side.

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