Sunday, August 10, 2014

'The Congress' (2013) directed by Ari Folman


How on earth do films like this made? The Congress is an aggressively confusing, utterly idiosyncratic cocktail of a thousand different influences in which meaning, motivation and even the bare bones of the plot slip through your fingers like quicksilver.  Using the critically acclaimed Waltz With Bashir as a springboard, Ari Folman has wrung out the contents of his mind onto a the silver screen, ending up with a movie that explores the far reaches of what cinema might become by way of an animator's wet dream.

At first it seems so straightforward.  Robin Wright (Buttercup from The Princess Bride and Jenny from Forrest Gump) plays herself; a middle-aged actor for whom parts have almost entirely dried up.  Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) lays it out to her: she's made too many bad choices, she was dealt a winning hand and bodged it, leaving her over the hill , unemployable, a cinematic liability.  There's only one option available to her; new technology allows the Miramount film studio to completely digitise an actor, scanning every millimeter of them into a computer and recreating them digitally on screen. While she ages in obscurity her digital self will remain forever young, able to be slotted into whatever roles the studio decrees.

The film is no slouch visually in the non-animated bits either.
"20 YEARS LATER".  Act two opens in the year 2033, where a 64 year old Wright attends the Futurological Congress,  introducing new chemical technology allowing people to don animated avatars.  Anyone can become whoever they want to be.  It's here that we transition from humdrum reality to an intense animated world of motion and colour.  The dirt and grime of reality is scrubbed away to leave a primary coloured psychedelia heavily influenced by animation legends like the Fleischer brothers, Gerald Scarfe and Ub Iwerks.

It's at this juncture that the Folman slams his foot down on the accelerator and zooms off into the realm of the bonkers.  Narrative fades away into a chaotic blizzard of references, characters transition from people into walking metaphors and every single frame vibrates with fractal levels of detail.  We feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, initially struggling to map out this Gordian knot of conflicting symbols, imagery and pop culture. Soon you realise your best bet is to relax, let yourself be swept along into a truly beautiful cinematic world that's like few other things I've ever seen in cinema.

Oh yeaaaah.
Visually the closest comparison I can make is to the densely populated, fast-paced cinematic worlds created by Studio 4°C, primarily the wonderful Tekkon Kinkreet and the avant-garde masterpiece Mind Game (a criminally unseen film).  What they and The Congress have in common is a desire to push animation as far as it can go.  After all, with just a few strokes of pencil on paper the animator becomes God, conjuring whole universes into being direct from his imagination.  Why settle for recreating desaturated, gritty dull old reality when you can spin a blanket of skyscrapers that flutter into the air like butterflies, faces that blossom into flowers and jet planes that flap, dovelike, through the sky?

Textually, though the film credits Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (writer of Solaris) with inspiration I was more reminded of the work of Philip K. Dick, particularly the unsettling queasily drug-tinged worlds of Ubik and VALIS.  Part of what makes Dick's science fiction so compelling is the utter divorce from the familiar. In The Congress' future of inhaled experiences, where people change personae like we change t-shirts and where the human form tends to gloopily disintegrate at a moments notice, we feel this typically Dickian disconnection - us understanding the future is as unlikely as a caveman with an iPhone clutched in his hairy fingers figuring out Candy Crush Saga.

Good shit.
That said, in the midst of this beautiful confusion there are ideas that repeat like melodies. Folman uses the prehistory of animation as a vehicle to explore the future of cinema, a future that begins with digital actors and goes from there.  We see a studio executive excitedly proclaiming the end of cinema as we know it, the medium replaced with a kaleidoscope of individual, personal experiences in which we can cast whoever we want.  As if leading by example, Folman casually casts Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Jones, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Jesus Christ and David Bowie (among many, many others). He teases the prospect of casting our girlfriend or boyfriend as the romantic lead in a sweeping epic, or your family in a lighthearted comedy.

He concludes with the idea of pop culture completely superseding reality entirely, masking the cruel realities of life with a consensual hallucination of day-glo beauty powered by limitless imagination.  Most impressively there's no moralising argument that the only acceptable way to experience the 'real world is without blinders, Folman correctly concluding that a topsy-turvy LSD influenced world where everyone can be whoever they want to be is as valid as any other.

My kinda movie.
God only knows how he managed to scrape together the funding for this - though the litany of logos at the end of the credits hints at a Herculean effort in convincing practically every film board in Europe to chip in.  All that hard work has paid off; in a swamp of fast food blockbusters advertising photorealistic HD carnage, The Congress shines as a monument to ambition, creativity, beauty and a bloody-nosed devotion to the ideal of cinema as artistic endeavour.

★★★★★

The Congress is on limited release from 15 August.

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