Won’t Somebody Sell Me Back to Me?: Robin Wright at the Congress

The title of this essay comes from St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness,” which serves as a poppy preamble to the points discussed below. Have a listen.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not sure what the real title of Ari Folman’s 2013 follow-up to Waltz with Bashir even actually is. Most reviewers and promotional materials, anyway (as well as Wikipedia), assure me that the movie is just called The Congress, emphasizing its status as an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel/thought experiment, The Futurological Congress. Certainly there are many elements that Folman has retained from Lem’s original, particularly in the second of the film’s three movements, and Folman speaks reverentially in interviews about the significance Lem’s work has had on his own appreciation of science fiction. But the Congress in The Congress occupies, by a generous estimate, only about 25 minutes of the movie’s two-hour-plus runtime. I don’t really think it’s what Folman wanted to make a movie about. Clearly, he wanted to continue exploring his preoccupations with melding live-action and animation, though forsaking the rotoscoped realism of the documentary for a bizarro fantasia of Max Fleischer, Tex Avery, and other practitioners of squirming, wriggling flatness. Folman’s animation team made the unusual choice to literally animate over the live-action blocking of all of the scenes as recorded on a sound stage – the main actors, at least, never did any voice-over work.

Which is why, perhaps, the title is different on my Blu-ray cover, as well as on the two-card title sequence as presented at the film’s beginning. It hinges on a grammatical oddity that, even if it doesn’t excuse Folman’s approach, affords us a kind of thesis to pursue: what if “the Congress” is not the subject of the movie, but rather just some particularly compelling window-dressing, and therefore entirely logically consigned to being the object of a preposition? Robin Wright at the Congress, which is what I’m calling the movie anyway, suggests that we should not view the piece so much as an adaptation of Lem as an opportunity to follow another character, with a very particular set of stakes, through the world Lem has designed. In Lem, after all, the purpose of the Futurological Congress is to determine what to do about the growing problem of overpopulation, how to contain and manage unchecked human life itself as it threatened to become (as if it isn’t already) an untenable drain on resources. The solution encountered by the protagonist, astronaut Ijon Tichy, is a series of hallucinogens, “benignizers,” that range in power and scope from a localized mood alterant to a fully-fledged (and government-diffused) “mascon,” capable of drastically manipulating one’s perception of the physical world according to the image conjured up by the state. These totalitarian fantasies should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Lem’s broader concerns, or at least the social context of Soviet Poland in which he wrote. Again, though, they’re not really Folman’s.

While Tichy is supposed to be a kind of everyman, increasingly discombobulated and distanced from the hallucinatory landscape unleashed by the Congress, Folman innovatively realizes that the truly horrifying thing, as well as the truly alluring thing, about Lem’s hypothetical future is how thoroughly individualized it might be. For Folman, an abstract “state” will exert less authority in the future than a capitalist machine bent on the satisfaction of individual needs: the only totality that the cartoonish (more on which shortly) “Reeve Bobs” needs to invoke at the Congress, as he makes his pitch bolstered by two taiko drummers, is better living through chemistry, “Free Choice,” a total that begins and ends with the somatic and perceptual experience of reality rather than any external agenda. We might think of Folman’s particular nightmare as the reverse of the historical tapestry of “user-centered experience” – a world in which perception becomes so atomized and customized, if not necessarily narcissistic, that any capacity for social connection goes entirely out the window, since you can’t even be sure that the people you’re talking to are even real people, or that you are even talking and not just dreaming about what it might be like to talk to someone you made up.

Are you confused yet? That’s fine. This movie is confusing. And by all accounts, it’s a complete mess. It’s overstuffed with existential ideas and monologues, it refuses to acknowledge the ability of the audience to do a fair amount of intellectual heavy lifting and too often tries to deliberately spell out its headier moments. The choice of animation referents seems, on first viewing, arbitrary and lifeless by comparison with the moving application of rotoscoping to the recovery of repressed collective memory in his documentary. Why should the chemical dystopia in Robin Wright at the Congress be animated, and why in this particular amalgam of styles? And yet for all of the preachiness, for all of the silliness, for all of the schoolboyish cartoon sensuality, there is something irrepressibly beautiful about the final production, a visual sumptuousness and willingness to critique while pulling out all the stops that makes me believe it is destined to become a cult classic. Robin Wright at the Congress is a movie best watched, for better or worse, at midnight, under the influence, submitting to the kind of chemical alterations Folman seems intent on critiquing. I’m here to sing its praises.

Let’s start with what Folman really wants to focus on, then: Robin Wright. Though he originally conceived of the role for Cate Blanchett, the essential contours of the preamble to the Congress itself were intact before Wright became the specific focus of Folman’s animating attention. The story he wanted to tell concerned the future of the entertainment industry, and what new roles various entities like actors, cinematographers, directors, animators, screenwriters, agents, and even studio executives ultimately might have in a media landscape taken to the logical conclusion of entertainment “on demand.” The film’s tripartite structure asks us to consider how the ante is continually upped specifically for actors, a class of people whose centrality to the entertainment industry has always been assured. The Robin Wright on display for us in Folman’s first act, though, is a prime example of the trouble actors pose to the efficiency of the entertainment machine: they are only human.

The action begins by focusing on Robin Wright’s face, mid-reaming out; her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), castigates her for committing just about every social capital-reducing crime that an actress could manage: “Through all your choices, all your fears. All that – enslavement to your anxieties, I was there. All the irrational walkouts. Always when shooting was just about to start… Aaron needs me at home. Aaron is just an excuse. Lousy choices. That’s your whole story, Robin. Lousy choices. Lousy movies. Lousy men. Friends you couldn’t trust. Even the one thing you can’t choose: your mother! You made a lousy choice there too.” Significantly, the entire opening sequence takes place at her kitchen table, with Keitel, to his credit, oscillating uncomfortably between giving her advice as a friend and as a manager, as her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) listens angrily.

As it turns out, the executives at Miramount, represented by Jeff Green (a deliciously sleazy Danny Huston), have come to the fickle and frustrating actress with an ultimatum: if you let us scan you, digitize you completely, to the point where the studio will own your entire image and can use it as an animatable thing in whatever entertainment context it wants (on the condition that you give up all future public performance), then we will give you a boggling payday that will ensure you are set for life. The deal is particularly uncomfortable given its insistence on the particularity of Robin Wright’s actual career, the leery way Green admits to having no interest in her current image (“How old are you?” he asks, continuously), but rather hopes to preserve her in amber, turn back the clock to the days of Buttercup and Jenny. “I’ll keep you 35 forever,” he offers in the final negotiations. “34,” her lawyer pushes. “34 – that’s greedy. Greedy!” Naturally Robin initially balks at the suggestion, the complete obliteration of any element of acting that actually involves the actress and, as such, her own emotional gratification. But the studio’s demand that she let herself become an animated character, even if it is a photorealistically rendered one, makes a certain kind of sense: “Very soon this whole structure we all love so much will be gone. I mean the structure around the actor: the agents, the managers, all the trappings… the trailers, the drugs, the coke, the depression, the breakups, the lovers, the sexual kinks, the broken contracts, the terrible legitimization of tasteless scripts, the post-failure blues, the skipping out on PR, the begging for forgiveness. All that can be gone. You get my drift?” Robin Wright the character is an asset. Robin Wright the person is overhead.

And Robin Wright the person has other problems, too. Her son, Aaron, suffers from Usher syndrome, which that threatens to rob him of his vision and hearing. Already his senses have so thoroughly degraded that he barely notices the jumbo jets that threaten to rattle the home apart at the airfield adjacent to their house. Robin, whose entire world revolves of necessity around sight and sound, cannot bear the desensitized future Aaron faces, and consults a specialist (Dr. Barker, played by Paul Giamatti) to determine the best course of action, and to impose a timeline on the degradation. In one of the first act’s more fanciful sequences, Barker and Aaron participate in a hearing test that, while indicative of profound loss, Barker interprets to Wright (and to the lip-reading Aaron) in more constructive – and thematically apt – terms: “Aaron has a beautiful mind. He is taking information in and translating it as he will… Now imagine what movies will be like in fifty years. I think that this is somewhat similar to what Aaron is doing… The movie guys will just have electronic stimuli that our brains translate according to what is in our subconscious. People will be given story data and they’ll cast their mother or their girlfriend as Marlene Dietrich or you. All depending on what is in their particular box.” Still, Aaron’s condition serves as crucial motivation for Robin to undergo complete digitization, mugging for two hundred small cameras arrayed in a geodesic dome around her, giving the final performance of her life.

Or at least for twenty years. The film propels us forward until Robin’s contract is set to expire, the moment when Miramount (now Miramount Nagasaki) would be forced to relinquish its stranglehold on her image and allow Robin to have herself back. But the entertainment company has been busy in the intervening two decades, investing heavily in chemical and pharmaceutical research, diffusing its various Robin Wright-fronted properties “in the air,” and somewhat ominously conceptualizing a bold new direction for the entertainment industry that, for all its strangeness, is really the same as it ever was. Indeed, Robin’s condition as an animated character no longer even makes her seem all that special, particularly at the Futurist Congress where she will have to renegotiate her contract with Green and where she has been invited to speak as the original model for what has culminated in the imposition of animatedness, a towering hotel and entertainment complex serving as the centerpiece of a “Fully Animated Zone.”

Robin’s delirious approach shows the barren desert transformed into a hallucinatory prismatic seascape halfway between Lisa Frank and Chuck Jones, setting the tone for the next hour, give or take, of the movie’s run time. The hotel lobby offers us glimpses at the fully animated future Miramount Nagasaki wants to sell, with agents snorting hits of multicolored gas to temporarily transform themselves into Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, and of course Robin Wright herself. Rebel Robot Robin, a “live-action animated feature,” might remain Miramount’s most profitable and ubiquitous property, but as Robin is checking in, the robotic clerk can barely muster an acknowledgment of her essential distinction: “I guess they didn’t look as Robinish as you do.”

Then a descent into the bowels of the hotel to the former studio offices, now shellacked and encrusted with so much animated glitz that these vestiges of former power and strong-arming now seem utterly desaturated. Green is somehow still executing, and manages somehow to be even more menacing in cartoon form than in the flesh. His new proposal capitalizes on the chemical future of Miramount Nagasaki, an extension of Robin’s contract for another twenty years, though this time even more complete in its license (porn! sci-fi! Holocaust movies!) and in its scope: “From now on, they can drink you, or you can be eaten in an omelet or a crème brûlée. From now on, you’re a substance. You’re a chemical formula… When you fantasize in the dark, do you pay him or her royalties?”

The proposal sounds utterly baffling to Robin until Green exposes the same logic as before, opening up a small cabinet in his office to reveal a tiny fleet of Steamboat Willie style animators behind the peephole, next up on the chopping block of infinite overhead reduction: “Pretty soon this whole structure will stop existing… The scriptwriter, who needs his antidepressants. The ex-Russian storyboard artist with his drinking problem. The animator who is always behind deadline. And those idiots who fall in love with their computer characters. The special effects people, they can all go and fuck themselves.” His speech does little to dispel her detestation. As the social infrastructure of the studio system becomes steadily less attractive, the crowd at the Congress cheers on the psychotropic future, the total particularization of entertainment and the promise that, someday, you might be the master of your own fantasies. (And, like the computer concierge in Robin’s hotel room intones after she asks whether the lights cut out “for real, or only in her mind,” “Ultimately, everything makes sense, and everything is in our mind.”)

Small wonder that the scene among the glitterati descends into chaos shortly after Robin performs her duty, offering up an incendiary speech asking why “better living through chemistry” seems to have culminated in an entertainment industrial complex rather than, for instance, research into developing a cure for Aaron’s debilitating disease. She is not the only one who thinks so: evangelist Reeve Bobs takes a bullet to the brain as a sniper inaugurates a full-on revolutionary assault against the Fully Animated Zone. Robin, meanwhile, finds an unlikely ally in a defector from the revolutionary cause, a man who introduces himself as Dylan Truliner (Jon Hamm), the animator who has been head of the Robin Wright division for twenty years and whose meticulous research on their property’s life has led him to the inevitable conclusion that he is in love with her (one notes in passing a suspicious resemblance in character design to the film’s own animator-in-chief, Ari Folman). As he offers her an air bubble to prevent her being gassed by dangerously unstable hallucinogens, they plummet to the chemically flooded basement and wait to be rescued as reality grows steadily more unhinged. Flowers sprout from Dylan’s fingers, cockroaches play cards in his lap, psychedelic vines in the style of Fantastic Planet wind their way around the pipeworks, and ultimately Green himself – or at least someone who, thanks to a particular ampoule, looks like Green – finds Robin alone and sentences her to be shot in the head herself.

The Congress itself, then, offers little in the way of clarity about the film’s priorities, except to postulate an inevitable transmutation of the apparatus of filmmaking from sensation – the stuff of sight and sound – to perception. Under the influence, Robin cannot properly tell where entertainment and fantasy end and the real world begins, and she is placed into a cryogenic coma for another twenty years while medicine seeks to bring her back to life. But it is at this point, the inflection from act two to three, that the insidiousness of the film’s medium becomes apparent: in coming out of suspended animation, Robin Wright expresses no concern over the fact that she is still, well, animated. In a hospital room explicitly designed to return her to the period of greatest joy in her life, “the early 1980s,” a nurse in the guise of a hooded Grace Jones informs her both that she has been asleep for years and that she has a visitor, Dylan, who also appears not to have aged a day.

“Time,” Robin later realizes, Dante to Dylan’s Virgil, “is now a subjective matter. You decide in your mind when day breaks, or when the mood fades. After a while you probably lose the numeric calendar as we once knew it.” The revolution was a failure; entertainment is constantly in the air. And in this brave new world, sociality itself has gone through the animated funhouse mirror and come out as a travesty of Free Choice. As they walk the streets of New York City, skyscrapers covered in animated vegetation and bizarre animal hybrids floating through the air, Folman treats us to a dizzying array of doppelgängers: Picasso (as a Picasso), Beyoncé, Frida Kahlo, Muhammed Ali, Primo Levi, Hitler, Osiris, Buddha, Ganesh, two Jesus Christs (bleeding hearts on full display), and a phalanx of three identical Rebel Robot Robins, now in animated form. The game is both fun and terrifying. Everyone is beautiful, sensual, art in the age of chemically induced reproduction. And yet, as Dylan confesses, very few people choose to have children anymore. A skyscraper flies away with a pair of delicate fruitfly wings. And for once it seems possible to truly be, as promised, forever young.

How could such a world not inevitably compel? As Robin and Dylan soar over the cartoonified landscape thanks to a chemical compound that transforms their arms into wings, Robin Wright herself croons “Forever Young” in the soundtrack, a dizzying blend of extradiegetic and diegetic motivations since one naturally wonders whether this cover is intended to be one of the uses to which Miramount Nagasaki put its own Robin Wright. Through the agency of a gaseous cocktail, miracles are possible, so long as they take place in the idiom of ToonTown (again, one wonders if this is not merely Robin Wright’s preferred animated aesthetic, a totalizing extension of what “cartoon” means to her). You could really look young forever, if you wanted to. You could look like whoever you wanted to. Whatever you wanted to. And therein lies the rub. Because what Robin Wright wants most out of this world is to find her son again, and that proves a somewhat difficult trick in a world where anyone could be anything (are the birds, the airplanes, the plants we’re looking at possible persons?). Dylan manages to scare up a genetic blueprint for Aaron, but it isn’t even clear if he has managed to cross over into the animated world. Oh, didn’t we mention? At some point, you had to make a choice. Or at least something that sorta kinda resembled a choice.

Folman’s anti-capitalist logic comes full circle as the language of choice returns with a vengeance. In a movie already stuffed with offers one can’t refuse, with the accusation of bad choices, with the promise of Free Choice, Aaron’s anomalousness at last exposes the entire artificial apparatus as the nightmare it may very well be. What kind of a life is possible for those who elect not to, as they say, “join the chemical party”? Though there is more than a whiff of The Matrix around the third act, Folman stages the exposure of the real world in an absolute gutpunch of a scene. Seated at a dinner table in an opulently gilt dining room, watching a lobster unshell itself before slicing itself up into convenient discs, Robin announces her intention to try and leave. Given his condition, Aaron must be on the other side, and that’s why he cannot be found. Dylan expresses hesitation before revealing how he might help her, offering her a “whiteout” “like the cyanide capsules the Nazis had,” a chemical eraser that he had to fight for from Miramount as a parting gift when they shut down the animation division. As Robin prepares to swallow the pill, Dylan reminds her that they may not be able to find each other again, should she decide to come back. More alarmingly, he makes her promise not to look at his real body, highlighting the disjuncture between his animated avatar and a somehow shameful, or at least less sexy, flesh-and-blood man. Robin consents and begins to walk down a corridor, the animation slowly desaturating to sepia before – click – there they are.

Cue a devastating track from Max Richter as we greet humanity: shambling, shabbily dressed, emaciated, impoverished, universally surveilled by agents of a Miramount Nagasaki-branded private police force, in reality entirely degraded to a pre-apocalyptic (but only just) level of abjection that the chemical party has completely obscured. The bodies Robin encounters are rooted in place, uniformly zonked, neither moving nor acknowledging the presence of other people and yet somehow likely participating in fantasies of interconnection and sociality at a pheromonal level. How much, we wonder with Robin, of what we have seen in this third act has even happened? Is Dylan even still alive? Did she actually walk through New York City, given that the freeway signs in the “real world” are all still L.A.-based? Does everyone see the same style of animation that Robin’s subconscious seems to favor, or is someone else Mickey Mouse-ing, manga-ing, Matisse-ing?

Seeking out Dr. Barker, one of a cadre of doctors and elites who remain available to treat the barely living in a series of airships, Robin discovers that of course Aaron left the real world, though he waited around for twenty years before doing so. Lacking the vision and hearing that would make the world potentially bearable, Aaron fled into a world that promised to let him merely dream, entirely substitute sensation for perception. The movie ends with an ambitious and ambiguous application of the chemical sublime, as Barker fixes Robin an ampoule that allows her to experience, from the first-person perspective, her son’s entire life, culminating in her confrontation with a second Aaron who may or may not even be real. “You make a choice,” as Dylan said, “and you feel what you want to feel.”

Make no mistake: the production is indulgent, bloated, brimming with dissatisfaction and a kind of petulance about the circumstances of its own production that, like any decadent thing, it can be a little hard to stomach. At its worst moments, it feels like a clunky knockoff of Black Mirror. But taken as an experiment in form and genre-bending, as an anti-capitalist and quasi-feminist screed, and as an indictment of The Way We Stream Now, Robin Wright at the Congress already seems eerily prescient just five years after its original release. (Indeed, based on this interview, Folman was surprised to find that full-body scanning apparatus already existed when he was location scouting for the movie, and Wright herself has already been digitized for roles.) Rather than fault Folman for his ambition, as critics were wont to do in the year or so after its debut at Cannes, we should laud the movie’s sheer bravura. In the space between 2013 and now, Amazon has become a major entertainment studio with significant clout. The same company is threatening to become a general purpose conglomerate, the Company of Everything, with recent inroads into foodways, security, and healthcare that necessitate conversations with Big Pharma.

While I don’t think film-as-drug is necessarily the trajectory we’re on, Folman’s film asks, in its daffy and daft way, poignant questions about the future of entertainment under capitalism – given how much money is already being spent trying to read our minds, it would be far easier to let our minds simply produce the most self-satisfying objects with minimal input. Like the best movies about The Movies, Robin Wright at the Congress indulges cinephiles even as it questions the ethical implications of our investment in recognizing, even wanting to become, caricatures of a Hollywood Who’s Who. In having movies on the brain, in the state of always-available content that defines the entertainment industry in the second decade of the twenty-first century, what kind of future have we exposed ourselves to? And can a film really serve as an inoculation against the filmification of life itself?

Next week, another head-trip: Annihilation (2018).

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