This summer saw the widespread US release of World on a Wire, German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s long-lost, made-for-TV epic about artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Time to reflect.
The two-part miniseries, based on Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron-3, stars Klaus Löwitsch as Fred Stiller, the associate inventor of a top-secret machine—the Simulacron—a new supercomputer that has programmed a false world with thousands of conscious identity units, who have begun to trespass into our present sphere. Largely set in the labyrinthine headquarters of Stiller’s Institute for Cybernetics and Future Studies (think Googleplex meets Studio 54), the miniseries’ real star is Fassbinder’s interior design, his camp-noir looking-glass work/live spaces of Seventies excess getting cyberpunk’d by The Matrix-before-The Matrix. A few notes on Fassbinder’s cyber decors:
The auxiliary purpose of Simulacron and its computer-generated parallel worlds is to create a Panopticon-ish realm with funhouse-mirrored facets as plentiful as those of a disco ball. Which is to say, virtual reality’s purpose, here, is to multiply the number of dimensions off of which Fassbinder can snort blow. One cut rail for each ommatidium of this fly’s-eye-view land, and the camera dilates each pupil it encounters into deep, automaton soullessness. Every decorative surface is both a coke mirror and a computer monitor—functionality gone super-über!
Our dystopic hero is forever sulking around lux and lucite conference rooms, spinning himself in office chairs, opening doors within doors within doors, carousel-wandering through moveable shelving units of tape reel, and knocking boots on circular beds. The camera paces with him. When you start to move like an anthropomorphic rolodex, you know the mind, too, is speed-dialing.
Perhaps this is why Fred Stiller never once naps throughout the three-hour epic—he abandons all head and heart in dogged pursuit of existential truthiness, the mystery of which is, in part, an inflated projection of his own dangerous invention. Why can he only accept clues from a hologram of Einstein in drag? Here paranoia and grandiosity dissolve on sci-fi’s sublingual. Here are the body paragraphs of an Adderall-scribed undergrad essay for Baudrillard 101 made manifest in the decor of a television set.
Cubicle tchotchkes and manager’s desk gewgaws—particularly oversized curio vessels and giant crystal-ball paperweights—are the CAPTCHAs of the 70s; they grossly widen and deepen Uncanny Valley, reveal the inauthentic human trying to pose as one. Your boss is a robot; he lost the Turing testwhen his Nerf ball missed the mini-basketball hoop.
When my friends with desk jobs sit around mourning their windowless, super-air-conditioned offices with seizing overhead lamps and infinite carpet topographies, where the only streaming, efflorescent joy is procrastination on Gchat and the blogosphere—this reality is the true sinister at root in Fassbinder. The future is now; you are mindlessly tab-browsing away the 9 to 5 in the glow of its liquid crystal display.
But mourn more because at least Fassbinder’s future had glittery swag. His sets’ prevalent materials: mirrors (duh), glass (duh), but also PlexiGlass, atomic stainless steel, race-car aluminum, geometric linoleum, zebra print, peacock feather, and flokati shag. The materials: mylar walls, wood paneling, Naugahyde bucket seats, LeCorbusier-cream leather, enough Oriental rugs for a harem. The materials: cabaret microphones, spiral-staircase nightclubs. The materials: reflective wet bars, indoor swimming pools. The materials: eye-candy women. How great to nose-candy off the decorative object known as “eye-candy women.”
“As soon as you enter a certain room, you may experience the feeling that you can directly sense its history. Many people attribute such perceptions to imaginary influences with names like ‘intuitions’, ‘spirits’, ‘atmospheres’, and ‘vibrations’. Yet very likely all such perceptions come from inside the mind of those observers, as various mental agencies accomplish clever syntheses from clues derived from features and trajectories…believing in vibrations and ghosts diminishes our capabilities for mental growth by diverting attention from the mind and attributing those abilities to imaginary entities outside ourselves.” — Marvin Minsky, co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence laboratory.
But late in the miniseries we do in fact encounter a spirit, an anachronistic appearance: the near-double of Jacques Renault’s log cabin, complete with its symbolic red curtains and Waldo the bird. When Fassbinder’s answer toDavid Lynch’s parroting Mynah blows up Stiller’s forest lodge in winged cunningness, when his German Laura Palmer transforms into a German Shepard and runs off into a pine glen, we are reminded of the Log Lady—more than computers and their silver, sleek environs, it is “my log [who] has something to tell you.”
Fassbinder has no choice, then, but to make Fleetwood Mac the elevator muzak of this multi-universe office megaplex, which revolves through dimensions like a paternoster does floors. That the track piped in on repeat is the pre-Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie ambience of “Albatross” is no mistake. The only hit the group had before the ladies joined the band, it is a directionless floater of a song, lost without its helmswomen in waves of lucid dreaming, and so too is Fred Stiller inside his Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science: a machine has been set sail with no one at the tiller to steer.
Close the Venetians
Will World on a Wire’s unbelievably romantic ending set both our love-lost Stiller and his unmoored computer on course? If the final scene’s wall-to-wall Venetian blinds are any indication, we’ll never know if the ghost in the machine thinks and feels and loves or if it’s just a veiled projection of us, these slaves to the algorithmic wizard, punching Oz’s clock.