The Congress, directed by Ari Folman, and starring Robin Wright as a sci-fi version of herself, knocked the wind out of me. It set off a series of echoing reverberations in my mind that are still going on, days after I first saw it. If I had seen The Congress in time, I would have included it in my Favorite Films of 2014 list. I had missed it on its original release, for no real reason. My friend Dan Callahan, whose opinion I trust, wrote some words on it on Facebook, speaking of how moving he found it, of how emotional the experience was. Here is some of what he wrote:
The negative reviews complained that the second, mainly animated half was “muddled.” Where they see muddle, I see an expansive richness of ideas. There is nothing obvious here. It’s a film about life and death, no less. I was unprepared for how emotional it is, particularly the scene where Wright’s agent, played by Harvey Keitel, talks her through the process of getting scanned for later use by movie studios. It really killed me, as did the ending. And Wright is magnificent, so game and so touchingly stoic. Made in 2013, released in 2014, it caused barely a ripple. But I think this might be a movie for all time.
I saw no “muddle” either. I saw a film that had the courage of its convictions, that was really about something, and was willing to follow that “something” wherever it led, however extraordinary, however strange. When Robin Wright becomes her animated 2-D self, at first it felt like a tangent, or a trick or gimmick, and that we needed to “get back” to the “real thing” of the opening sequences. But that was part of the message of the movie: The animation is no tangent. That animated world WAS the world, at least the only part of it that mattered. And it was suggestive of disorientation and fantasy and escape and loss: Ultimately, there was nothing to “get back to.”
Despite the many layers and depths and convolutions of the plot, the thrust of the story, its themes and concerns, was always in the foreground, prioritized, underlined, from first shot to last. The Congress requires submission, that’s for sure: Folman’s is a very strong vision, operating with its own rules and its own architecture (sometimes obvious, sometimes submerged, but still there), and its rules make demands on the audience. It is a challenging piece of work, sometimes alienating, other times emotional with a raw-ness that caught my breath in my throat.
It’s been a very strong year for women in movies (don’t let the awards-season gripings throw you off the scent). Like The Clouds of Sils Maria, another of my favorite movies last year, The Congress looks at the position of women in show business, especially women past the first bloom of youth. Forget the 80-year-old biddies: there will always be work for them (basically because they are the last ones standing in their peer group). It’s those in the middle of life, the late 30s and 40s and early 50s … the blackout period for most actresses … these are the women that nobody wants to deal with, that nobody wants to even see. There is a creep of invisibility around them, an enforced invisibility, a cultural diminishment. Part of that diminishment is the natural process of life and aging: You lose the glamour and ease of youth, but you gain in wisdom and power. And yet in a culture that worships youth, a woman developing crow’s feet or gaining a couple of pounds is destabilizing to our fantasies of what life should be like, what women should be like, what aging should look like. What is natural (aging) is seen as a betrayal. It is also a reminder that we all have to go at one point or another, and who wants to be reminded of that? Women’s bodies have always been on the frontiers of that argument since women’s bodies’ main job is to inspire lust and desire. Once that stops, the culture has no more use for them.
That’s what The Congress is about, and yet it’s told in such an innovative and, frankly, bizarre way, that it actually opens up new avenues of thought about these tired old topics. It seems to provide something new to the conversation. And on an even deeper level than that, The Congress is about the movies themselves, what they provide, and how we take them for granted. It imagines a world where the movies, as we know them, no longer exist. The experience of storytelling has been fractured, spread-out, moving images floating by on the sides of Zeppelins, no different from an advertisement or a billboard. And in disconnecting the movies from a real-life audience, and in disconnecting the world of Story from anything grounded in reality, the human race itself loses its way. We (as in humans) first knew who “we” were when we painted woolly mammoths or whatever on the walls of caves, as a way to commemorate, share, TELL. The impulse was, “Here is what I saw. Here is what it was like for me. Maybe you’ll get something out of it, too.” The removal of that impulse removes the humanity from the human race.
I mean, honestly, that’s what The Congress is about. Heavy, right? Yes. It is extremely heavy. It’s an earned heaviness, completely un-didactic in its execution, a strange and phantasmagorical imagined world, gripping visually and often quite funny, that erupts all kinds of chaos in the mind of at least this viewer. Perhaps that is why it is seen as “muddled.” But the world presented is so fantastical, on purpose, our lives as humans so completely altered, our third dimension removed so that we operate completely in 2D flatness, where everything is possible, there are no more limitations on us, that there is no way back, no way out. The path behind us has been covered over. For good.
In The Congress, Robin Wright plays herself. She is an actress in her 40s. She can’t find work. Her agent (Harvey Keitel) is starting to get frustrated with her, and trying to get her to take responsibility for her own “poor choices” over the course of her career. She had it all, she had Hollywood begging for more, she was “the princess bride”, for God’s sake, and then what happened? She turned down more roles than she accepted, she had consuming relationships with men that took her eye off the ball, she took time off to raise her kids … I mean, what the HELL, Robin, how am I supposed to do anything with that? He’s hard on her, but it’s only because her career looks to him like a giant missed opportunity.
She has tense meetings with the head of Miramount Studios (a gloriously condescending and sleazy Danny Huston). As she goes into the meeting, she is drawn to the posters of her old movies lining the walls, a testament to her career, but more a reminder of how once she was young, and now she is not. There is a poster of The Princess Bride, and Robin Wright stares at her younger self, for a long long time. The bottom falls out of the movie. And this is in the first 10 minutes.
There are clues that although this is Robin Wright playing someone called “Robin Wright” the world depicted is … not quite our world. There’s been some kind of “war” that has altered our lives completely. She lives in an abandoned hangar in the middle of a desert with her two kids. Beyond a fence out back is an airfield, enormous jets parked in the sand. Soldiers with guns appear from out of nowhere if that fence (and the air above it) is breached in any way. Her son, who is slowly going deaf, is treated by a kindly doctor (Paul Giamatti), a friend of Robin’s. Robin’s son flies kites in the blasting wind, and there are colored flags hung up everywhere in the surrounding desert, billowing and whipping in the wind. It’s recognizably a place on earth, but it looks strange, different. The old world is dying. Robin Wright, at 46 years old, is on the cusp. Her old self is dying, and Hollywood has no interest in her anymore.
In The Congress, we learn that there has been developed a new technology where an actor is “scanned,” all of her genetic material and emotional apparatus captured, so that she – as her younger more preferable self- can continue to make movies, albeit she will be completely computer-generated. But Miramount offers Robin Wright a lucrative contract, an offer she feels she cannot refuse, especially with a sick son and the war. Sign away her Self, and go into forced retirement (accept invisibility, in other words.) Her computer-generated Self will still be on the movie screens of the land, and her Name will live forever.
The “scanning” scene, where Robin Wright, in a white leotard, steps into a gigantic dome, surrounded by technicians, is extraordinary. She is asked to laugh, to show thoughtfulness, to “go blank,” to go through all of these emotions so that the computers can accurately pick up what her face does, who she is in those moments. She freezes up, though. Nothing comes naturally. It is such an artificial environment, and there is also the sadness that she – the living breathing human actress – is no longer needed. They are in the process of stealing her essence, her pulsing humanity, in order to replicate it. But she signed the contract. Her time in the dome, then, becomes just another acting job.
But how to “get it up” when you are not in the mood at all? How to laugh with vivacious joy when you feel no joy whatsoever? It seems impossible.
Well, that is the magic of acting, isn’t it? That is the craft and talent required to appear alive and in the moment onscreen. The Congress suggests, in its subversive way, that what actors bring to the role cannot be measured, and it is a pearl beyond price. And when we move away from stories with living breathing humans, we move away from what is human in us. There is an irony in all of this, of course, because the second half of the film is entirely animated. But the real heavy lifting has been done in the opening sequences, particularly the scene in the dome.
As Robin Wright freezes up, as she is unable to muster a joyful laugh in that circumstance, Harvey Keitel, her agent and friend, up in the booth, takes over, thinking he can help. And help he does. He speaks to her intimately and kindly, telling her a story from his own life, of how he got into show business. Harvey Keitel works a lot. He’s in a lot of bad movies, he’s in some good movies. Here, in this scene, is a reminder of what makes him him, of what makes him such a special character actor. Character actors play “support staff” (I wrote about that explicitly in my piece on Edward Herrmann), and character actors are there to prop up/reinforce/help the stars do what they need to do. Without a good surrounding cast of character actors, the stars often are not able to shine as brightly as they should. The scene with Harvey Keitel talking Robin Wright into a state of openness and freedom could be seen as a metaphor for the job of the character actor. The one who keeps the cool head, who creates the environment in which the star can operate.
It is also a gorgeous example of the acting process and how it works, Harvey Keitel as acting coach. There is a lot of confusion about acting, and a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually IS. It’s frustrating to see, especially in people who spend the majority of their time writing about movies. I’ve always been actor-focused. It was my first “way in” to the movies, and it remains so. And so what I see in this extraordinary scene is a vibrant metaphor for how actors find their way into the truth of the fictional moment. It is mysterious, and one size will not fit all. In this particular instance, Harvey Keitel’s humorously told story about growing up in the Bronx and finding his way into show business, is so intimate and so compelling that Robin Wright relaxes completely into a state of listening. Listening is openness and accessibility: if you are listening then everything is possible. Her laughter, when it comes, is beautifully free and unselfconscious, her moments of deep thought as she considers the ramifications of the story, her “Yes” response to what he suggests … THAT’S acting. I’ve racked my brains for a clearer example of the acting process, and while there are a few that come to mind (Naomi Watts’ audition in Mulholland Drive, the entirety of Opening Night, Bette Davis’ bad vain audition in The Star, Maggie Cheung re-creating Ruan Ling Yu’s naturalistic process in Center Stage, much of the television series Slings and Arrows, a couple more, seriously there aren’t many) this dome scene is one of the clearest I’ve seen. That’s it, I thought, that’s how that magical transference occurs, from nothing-ness to activation, from fear to expression, where the blend occurs, where the real moment becomes the fictional moment, and there is no more border to cross, no frontier to break through. It’s all the same thing.
Once she has been scanned, it is time for Robin Wright – the human – to vanish. Her services are no longer needed.
The next time we see her it is 20 years later, and she, the real woman, has been invited by Miramount Studios to a Futurist Congress that takes place in a “restricted animated zone.” You are given a vial of pink liquid, you sniff it up your nose, and voila, you are a cartoon version of your self, perambulating through the Congress of animated wonder. It is a celebration, it is a back-patting Yay For What We Have Created meeting, it is a symposium of the awesomeness of technology that allows us to morph, blend, be whatever we want to be. The elderly cartoon Robin Wright strolls through the Congress, overwhelmed by what she sees, and the animation is so hilarious, so all-encompassing, that it is like watching a history of animation unfurling all in one spot. It’s like the sketchbooks of R. Crumb and Chuck Jones and Walt Disney came to life and are all hanging out in the same restaurant. The faces are diverse, there are parodies, and recognizable figures, futuristic robots and femme-bots, there are non-famous figures, floozies and fat guys and every other body type under the sun, realistic and fantastic. There goes Elvis, for example (I kept my eye out for him from the get-go. I knew he would show up!)
Robin Wright is there as a guest. But it is expected that she will not ruin the party by insisting that she is the real Robin Wright, that that little frail elderly woman has anything to do with the gorgeous “Robin Wright” projected out into the air in her various movie franchises, where she remains intimidatingly gorgeous and young. We see clips from some of those movies. They are fantastic, including an awesome homage to Dr. Strangelove.
We see clips of the “fake” Robin Wright on the red carpet, babbling about why she did such-and-such a movie, her comments inane and ingratiating, and the “real” Robin Wright (who is actually a cartoon) stares at her “self”, baffled: It looks just like her, but look at what they have done to her, look at what they have made her into.
The whole thing is insanely innovative, tremendously disturbing, and keeps looping back on itself, repetitively, obsessively, each time deepening the confusion. What the hell is real? Is there a real Robin Wright, out there in the world? Or do those questions even matter anymore? If everyone on the planet has accepted that becoming a constantly fluctuating animated creature IS reality, then wondering how to ‘get back’ to the Actual becomes almost an intellectual argument, a theory only.
She runs into an unshaven hottie with sad eyes during her time at the Congress (voiced by Jon Hamm), and it turns out that back in the “real world”, he was an animator, and his only job for 20 years was animating Robin Wright. He knows “her” intimately, his entire life has been devoted to her, he is in love with her, as an artist is in love with his muse. He understands the animated world and how it operates better than she does, so he acts as a tour guide. He is a breath of human-ness in all that nonsensical fantasy-world of escape, and the two pair up. But throughout you are reminded that what you are seeing is in constant flux, that perhaps he is not real, she is not real, nothing is real.
At certain points during all of this, I found myself becoming restless, uneasy, wanting the movie to “get back” to what it was doing in the beginning. It was a process for me, settling down into what the movie wanted to do, as opposed to what I wanted it to do. As Robin Wright’s time at the Congress goes on and on, as the world becomes more and more fluctuating and unstable, as violence erupts, as reminders of her set place in that world come up at every turn, I relaxed into it. I let go and submitted to the story. Every story requires submitting to it to some degree, and often I don’t mention the inner process of submission because it’s not a struggle a lot of the time. A story starts, it’s well-told, I fly out of myself and into it, two hours later I return to my life and that’s the end.
But here I was noticing my own reactions throughout. I was asking myself questions, obsessively. “Why are you restless? Why do you want to fast-forward? What is going on here that you might not want to face?” That’s how strong Folman’s vision is. I could tell, I could sense, that this movie wanted something from me, and I resisted. Hard.
Often that feeling you get that a movie wants something from you means that it is trying to manipulate you, through schmaltz or cheese-ball music or playing on your heartstrings. In those cases, I think it is right to resist. No, movie. You will not make me cry, you manipulative piece of garbage, I see what you’re up to, I see those puppet strings, you lazy movie! I resist! It is a moral obligation!
But here, I sensed that my resistance was about something else. Once I submitted (and it happened about 20 minutes into the animated part of the film), all kinds of fascinating stuff started going on. The movie was challenging and difficult, confusing and maddening, it made me tremendously sad, it frightened me to death, it enacted a sense of empathy and caring so huge that it shocked my normally cranky attitude, it also – on a more distant level – filled me with admiration for Folman and his vision, and also made me fall in love with Robin Wright for submitting herself to this story and its very brutal brand of truth.
When the ending came, I was left flattened as a pancake. I couldn’t breathe. I was devastated. There had been a release of emotion, but without the comfort of catharsis.
Granted, I only saw it last week, and the effects of it have not worn off, and so I will revisit it dutifully once the dust has cleared, but from where I am standing right now, in the immediate aftermath, The Congress feels tremendous.