The Congress (2014); directed by Ari Folman

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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36 Responses to The Congress (2014); directed by Ari Folman

  1. stevie says:

    Wow! I am really excited to see this movie. What a fascinating idea, fascinatingly told. I think I felt that sense of submission to a movie with Under The Skin (another great O’Malley recommendation). Thank you darling! You enrich me; you’re the cream in my coffee. XXX love Stevie

    • sheila says:

      // I think I felt that sense of submission to a movie with Under The Skin //

      Stevie, yes!! it had a similar “come with us or forever be left behind” mood and drive – submission is required.

      Can’t wait to hear what you think of this one.

      You enrich me too, friend. xoxo

  2. sheila says:

    I can’t get it out of my head and I really want to talk about it with someone else! No pressure though. :)

  3. stevie says:

    Alex on the Golden globes stage! I have died and gone to heaven. Tears streaming down my face, I’m so happy for her.

  4. sheila says:

    I know!!!!! Crying.

  5. sheila says:

    Good things happening to a great person. Sonetimes life works out!!

  6. mutecypher says:

    I watched it. I can see why you want someone to talk with about it. Al the agent, what an incredible character. That whole opening, “choices, choices, choices”, and Al complaining about how much Robin’s choices had hurt him. “I’m going to come over to your hangar/home and complain about how much money I could have made off you if you’d only lived your life on my terms.” He was on a real bitch-jag. Robin had even made a lousy choice of mothers, I loved that. Then later he comes to her home with the scanner contract genius lawyer and bitches her out in front of her children about how “everything they say about you is true” if she doesn’t sign the contract. What a guy! That made me question whether his story to Robin when she was being scanned wasn’t just some manipulative scam to help him get a payday off her. And her certainly hinted around that as his story went on.

    I like how he tried to sell the notion that signing the contract gave her true freedom, as though freedom was equivalent to a lack of responsibility. That was certainly a question that the movie wrestled with all the way through: how is freedom different from irresponsibility? Can you really hallucinate your way to freedom?

    Her daughter Sarah was also a piece of work. I thought there was a lot of hostility in the “you could be in a holocaust movie and be a Nazi or a victim or a collaborator” exchange, she wasn’t really trying to make Mom feel like she had a lot of range. Caring for Aaron seemed the only thing in Robin’s life that gave her satisfaction – though we only get to see her act for a short period as she’s being scanned, so whatever satisfaction she gets from that is something we have to infer from her vehemence in wanting to make choices about roles.

    I didn’t know anything about Aaron’s illness, Usher’s Syndrome, while I was watching the movie. I looked it up and learned that it’s inherited. I don’t know if there was an element of guilt in Robin’s care for him, but since the syndrome is carried in a recessive gene both parents need to have it for the child to develop the syndrome. That could certainly give her guilt and add to her anxiety and fear (another word used over and over). I liked Aaron’s character, that he had things he loved even as his hearing and eyesight deteriorated.

    I wanted to ask about Harvey Keitel, especially the scanning scene. So often he sounds as if he is reciting his lines from memory. I don’t know if it’s his clear diction (which I wish was more common), or a strategy/technique. But somehow it becomes more affecting the longer he speaks. Perhaps his inflection is subtle and with longer dialogue he is able to create/play the audience’s emotions. I hope I’m making sense in what I’m saying. If so, can you shed some light on what he’s doing and how he accomplishes it? I think that if the guy were to do Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” that everyone in the theater would get up and follow him to hell in despair. And yet he can sound like he’s reading a grocery list.

    I don’t know how much Robin believed his story as she was being scanned, I wasn’t sure if she just used it as something to react against. A kid with a tail? And a neighborhood of freaks and cripples that could be exploited? This was supposed to make her trust him, and not be revolted at the implied comparison? And yet I was sold on his guilt and remorse at the end. Maybe he should have been scanned also.

    Without referencing him in particular, the movie addresses the fact that actors do create pearls of great price. Dylan has to go find the Real Robin to act as his muse, he needs something from her that he can’t get from the scan. Speaking of Dylan, I liked the bittersweet irony of Bob’s “Forever Young.” How is it a positive wish, if it only points out that staying young is impossible in the real world? You get old, or you die. Is it meant as a taunt in the real world, or is it a celebration of possibilities when you’re a cartoon who can be a cartoon version of anyone else? I would have welcomed his “I Shall Be Released” at the fadeout.

    I liked how the film posited that everyone (except Miramount, god, not Miramount) was being replaced. Christopher the cinematographer felt fortunate to still be working with lights and actors, by scanning people. And then later, all the drug-addicted writers and character-obsessed animators were going to be replaced with a chemical formula – and audience choice!

    Jeff Green, another great character (and even worse person). I enjoyed his comment about wanting to put Robin’s face into the Read Window poster: replace a real princess with an actress version. I really enjoyed Robin’s interactions with him, every time. I think his character was the choice-killer that Robin felt most compelled to fight,”what if I want to play Keith Richard?”

    Man, at this point I’m running out of gas. It’s after midnight and I haven’t even gotten to the animated section – which I didn’t fidget through at all. I really want to talk about that with you, but let’s do it tomorrow.

    This was a completely engaging movie, with lots of weight, lots of space to ruminate on choice, freedom, integrity, death, love. No easy closure. I want to talk about Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick. And how “Congress” at one point made me think of sexual congress (not during the sex scene) and how maybe the movie was “You’re Fucked, Robin Wright (and actors and creators in general).” Let’s pick it up later.

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher – Yay, you saw it!

      I loved the cinematographer moment, too – it really drove home what had been lost, what had been erased from the world.

      I’m not sure in re: Harvey Keitel. Sometimes I find him to be very bad. His talent is limited, and is set free in very limited circumstances. He’s not great with language. Or – he’s great with language in a very small circle of expression. Put him on the streets of New York and he feels organic, part of it. Take him out of that context, and he sometimes seems lost or awkward. One of the best things he does, though, is he does not lie. If he feels out of place or awkward, he doesn’t try to pretend that he ISN’T awkward. He just IS where he IS.

      I can’t tell you how rare that is.

      I loved the son too! And the gentleness of her ministrations in the hangar with the candle, their nightly ritual. It was pre-modern, practically. The Congress was finished in 2013, and released in 2014 – so that actor has moved on in those two years to have a really really busy career. He was in this movie I really liked called The Birder’s Guide to Everything (review here) – he was the lead. He has a really interesting face. I like him a lot.

      You seem to have had a much more negative reaction to Keitel’s character than I did. I saw him as a realistic practical guy who was trying to protect his client and act in her best interests. It was a relationship that spanned decades. They know each other well. They don’t need to stand on ceremony. She relies on him to tell her the truth, and she then gets to make up her own mind – the relationship is secure, it’s not careful, it’s not polite. This is show business we’re talking about.

      I think I found the story he told her in the dome funnier than you did. Show business is still one step away from the carnival freak-show, from the variety show and vaudeville. The agent is part of that tradition, a tradition that is also on the way out, vanishing completely into the muddied world of animation. But he recognized early that that which was different about someone could also be the thing that made them money – which is basically what stars are all about. They’re not like other people. They’re as different from other people as if they had a tail emerging from their back. It’s just a matter of degrees. Robin Wright in the movie had operated in a rarefied world of glory and stardom and potential – and in her agent’s eyes, she made poor choices. It is his JOB to tell her the truth like that. She can still go on and make those choices – but if his job is to keep her solvent, keep her working, present her with the best options – then she relies on him to live in that space of truth with her.

      And if you see that dome scene as an acting coach scene: then yes, much of what an acting coach does is extremely manipulative. There’s someone like Elia Kazan, who would pull actors aside during rehearsals and speak to them privately – make them keep secrets – pit them against each other – so that when they came to the scene they were full of those manipulative playground whispers. And dynamite acting was the result. There are other directors who go after an actor’s weakest spots – knowing that if they are pushed enough they will crack, and be brilliant onscreen. Sometimes manipulation is necessary – and actors understand that better than anyone. You rely on the coach who can whisper something totally simple in your ear – something that will un-block you – even if it’s so personal that it wouldn’t be appropriate to say in public, but you need that.

      // I wasn’t sure if she just used it as something to react against. //

      She listened openly AND she “used it” – That’s what I meant about the magic of acting. There isn’t a clear line between real and fake in the best kind of acting. she knew that she needed to come to life – somehow – and her imagination had dried up and she knew that the story he was telling was a way to help her do that. As an actor, she would have understood that he was being very personal as WELL as giving her something to react against. She would be extremely grateful for the help, because she couldn’t get there on her own. He wasn’t tricking her – it was part of the acting process. That’s what often has to happen and a good coach knows his student so well that he knows exactly what will work to unlock her. It requires getting personal – on both sides.

      If you’ve been in an acting class, you have been manipulated like that, and you are thankful for it. I also loved how much HE was swept away by it, the magic of his memory and story – how those things work together and somehow meld to create a third thing – which is art.

      Also, in the reality of the movie: being scanned WAS her only option. She finally realized that, and she made her own choice. She wasn’t manipulated into it. She had mixed feelings about the choice, but it was her choice.

      // Is it meant as a taunt in the real world, or is it a celebration of possibilities when you’re a cartoon who can be a cartoon version of anyone else? //

      I know!! The “celebration of possibilities” looked TOTALLY alienating to me. I was especially frightened by Paul Giamatti’s revelation that on that “other side” you could never track down your son – he would be lost forever. So that which is singular about us, even our DNA, has been melded into some group hallucination. Ew.

      I LOVED the sex scene. I didn’t even reference it, but thought it was amazing. I thought of “congress” in that respect too.

      I felt there was hope in the daughter – who was an independent cranky spirit – practical – the Holocaust was perhaps a cynical comment, but certainly realistic and practical – and that the daughter was apparently still “out there” – she still gives birth naturally? I think I remember a line like that. Maybe she’ll make it.

      The Holocaust line reminded me of Kate Winslet’s episode of Ricky Gervais’ Extras, where she – the real Kate Winslet – is filming a movie where she plays a nun hiding a bunch of Jews in her convent. When the camera stops rolling, she lights up a cigarette (in full habit). Gervais the extra, in his Nazi uniform, approaches her sycophantishly, “Hello, Miss Winslet …” telling her how much he admires her, how he thinks it’s so great she’s taking on such an important topic as the Holocaust. Winslet, smoking, in her habit, rolls her eyes. “I’m only doing it for the Oscar. I’ve been nominated 4 times. Four fucking times. No Oscar. Everyone knows you get an Oscar if you do a Holocaust movie.”

      (Hilariously, Winslet finally won her Oscar the following year for a Holocaust film. Oh, Ricky Gervais. You kill me.)

      Anyway, love that you rushed out and saw it right away. Please come back to discuss!

    • sheila says:

      To give an example from my own life of how a trusted coach was “allowed” to speak to me in order to jump-start me into the reality of the acting scene: I was working on Alma in Summer and Smoke, and I felt all bottled-up and unexpressed. I couldn’t get there. That is partly because the character is so repressed – but I’m not going to let myself off the hook. I was resisting, I couldn’t come alive, I couldn’t get there.

      This was in an acting class environment – with Sam Schacht – one of my acting teachers, a real mentor, he is still in my life, someone who “got’ me, who was invested in my talent, invested in me. He could say anything to me. When we were in the space of work – all bets were off. So he could feel how bottled up I was – of course – and it was the scene where Alma declares her love for John at the end of the play. She has a line, classic Tennessee Williams, who could be the clearest playwright on the planet: “I have loved you all the days of my life.”

      I just .. couldn’t get to the moment. Something was missing. I was making it sentimental. I didn’t MEAN to, but I was. Something in the line was drawing me towards a sentimental commenting-on-itself as opposed to the real organic matter of it. A subtle difference – but it’s the difference between being alive onstage and being dead.

      Sam came up, stood between me and my scene partner, and whispered in my ear, “Say that line from your cunt.”

      Boom. All resistance vanished. I knew exactly what he meant, I knew then exactly what I had been resisting, I knew what I needed to do, and in the next moment, that’s what I did.

      In that space of truth, anything can (and should) be said. The pursuit is that important to those who pursue it. And he could see that that sexual element was the element I was resisting. The sex part of the play is super important – it’s really (in many ways) what the play is about. and how sex IS love – and how fire IS ice (John says to Alma that he thought of her as ice, gleaming and chilly, but then he realized that all along it had been fire – beautiful). I was embarrassed for sure – are we talking about my vagina in an acting class? – but so was Alma embarrassed. It all became the same thing – my embarrassment, hers – her passion, mine – her loneliness, mine … it’s the blend you yearn for, the blend you work towards.

      This wasn’t for a production – it was just something we worked on in his class. But if it had gone into a production, I would have remembered that comment from him – if ever I got lost again, if ever I found myself resisting again. That’s what it needed.

      Now Sam couldn’t have said that to an actress he didn’t know, probably. And maybe another person would have totally shut DOWN at a comment like that, as opposed to coming to life. But he could say that to me because he knew me, he knew what made me tick, he knew about my whole sex thing since we had referenced it in our working together, and he could tell I needed that little nudge. Go THERE. That’s what you’re not getting.

      So that’s what I saw in Keitel offering up his story to her – and her acceptance of it.

      • sheila says:

        Writing about acting process from the inside tends to sound squicky and self-indulgent which is why I rarely do it – but figured that story would be okay to share since it’s related.

  7. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Sheila

    Oh I have to see this! I ran down to see if I could rent it, I guess it’s probably not out anyway, and the only video store within miles of me is now closed up. So besides TCM and my old collection I have to get with this century and get something to watch this and more! It sounds really intriguing!

    • sheila says:

      Regina – yes, like I told you I almost felt like emailing you in the middle of it – part of that uneasy restless “is this thing over yet?” feeling I got. Ha!!

      It’s really intense but it really GETS acting in a way that is … unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

      Look forward to hearing what you think!! I’m very glad my own friends pushed me to see it, just by writing about it so passionately. For some reason it just was not on my radar otherwise.

  8. mutecypher says:

    Sheila –

    I don’t want to disown my reaction to Al (and I know you’re not suggesting that) but I do want to elaborate. I understood while watching it that he was helping Robin reach the goal of a good scan. He was helping her get to the place she needed to go; and that it was both necessary and kind, as well as being a rare thing to see in a movie. My reaction was more to his earlier actions. To me, saying something as harsh as “everything they say about you is true” to a person in front of their children is completely unacceptable. You can be harsh to someone when you are within the sphere of work, but speaking like that to a parent in front of her children is just wrong.

    That shocking behavior guided my reaction to Al and was in the forefront of my thinking when I sat down to write – less than an hour after having finished the film. It made me suspect everything he did afterwards as I was watching.

    I have to confess that I have a strong aversion to being coached/manipulated. I was more of a basketball and track person, but I played organized football in 7th grade and my sophomore year in college. I intellectually know that most coaches are not abusive, insulting, manipulative, uncaring asshats – but that was certainly my experience in those cases and so that colors my initial reaction to any sort of manipulation, even if it is well-intentioned. We don’t leave our lives behind when we watch.

    Where you see a rare and wonderful example of coaching an actor and helping her reach real emotions, I have to work past my sense of outrage at a person being exploited. I understand that it is necessary sometimes. And I can easily see how exciting and gratifying the scene was for you, how it connects with good experiences you’ve had and breakthroughs in performance. I just need a while to get there. Thanks for helping me through, in a gentle way, with vivid examples!

    As I’ve had time to work past my Al-outrage, I can even re-evalute Sarah’s behavior in the early Nazi/victim/collaborator scene. If Robin is overwhelmed by choice, then she probably needs a lot of prodding to make a choice. The people around her, Al and Sarah in this case, would know that and may even have been given permission by her to whack her upside the head to help her make decisions.

    Choice, choice, choice. Choosing is sacrosanct, but sometimes we choose dross over gold, sometimes we only get to choose between death and hallucinations, sometimes we are Buridan’s Ass – starving because we are halfway between water and hay, unable to decide which to eat first. What a great movie!

    I want to talk more, but I need my morning coffees.

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher – Well I hope you wouldn’t disown your opinion!! :)

      But yeah, I see the whole thing in context of show business, which is a rough business – and a very personal business – it trucks in human emotion, that’s what it’s all about – even her kids are hardened to it – the daughter wisecracks like an old pro – not to mention also the dystopian weird end-of-world feeling about the opening. Things are familiar – but still … rough and weird, there’s not time to be all gentle and polite anymore – things are really ending. So I didn’t care about how he talked to her in front of her kids. At all. That’s the relationship. It’s complex. I thought there were far more serious concerns in all of their lives than the words he chose and the tone he used in front of the kids. What about those jets over there?? And the soldiers swooping into her yard? What the hell happened to the whole world? (I love that we never find out by the way. The war, the disappearance of so many things, the familiarity of the world – or the structure of show business – all of that – gone – it had just kind of happened and everyone’s reeling around in a state of PTSD but none of it is explained.)

      And in terms of being coached: I understand where you’re coming from.

      But I have seen such a moment as the one in the dome in every acting class I have taken, every rehearsal I have been in, it happens in auditions – until it’s practically rote. It’s so rote it’s an accepted part of the job. But it’s never really been SHOWN onscreen- not as clearly as this. Because how do you show it? It’s such a weird strange communication – totally clear to the two people in the middle of it, but impenetrable to those on the outside. And even now: you got something totally different from that scene than I got. I’m not saying you’re wrong – your reaction is your reaction – but I do think that an actor would see this scene and clock it immediately as one of the major parts of their everyday job. It’s extremely well-conceived.

      Actors who don’t “take the coaching,” who can’t take direction (my pal Brooke who is a casting director tells stories about giving a simple piece of direction in an audition and watching the actor literally be unable to do it – like, “Okay, say the line with more energy” or “Let’s try this next take in a more thoughtful way” – easy directions, but some people just can’t do it), who misinterpret direction, or who argue back for their own interpretation, or whatever – people like that are pains in the ass and don’t work a lot. The majority of actors have “coachability” drilled into them from the get-go.

      // have to work past my sense of outrage at a person being exploited. //

      She has chosen it though. She hasn’t been dragged in there against her will. it’s tragic, for sure, and horrible – the whole thing feels like a DEATH – but she made her choice, she decided this was her best option. So yes, she’s being exploited – but she also chose it. (Another metaphor for the life of an actor. Both things are true at the same moment. You choose it, you/your face/your emotions are exploited/used/manipulated. It’s kind of the gig.)

      And now – honestly – I’m sorry I didn’t see it on the big screen during its very short run in New York. That was a real missed opportunity because those animation scenes would probably be overwhelming on a huge screen.

  9. mutecypher says:

    Regina –

    If you’re an Amazon Prime member, The Congress can be streamed for free. It can also be streamed/rented from them. Same from iTunes. I don’t know if those are reasonable options for you. It came out on DVD on Dec. 2, per Rotten Tomatoes.

  10. mutecypher says:

    Sheila, thanks. I’m getting that being an actor is even more different than I thought it was. I appreciate your patient explanations. This helps me dig even more into the theme or issue of choice in the movie. Part of the job is allowing yourself to get coached, placed into the right emotional place. Choosing to do that, and accepting it when it’s needed.

    I’m starting to feel like a little kid complaining that doctors are mean because they stick people with needles.

    I want to talk about the animated portion later. I hope I didn’t misunderstand it as deeply.

    • sheila says:

      // Part of the job is allowing yourself to get coached, placed into the right emotional place. Choosing to do that, and accepting it when it’s needed. //

      Exactly!!

      If you refuse, then you’re not doing your job. Even Marlon Brando allowed himself to be coached. Kazan would say all he would need to do would be to murmur one word at Brando, one word, and Brando would get the whole thing – and walk away from Kazan immediately, to go do his own thing with that word.

      Pretty extraordinary. You need to be both tough-minded (as Robin Wright is in the movie) and suggestible as hell.

      I think her performance was so good – because of the stoic quality that Dan mentions. It’s not a self-pitying performance – her own motivations AREN’T particularly clear, or laid out in a clear way. LOTS of room for projection – which I think is fabulous – and what we’re seeing here in our conversation!

      You felt protective of her – if I can put words in your mouth. I did too. And so the scenes where she wasn’t being protected were enraging! Good stuff!

    • sheila says:

      and I still don’t know what to make of that animated world. I’ll be interested to hear what you thought of it.

  11. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Sheila
    I love that acting class story! I laughed out loud, that’s so great “say that line from your cunt” “are we talking about my vagina in an acting class?” hahaha! And I know what you’re talking about. My husband was directing me in Medea years ago. After a long day rehearsing he was sort of going around the room giving all this love to the chorus and the men and I was waiting for him to get to me and say how great I was. It was hot and my hair was in ponytail and he says in front of everyone, “So what is this Teenage Medea? you better step it up.” I wanted to kill him! I was so furious and embarrassed, but he knew exactly what he was saying to me and I knew it was the truth and those words at that time went right through me, I had to go to another level. Somebody else might not have been able to say that to me and have it work.
    I also liked what you said about Harvey Keitel, that when he is bad he doesn’t lie about it. It is a rare thing!
    Mutecypher – thanks for the tip, but I’m afraid that’s all Chinese to me! I’m so old school. But I think Netflicks would be something I could do. I’d really like to see this!

    • sheila says:

      Regina – I am ROARING at that story about your husband!!

      // and I was waiting for him to get to me and say how great I was. //

      hahahahahaha

      Oh girl I know that feeling.

  12. mutecypher says:

    //He was in this movie I really liked called The Birder’s Guide to Everything (review here) – he was the lead. //

    I haven’t seen that, but I looked him up and I had seen him in Let Me In a few years back. He was excellent as the lonely boy, and that was a very creepy movie! His career is off to a very good start.

    To start in on the animated world…. It surprised me that it wasn’t 3D or didn’t end up 3D, but I think that was so the world was like early animation, with the Max Fleischer and Winsor McCay influences. And Disney and some R. Crumb. So I took the 2D style to indicate the earliness of the technology – at some point in the future, if humanity is still around, they might get to Toy Story-level 3D, and then Avatar-level realism. And I’m sure it was easier on the movie’s budget to do 2D animation. In the contract negotiation scene with Jeff Green, when they were in the real world, I think he commented that everything would be different 20 years in the future (except for Miramount running things), and so one could assume that things would be even more different 20 years after that, and so on. Dylan’s comment to Robin in the post-resurrrection section that Sarah was one of the few people still bringing children into the world made me think there had been some chemical catastrophe like in Children of Men, but nothing was spelled out. And that’s not much of a hint.

    The animation was beautiful, I think that should be said. I’m with you, I wish I had seen it in the theater. The flowers and vines growing out of everything, it was such a rich, lively, organic world. At times it reminded me of a 2D version of the enchanted moors in Maleficent.

    I thought it was odd that a security guard, a single security guard, would hand out the ampoule that animated a person. And later, when the revolt/attack began, it was clear that the security was not enough. The check-in clerk told Robin that 6 other Robins had shown up before her, but they were apparently not Robin enough (an odd remark in an odd movie) – were those Robins attempting sabotage, or were they obsessive fans and wannabes? How did they even get to be “Robins?” Did they have some early bootleg samples of “essence of Robin?” And the people in the lobby of the building, drinking something and momentarily turning into someone else, what was going on with that? It seemed like they were taunting Robin, though I’m not sure. And all the tall, thin red-headed people in blue suits made me think of Conan O’Brien. I don’t know if that was intentional, or if they were meant to just be interchangeable corporate flunkies who inadvertently looked like him.

    What did you think was going on when Robin got to her room and she began to age? Was she being manipulated by Jeff Green or was she just having a nightmare? I lean toward nightmare, but I’m not sure. Fear of aging, justifiably, was a big part of the movie.

    The scene in the auditorium at the Future Congress, I think the assassin must have been a true believer in the cause of revolt. He chose not to shoot Robin when she objected to latest enterprise. I would imagine a contracted assassin would have simply shot the people he was hired to shoot.

    I’m going out of order. To talk about the Jeff Green animated contract extension scenes: were you unsurprised that Tom Cruise was the only other actor who survived? And why was JG’s office down some dingy hallway with handwritten signs leading to it? He’s becoming obsolete, or at least the contract portion of his job. Only two real actors are left. Maybe he gets a big office for corporate police, or maybe he gets fired after things settle down. The animated scene with Jeff, how awful to be “a substance, a chemical formula.” And yet he understands that “the actress has never left” Robin and she came all the way to the hotel just so she could be on stage for a while. And you just know that when he says they are entering an era of “Free Choice,” that it’s some euphemism for stale $12 popcorn and gum on the floor. Or worse, as it turns out.

    We never see Robin actually make a choice in the movie, we only see the aftermath, the consequences. I’m sure that’s deliberate, though I’m not sure of what to take away. Does it let us empathize more with her, keep her sympathetic? I think so, though I also suspect that there’s more implied.

    The Future Congress, yikes. The opening was like some of our corporate-wide meetings at Apple, though I don’t recall quite the god-complex from the person on the stage. Not quite. I’m not sure how much I want to compare the iWatch and the things its supposed to do through its haptic interface to snorting an ampoule and becoming someone else. But the desire to make a comparison just came to me, communicating and gathering information through the skin and pulse, compared to smell and ingesting mind-altering chemicals through that thin membrane. I think we have learned to be wary about auditory and visual stimuli, since we humans mislead each other and create impressions – that’s part of our ancient history as primates and social animals. I don’t think we have any history of being skeptical about touch or smell. Good god, more ruminations inspired by this movie.

    I think I’ll stop here. There’s more to talk about, but I’m still processing it all. Fuck whoever said this was a muddled movie. Isn’t this great?

    • sheila says:

      Oh my God, Tom Cruise. That was soooo funny to me. If there is any movie star today who would be the #1 candidate for scanning in order to ensure the continuation of the industry – it would be Tom Cruise. Julia Roberts would probably be there too. Indestructible movie stars.

      But the animation of Cruise was so hilarious! The sunglasses, the smile, it was psychotic!

      I was trying to figure out who the red-headed speaker at the Congress reminded me of. His face (animated though it was) looked so familiar to me.

      That whole hallucinatory section in her hotel room was freaky and very sad. I still don’t know what to think of it. A disorientation, a sense of loss, looking at herself in the mirror, looking out on the fiery desert that had become the earth. I thought she had been drugged – part of the keep the populace happy kind of thing. Thinking of Paul Giamatti’s line later – something like, “The drugs are so good now” – the technology has become so sophisticated. You can go into that world and never return.

  13. mutecypher says:

    //I was especially frightened by Paul Giamatti’s revelation that on that “other side” you could never track down your son – he would be lost forever. //

    That seems to be the price of Free Choice™. You can’t find anyone, you can’t have a relationship with a real person, you can’t have a history. I don’t understand how that can be true in the real world, the depressing world, but that’s the consequence of entering the Chemical Party. You lose the ability to share an experience with a loved one, with anyone. What a cost.

    The head of Miramount-Nagasaki (who vaguely reminded me of a cross between Elton John and Paul Shaffer – wtf) said that they were entering a world with no frustration. It made me think of Jake The Dog’s comment in Adventure Time

    Jake: You think I can stretch out of everything? You’re so naïve. To live life, you need problems.
    BMO: That’s stupid!
    Jake: If you get everything you want the minute you want it, then what’s the point of livin’?

    A life without adversity, without a fight, without a connection to other people? Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

    And yet, if the world outside is truly terrible, if humanity has gone into Hospice Care – how wrong is it to put a little LSD into the morphine drip? Without a better picture of what’s wrong in the world, it’s hard to make an argument. Temperamentally I’m in the Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night camp, but the ambiguity of the state of the world in the movie makes it hard to really judge the choice. Sarah sounds like she’s in the Rage Against The Dying Of The Light camp.

    When Robin was castigating the scientists for devoting their time to making Free Choice instead of helping cure diseases, do you think there was something implied about the Movie Biz? I’ve heard those criticisms about pharmaceutical companies working on Erectile Dysfunction medications instead of working to cure nasty but obscure diseases that affect “only” a few hundred thousand people world wide. I can see the analogy to that, but not really something in the entertainment business.

    Also, I wondered how she was able to get an image of her son onto the screens for people to see.

    A small moment. When Robin is waking from being frozen post hallucination-poisoning, I got a kick out of the weather caster who looked like Ronald Reagan. I also enjoyed his apology for the lack of symmetry in the rainbows over the previous 2 days – and then his comment that symmetry contradicts art. That made me think of Poe’s “There is no exquisite without some strangeness in the proportion.” Reagan the Aesthete. Miracles and Wonderment.

    Also, she wakes to a nurse who looks like Grace Jones? A 7 foot tall Grace Jones? I guess that’s part of placing her in a comfortable 80’s environment. Not sure I’d be comfortable, though Grace did have a soothing voice. I mostly think of Grace kicking Roger Moore’s butt in one of the James Bond movies – but maybe that’s comforting to Robin. Rebel Robot Robin – I did love her empathy for household robots in the silly PR she watched in her room. “Triple R is documentary.”

    Jumping forward, to her post-resurrection period, after Dylan told her there was no way to find Aaron – I was fascinated that she began to fly once she got the ampoule for level 2 Usher Syndrome. She didn’t become deaf or blind – she flew and seemed happy. The closer she got to Aaron, the happier she became. The thought of finding Aaron is what led her to consciousness when she recovered from the poisoning.

    How much did you trust Dylan? How could he know anything about Sarah, and yet be sure that Aaron was unreachable? How could he be sure that Robin was Robin – why couldn’t someone else have decided that they wanted to be her in a hospital bed? To some extent in this sort of story, you have to trust that there is someone to explain what is going on. But then, do you have to believe his explanation?

    I was intrigued by the trip up to the zeppelin, once Robin took the white-out pill to erase the effects of the Chemical Party. The red kite that powered her trip up in the gondola looked like something that Aaron built. Was that even a real world? Did Aaron’s kite designs become famous?

    And then the final scenes. Did Robin find Aaron by imaging that she was him from birth onward, and go where she thought he would go? Did she merely imagine him imagining her finding him? Is that the closest, most intimate thing she could picture – to be him being with her? Even more than her being with him? It really is a beautiful thought.

    • sheila says:

      I thought Dylan might have been completely constructed in her own mind. That she needed to find someone who “got” her, who would stick by her, and voila, here he is, Mr. Sad-Eyed Scruffy Pants. Once she re-entered the real world, she would never be sure if that was a real memory. If all becomes fantasy, then you have nothing to hold onto.

      And yes, Grace Jones – ha!!

  14. mutecypher says:

    Full Poe quote, ““There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”

  15. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Sheila

    I loved that perfect reaction by Crumb! So honest, hilarious, cutting to the heart of the matter and putting himself on the line too!

    • sheila says:

      Totally – I love how he’s like, “I did it cause they asked me – what, I’m gonna say No?”

      Also – that NO ONE had contacted him for a reaction except for her … crazy. What the hell are journalists DOING these days? I get it – there’s lots to report on in France right now, but, you know, one of the most famous American cartoonists EVER lives in France – seems like a no-brainer of a pitch to me.

      Anyway, loved it and love him (and his wife).

  16. mutecypher says:

    I saw the R. Crumb interview a few days ago. It was disappointing that the article didn’t even have a link to his cartoon, you had to google it. And in looking through it again, there’s still no link.

  17. mutecypher says:

    //I thought Dylan might have been completely constructed in her own mind. //

    I thought a lot about that too. Based on your screen grabs I noticed him before the attack with the hallucinogens – though he did only start speaking to her after the attack. Perhaps his sad eyes caught her attention (a resemblance to Aaron?) and she created a sympathetic listener/explainer from that. Someone who eventually loved her. But he was around before the big discombobulating attack. Ambiguous. Not sure how much I want to hold on to the “resemblance to Aaron” idea given that they had sex…

  18. mutecypher says:

    /I was trying to figure out who the red-headed speaker at the Congress reminded me of. His face (animated though it was) looked so familiar to me.//

    Is it John Lassiter? But with red hair?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lasseter

  19. sheila says:

    No. It’s an actual red-headed person. Not Eric Stoltz, but someone like that. I can see his face in my mind – he’s the spitting image of him. It’ll come to me! Not Bradley Whitford – but that type.

  20. mutecypher says:

    Okay, I’ll stop. ; )

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