Stardom is a fundamentally contradictory experience for audiences. On the one hand, we can feel like we know a star intimately as a human being, despite the many roles that they play and despite the fact that they do not know us. We carry our past knowledge of the star onto each new project. And every time a star is captured by a camera, a brief record of them is made, in a moment solidified for a seeming eternity. Marlene Dietrich may be long deceased, but in revisiting any close-up fashioned from Josef von Sternberg’s films, she can feel as immediate to us as she was to the cameras eighty years ago.
On the other hand, a star is always both more and less than a human being. Stars are the foundation for an industry of magazines, brand names readily available for peddling products, personalities to be mimicked, fashion icons to aspire to, and economic conditions for a film’s making and marketing. We can experience fleeting moments of intimacy with a star image, but the industry that makes stardom possible continually alienates us from a polished, selectively represented human being before us.
It is through this dual capacity of stardom that stars continue to exist well after the physical lives of the people who embodied them. These inherent tensions between personhood and media are explored in great depth in Ari Folman’s new film The Congress, a film that uses the strange condition of stardom and the technological advancements of the current age to explore where human existence and is possible, or even knowable, in an uncanny landscape of digital representation.
Folman’s film features Robin Wright playing a version of Robin Wright (not credited as playing “Herself,” this choice alone brings up interesting questions of the distance between “person” and “representation” in contemporary stardom) who, faced with a Hollywood unsympathetic to middle-aged women, elects to sign her likeness off to a studio that will represent her in a range of films that “Robin Wright” will appear in but Robin Wright will not actually shoot. Thus, Robin Wright can pursue retirement and family time into obsolescence while her likeness agelessly lives on as a mediated representation.
The film’s second half features Wright entangled in a post-human, animated simulacrum of the “real” world in which she struggles to find her ill son amongst an array of representational fantasies that have no direct referent to their metaphysical counterparts. The Congress is a difficult film that provides no easy answers to its profound questions about the relationship between being and technology, and whether or not it is better to embrace the escapist capacities of media rather than confront a devastating reality. Folman’s film even avoids exposition to explain how the “rules” of the animated world work. However, it stands firmly in its position that technology’s supposed opportunities create interpersonal alienation, that we are evermore distanced from one another when we delve into the representation instead of the “real” thing, even when we can’t tell the difference between the two.
As far as a science-fiction cautionary tale goes, this stance is predictably anti-futurist. Given that Folman’s Waltz with Bashir masterfully used animation as a devastatingly illustrative and affecting means of witnessing to a violent history through the lens of memory and trauma, it’s strange that animation here is positioned as a bulwark diving us from experience and knowledge rather than a unique means of accessing those same things.
Yet Folman and his animators imbue The Congress with so many astonishing set-pieces and moments of revelation for Wright’s character that its animated world is hardly this film’s equivalent of the bureaucratic quagmires of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but is instead a frank investigation into why a post-human world would be such a compelling opportunity for many. Like Spike Jonze’s Her, The Congress even features Wright falling in love – that most profoundly human experience – within the very world that alienates her from her son.
Inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel “The Futuristic Congress,” Folman’s film explores how utopias can mask dystopias – and rather than make a blanket statement on the direction that a plugged-in world might be heading, The Congress is laudably content to instead ask what it means to be human in the context of vast technological change.
That Folman puts Hollywood at the center of the question of what it means to be human might seem a bit strange at first, given the stakes that such a decision places in “losing” our beloved performers to immanently reproducible representations (and given that the director followed a haunting and disturbing film about the Israel-Lebanon War with a Hollywood satire). But the Hollywood context is appropriate as cinematic stars themselves are already representations that intensely resemble but never fully convey authentic humanity.
When The Princess Bride (the Robin Wright title most nostalgically reflected on in The Congress) is reformatted throughout the decades for VHS, then, DVD, the streaming services, Wright’s past likeness is enduringly reproduced on a mass scale decades after her initial performance. To lose the element of the star actually appearing in front of the camera (whether an audience knows or even cares, as posed by the convincing technology of the film’s fiction) is simply a final step in ridding film stardom of its only seemingly human element – the vague notion of presence behind the camera despite all the intersecting mediations at play. Robin Wright, a mother with a family and a woman capable of falling in love and feeling loss, gradually gives herself over to the reality that “Robin Wright” the movie star has had absolutely nothing to do with her.
This is less a statement on Robin Wright’s career in particular than it is a means for exploring the post-human in general, as contemporary stardom already has a deep foothold in the complex relationship between technology and human beings.
As with any honest satire, much of the premise of The Congress doesn’t seem satirical at all. We have already been well under way in creating and experiencing posthuman stardom. Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Gene Kelly appear in recent commercials, their likenesses no doubt marketable based in legal and contractual terms for what their images can and cannot do subsequent their death.
The late Paul Walker and Philip Seymour Hoffman will each appear in franchise films that had not yet completed filming at the time of their death, thus showing how incompatible the economic system of Hollywood is with the inconvenience of human mortality, and how a living human being is only part of the equation in the representation of stars onscreen.
Finally, we’ve engaged recently in a heated conversation as to how we recognize (both practically and in terms of laudability) motion capture performances: to what degree are these indexical records of an actor like any “conventional” film performance, or the complicated work of invisible technical artists? This debate only reveals how constructed all film performances are, from the selection of editing to any number of mediated manipulations. The place of humanity in media representations is already indefinite, even when it appears not to be.
Even filmgoing itself seems to be becoming less interpersonal. The shared experience of the theater is being replaced for the more solitary experience of home viewing, even for first runs, and each format shift for film consumption creates anew its accessibility and, thus, its selected history. That The Congress made its digital debut (the film is currently available for rent on iTunes) weeks ahead of its theatrical release demonstrates the portending changes that the film explores.
The Congress is ultimateluy less of a Hollywood satire and more of a surreal, probing, and enthralling exploration of the posthuman in a dizzyingly “evolving” technological era which simply uses Hollywood as an appropriate means of posing its big questions.
2014 has already proven to be a rich year for science fiction. Between Under the Skin, Snowpiercer, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sci-fi films big and small, mainstream and unconventional, have delved into revelatory allegories of the interminable gap between authentic human experience and the ways in which our lives and decisions are constructed by factors beyond any individual. The Congress, despite its relatively quiet release, speaks volumes to this multifaceted crisis.