Fassbinder's 1973 World on a Wire Predicts Internet, Virtual Reality, and The Matrix

There are movies that make news and movies that are news. World on a Wire is one of the latter. Suddenly: a virtually unknown, newly restored, two-part tele-film directed by long-gone wunderkind R.W. Fassbinder at the height of his powers.

World on a Wire, which opens this week at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is Fassbinder's most sustained genre riff. Adapted from Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 sci-fi novel Simulacron-3 and predicated on the notion of a computer-generated reality populated by "identity units" who believe themselves human, the movie looks back at The Creation of the Humanoids, forward to The Matrix, and directly at Fassbinder's notoriously cult-like power over his acting ensemble. One scientist jokingly characterizes the identity units as performers: "They're like the people dancing on TV for us."

As wildly ambitious as it is cinephilic, World on a Wire mixes the pop

art effrontery of Godard's Alphaville with the cyber-phobic metaphysics

of Kubrick's 2001 while remaining wholly Fassbinderian in its insolently

lugubrious ironies. Less characteristic, if equally deadpan, are the

choreographed action sequence--notably the lurking crane that threatens

to dump a load of debris on the movie's angst-ridden protagonist.

This is corporate hell--the blandly futuristic, neon-lit look leans

heavily on molded plastic furniture and ubiquitous TV monitors. (That

the men are uniformly dressed in power suits and the women as Barbies

may remind some of Mad Men.) Strategically placed mirrors suggest the

character's illusory or divided nature, while the alienated

performances--alternately declamatory and uninflected--as well as

Fassbinder's Warholian deployment of actors stolidly hanging out in

frame, encourage the thought that the real world, too, is rife with

"identity units."

It builds up to a satisfyingly nutty finale--as the identity units grow

restless, their virtual world begins to develop certain glitches. It's

remarkable how current it all seems. The movie's mod furnishings, dated

in 1973, have been several times revived and are currently in vogue. Its

last 45 minutes have a computer-game logic, anticipating both David

Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Mamoru Oshii's Avalon. And the improbably

romantic ending is pure 21st Century--who would have imagined Fassbinder

an avatar of Avatar?

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