Misfits: “The Congress”

Inspired by Scout Tafoya’s video essay series The Unloved, Misfits is a new feature which examines overlooked films with certain cinematic qualities that deserve recognition.

In an industry that is increasingly in love with itself, an industry where its most iconic honor, the Academy Award for Best Picture, has been awarded to self-reverential films such as The Artist, Argo, and Birdman in just the last four years, it is puzzling that Ari Folman’s The Congress, a film not only about capital-H Hollywood but movies themselves, would be so easily cast aside instead of dissected and debated. The message in said Best Picture winners is not purely a curtain call for all that is great and well in the world of cinema. Rather it is more along the lines of, “We work in a ruthless business, but that kind of pressure makes diamonds from lumps of coal,” as if this self-deprecation is the helping of vegetables that must be finished before enjoying dessert. If a subgenre—that of a self-obsessed Hollywood—has indeed formed, The Congress ranks as one of its more ambitious installments. A part live-action, part animation diptych, the film goes beyond skewering Tinseltown and tackles more compelling—if not more immediate—questions about how we are remembered and the future of cinema.

Robin Wright (as herself) is far removed from her most memorable roles as Buttercup in The Princess Bride and Jenny in Forrest Gump. A series of poor career moves and a general streak of irresponsibility have relegated her to a persona non grata status shared by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes. But Jeff Green (Danny Huston), the smarmy, conniving studio executive at cleverly named Miramount Studios, has one final offer for her: submit to digital scanning, and never act again. Historically, digital likenesses have only been used in the unexpected death of the actor being scanned, such as Paul Walker in Furious 7 or Oliver Reed in Gladiator. But in The Congress, the scanning essentially kills the actor, or at least the person beneath the persona. Miramount can use her likeness in any movie of their choosing, without the baggage of the real Robin Wright. The scene where Robin is actually scanned is one of the most effective sequences in the live-action portion of the film. Seeing genuine emotions captured into a series of ones and zeros is disarming, but the manner in which these expressions are coaxed—by her agent (Harvey Keitel) recounting childhood memories—is even more unnerving. Folman seems to point out that the alluring power of storytelling can be used for both noble and nefarious purposes. After all, it is through stories that our past and future are connected. Stories are what inform our culture, for better or worse.

So what went wrong? Why is The Congress a misfit?

More than one critic found The Congress’ lofty sights to be unsupported by the overall structure of the film. The first 45 minutes, which are presented in live-action, bear the burden of explaining the circumstances that lead to the de-evolution of reality in the animated half of the film. The beginning is heavier on dialogue, which is not always delivered gracefully or efficiently. Characters come and go—sometimes as talking heads. Segments of the animated section spiral into a pretty trippy stupor. But one could argue that this kind of excess is by design—a comment on how our consumer mentalities also influence our consumption of media. I sensed this the first time I saw The Congress at the 2014 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, and over subsequent viewings, the questions Folman considers and the themes he explores became more and more resonant. I still find myself contemplating the film almost a year later.

As twenty years pass after Robin signs her digital contract and The Congress progresses into its animated second-half, stories become a less passive experience, and so we wonder if they still have the same effect. Through artificially-engineered hallucinogenic drugs, the world as we know it becomes an animated virtual reality, and its inhabitants have the freedom to assume any identity they desire. They can become their favorite celebrity or fictional character, and throughout the picture we see countless avatars such as Michael Jackson, Cleopatra, and even Jesus. In essence the members of society have become the characters of their favorite stories. The Congress is loosely based on the Stanislaw Lem novel The Futurological Congress, and much of these scenes are inspired by the novel. A Steve Jobs-ian spokesperson is the figurehead of this chemical revolution, proclaiming that he offers free choice in a bottle. That is, the Robin Wright we know is no longer an actress. She is a substance to be consumed. Some argue that the end of society comes with the end of its culture, but here society itself has been replaced by culture.

The Congress is Folman’s second foray into animation; the first being the autobiographical Oscar nominee Waltz With Bashir, which recollects Folman’s service in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon Conflict. Interestingly, Bashir would not be as enduring as a traditional live-action war film. Animation best suits Folman’s visual style while also pointedly conveying that how we remember the past and the truth can diverge drastically. If the animation of Waltz With Bashir is Harvey Pekar meets Stanley Kubrick, then The Congress is Max Fleischer meets George Orwell. In both pictures animation represents a willing—if not always conscious—separation from reality. For the characters in these films, the real world and the truth are too much to confront as they resign themselves to the comforts of denial. In Bashir we discover through a series of interviews that Folman repressed his memories of the atrocities committed in Lebanon, which are gradually revealed over the course of the film, leading to a climax of live-action footage of the infamous massacre at Sabra and Shatila. Similarly, Robin escapes the animated world at the conclusion of The Congress in search of her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), only to find the real world in desolation and squalor. In the end both protagonists, and the audience, are confronted with harsh truths. Chemical parties are not meant to last forever.

Everything Robin has done over the course of the picture was for her son—to pay for medical treatments that would keep him from going blind and deaf and to be with him in this new future. It is no coincidence he is losing the two senses traditionally used to experience film, but as time passes in The Congress and film becomes all but extinct via free choice in a bottle, Aaron could be seen as evolving to adapt to the next form of media rather than being seen as disabled. If Waltz With Bashir reverberates more organically in its narrative and themes, The Congress strikes a bit hollow—to the discontent of critics and audiences alike. But isn’t that the point? While Folman argues that film is a cornerstone of cultural expression and enlightenment, he seems to concede that film is also a distraction, a shroud over the harsh realities of our lives.

The Congress gets at what Andy Warhol meant when he said, “Human beings are born solitary, but everywhere they are in chains—daisy chains—of interactivity. Social actions are makeshift forms, often courageous, sometimes ridiculous, always strange. And in a way, every social action is a negotiation, a compromise between ‘his,’ ‘her,’ or ‘their’ wish and yours.” Folman takes this compromise quite literally, suggesting the future holds no room for such negotiation. With everyone so wrapped up in their own stories and worlds, why would they have time for anyone else’s vision? For artists? For auteurs? And what does this mean for film? It is said that film is a vessel for empathy—a means to witness someone else’s view of the world. But without empathy there is no humanity, and without humanity there is no longer art. In The Congress the death of the medium is the death of the message—a notion that cannot and should not be overlooked.

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