Ontology is the study of being, or reality as it pertains to our existence. Film is arguably the most absorbing art form for dealing with this issue. After all, films represent realities of their own. 8 1/2; Blade Runner; Solaris; Inland Empire and The Tree of Life are all masterful ontological film-essays. Film effectively orchestrates sense data to engage the mind. In this way, it’s kind of like real life.
I just had the pleasure of watching World on a Wire, recently released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection. Rainer Werner Fassbiner offers up a three-and-a-half-hour psychological detective story set in the merging realities of a dystopian future and the virtual reality it has created. This German masterpiece is Chinatown set in the world of The Matrix, though it predated both.
World on a Wire is a smooth, stylized film noir that that happens to be “science fiction”. It avoids projecting future technologies that might in time look outdated or embarrassingly naive. Here the technology is incidental; it’s the psychological journey that counts.
Fassbinder’s protagonist leads the action, and this is what makes the film great. All philosophers and scientists at some point, despite their metaphysical babble and mathematical systems, have to deal with reality through experience. Whether experience is sensuous, cerebral, or mysterious depends on the individual’s character, and character is story.
People may say that plot is story, but I would argue that plot is simply the sequence of a character’s actions and reactions. There are, after all, no stories devoid of characters.
The protagonist is the character the audience empathizes with. You can get a sense of the intended audience of a movie by looking at the protagonist. In World on a Wire, Fred Stiller is a smart, cynical guy searching for meaning. By contrast, Neo from The Matrix is a confused geek.
I remember people raving about The Matrix. Watch World on a Wire. Originality in The Matrix took the form of newly-realizable computer-cartoon effects. The ideas behind The Matrix were good enough, just unoriginal. Obviously ridicule is the only reason for me to mention Avatar. Ever.
I once saw a philosophy book based on The Matrix in which the Wachowski brothers claimed they crammed more philosophy into the movie than anybody will ever know (I’m paraphrasing; I didn’t read the book). This strikes me as the statement of someone who wants you to think they’re smarter than they are.
Don’t get me wrong, when I saw The Matrix I thought it was okay. Films made as showcases for new special effects have a way of being amusing. This is a dangerous thing. In this way, producers get kids to spend their time watching stupid nonsense. See Transformers or 300 for an example of a bunch of stupid nonsense.
Perhaps the most recent film along these lines is the remake of Total Recall. I don’t remember enjoying the original movie despite it being based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (I’m an admitted Philip K. Dick-head). By the looks of the trailer, they’ve put most of their efforts towards making the movie look like a video game. Does anybody else get the impression that, since The Matrix, the plan has been to assault our senses to distract us from the story?
World on a Wire, though made for German television in 1973, felt fresh like a true classic. It isn’t afraid to ask about reality, and its final moments roll out a beautifully enigmatic truth.