It’s become a kind of unofficial tradition that I find an excuse to rewatch & write about the 2012 sci-fi film The Congress every year of blogging. I first reviewed the film in our inaugural year as a website. I then returned to it to explore its continued relevance in the shifting Hollywood landscape last year, finding it just as potent it as I had the first time, if not more so. Now, in year three, Boomer has introduced a Movie of the Month selection to us with unignorable thematic connections to The Congress, though its approach to the same topics is much more subdued. The 1990 Dutch film Wings of Fame presents a version of the afterlife where immortality is determined by cultural longevity; dead historical figures & celebrities mingle in a shared, surrealist space where their level of adoration among the living determines their status on the other side. The Congress alters that formula by allowing the living to buy into & borrow that fame immortality, essentially ruining their lives on Earth by assuming the guise of a celebrity in a fantasy space. Both works are wonderfully bizarre, though I’d argue The Congress is both flashier & more complex in its reflections on fame economy surrealism.
Part of the reason The Congress feels more memorably bizarre than the delicately philosophical Wings of Fame is that it leans heavily into the surrealist juxtaposition of seeing many incongruent celebrities onscreen at once. Where Wings of Fame notably stocks its cast of “famous” dead celebrities with archetypal placeholders instead of real life historical figures, The Congress overwhelms the audience with multiple copies of Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe and anyone else you can imagine. It accomplishes this by setting its fame economy afterworld in an “animated zone,” a brightly colored Max Fleischer fantasy space that posits the film as a Cool World/Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style live-action/animation hybrid. The live-action lead-up to that surrealist free-for-all can be just as measured as anything in Wings of Fame, though, with Robin Wright starring as herself in the not too distant future as introduction to the world (not unlike Peter O’Toole playing a Peter O’Toole type in Wings of Fame). Hollywood executives pressure Wright to sell her likeness so she can be digitally inserted in any part they choose, even long after she’s dead, sealing her immortality as a movie star. Just a few decades later, “regular” people can buy into that celebrity themselves, taking on her identity in the “animation zone, extending the film’s celebrity-outliving-your-body themes into even more bizarre, speculative territory that feels increasingly relevant to modern celebrity culture every passing year.
In Wings of Fame, being an unfamous nobody means you fade into a greyed-out mist of anonymity, drifting directionless for eternity. The Congress, being made in a time where a celebrity’s digital likeness can be sold & recreated independent of a physical performance, puts a lot more thought into how the unfamous nobodies among the living could pay to participate in the glamorous luxury of fame. The Congress is the flashier, more currently relevant film of the pair, but Wings of Fame is more philosophically reflective on how fame can outlast the body. The Congress only introduces that concept briefly before focusing on the intricacies of how fame has evolved as in industry, a commodity that co be bought, sold, rented, and loaned. I’m not sure that I’ll return to Wings of Fame as often as I apparently feel compelled to return to The Congress, since its broader approach to the fame economy afterlife feels a little less relevant to our specific relationship to modern celebrity as a 2010s audience and more tied to a larger philosophical provocation. In tandem, the pair offer an unlikely surrealist fantasy that visualizes fame’s function as immortality currency in literal terms. The difference is that Wings of Fame’s version of that dynamic is reflective on how fame has functioned through all of history, while The Congress depicts a future we still haven’t fully arrived at, but inch closer to every passing year.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison to its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint, and last week’s look at the strange ways its meta Shakespeare & romantic rivalry themes extend into Shakespeare in Love (1998).