The Fame-Economy Afterworlds of Wings of Fame (1990) & The Congress (2014)

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).

-Brandon Ledet

Thoughts on The Congress (2014) and the Question of What, Exactly Modern Celebrities are Selling

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One of the most wildly imaginative sci-fi films in recent memory, for my money, was the often-overlooked, “technophobic” film industry satire The Congress. In the film, Princess Bride actress Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself facing an exponentially shrinking list of potential career options thanks to an industry that has a long history of underserving women as they age past their 20s & 30s. Wright’s agent uses this professional crisis to pressure her into allowing a major movie studio to digitally capture (or, in the movie’s lingo, “hermetically scan”) her very essence, essentially selling her tangible soul to a media conglomerate. This leads to a psychedelic existential crisis involving an animated wonderland of dystopian terror that makes The Congress one of the most visually bizarre films I can remember from the last couple of years.

As eccentric as The Congress‘s visual pallet can be, it isn’t exactly what’s been keeping the film fresh in my mind since I first reviewed it last year. There’s been a recent string of news stories reminiscent of the ways The Congress depicts movie studios owning actors’ likeness that feel oddly off-putting in a way the film seemed to forewarn, keeping it fresh in my mind. For example, during the press tour for the recent Zack Snyder debacle Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, eccentric Lex Luthor actor Jesse Eisenberg went into great detail about the fake Michael Shannon body double used in the film. Shannon, who played the villainous Emperor Zod in Snyder’s Man of Steel, didn’t fully reprise his role in the sequel as Zod’s corpse (who could blame him?), but instead allowed the studio to include him via lifeless dummy created based off his headcast. Where it gets really creepy is in Eisenberg’s description of the fake Michael Shannon, which appears in the film completely nude. According to Eisenberg, the Shannon doll was entirely, unnecessarily anatomically correct to the point where the detail was a little disturbing (long story short, he had a penis).

There are, of course, even more direct comparison points to Robin Wright’s fictional plight in the way celebrity actors are being represented & altered digitally. Actors appearing posthumously in commercials for beer, junk food, vacuum cleaners, etc. is crass enough of a concept in itself and has been around long enough to likely have influenced some of The Congress‘s digitizing paranoia. Things have snowballed even since the film’s production, however, including two high profile instances of actors being digitally inserted into feature-length works they didn’t live to see completed (Paul Walker in Furious 7 & Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mockingjay Pt II). Even actors who did film their role to completion are being subjected to digital alterations in post-production. Sometimes this can be as simple as removing a pimple or a blemish or the effects of aging with computer magic (Paul Rubens in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a recent example) or as horrifying as the very recent reports of Paramount & DreamWorks allegedly testing a digital technique to make white actors appear “more Asian” in post-production for the already-controversial live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson. Whether or not you agree with the actors’ decision to accept those roles/paychecks in the first place, you have to admit it’s super shady that the studio attempted to dress them in digital yellowface after the fact (presumably without their knowledge or consent).

The question at large here is what, exactly are celebrities selling to movie studios when they sign a contract for a big budget role? In the past (and, indeed, in smaller current productions) actors were strictly selling a performance, a record of work delivered. Modern celebrities, however, seem to be selling much more than that. They’re not selling a record of their work so much as the rights to their personalities & essence. This current era of digital recreation & the ownership of celebrity likeness is on much shakier, creepier ground and it’s difficult not to think of The Congress‘s sci-fi celebrity culture dystopia as each of these news stories crop up. The film didn’t do so well critically or financially upon initial release, but I find that its pointed satire about Hollywood’s future gets more eerily relevant on almost a daily basis. It’s difficult to say for certain exactly why The Congress failed to strike a chord with a larger audience. I’ll admit that it plays a little off-balance & unsure in moments, but if nothing else I greatly respect the film’s tendency to swing for the fences even when what it delivers lands way off target. I also am continuously taken aback by just how much the film has to say about modern celebrity culture, especially when I see modern celebrity culture talking back.

-Brandon Ledet

The Congress (2014)

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fourstar

It’s difficult for a film to blend animation with live action in a credible way. It’s been more than 25 years since the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and I can’t think of a single picture since that does half as good of a job combining the two techniques. Last year’s The Congress sidesteps this problem by keeping its live-action & animation segments almost entirely separate. There’s a purpose to its partitioning of its separate halves, though. The front, live-action end of The Congress depicts a drab, near-future full of anxieties, disease, fears, and oppressive commercialism. The animated second half is an escapist fantasy that offers sanctuary from that depressing world, its own crippling faults buried deep underground. There’s a vibrant world of possibility (both elating & horrifying) offered by The Congress’ choice to animate its outlandish, dystopian future. It was a wise decision that saved the film from being a decent sci-fi exercise and instead made it an engaging cinematic oddity.

The opening, live-action segment of The Congress has an interesting way of providing flat, nonchalant reads of big concepts. Playing off the idea that movie studios literally want to own their talent (like in early Hollywood, if not like now), the not-quite-fictional powerhouse Miramount Pictures offers Robin “Princess Bride” Wright (playing herself here) a life-changing professional opportunity. They offer her a large sum of money to “hermetically scan” her likeness using a futuristic technology that would allow them to insert her digital self into any film project they want. The contract would prevent her from ever acting in the flesh again, but if she doesn’t sign it she’s also risking the studio erasing her work from the screen forever. It’s an interesting concept that brings to question a lot of notions we have as an audience about celebrities (real-life, breathing human beings) as consumable products. In addition to her contract negotiations with Miramount (she eventually signs the contract, of course) the film also interweaves some half-baked, purple prose musings about her son’s deteriorating health and obsession with kites & airplanes. The overreaching sentimentality of these scenes reminds me a lot of the soft sci-fi of the over-the-top camp fest Upside Down and a lesser movie would’ve stopped there and not pushed its crackpot ideas any further (like in Upside Down). The Congress, thankfully, keeps pushing.

After Wright allows herself to be “hermetically scanned” the film jumps 20 years further into the future into a world where people escape from the shackles of an unfulfilling reality by snorting a chemical that allows them to live in a vibrant, animated fantasy world. The “Animation Zone” is a complicated mess of art influences; like an art deco take on Dr. Suess’ wavy line landscapes with whales, dragons, constellations, rainbows, and genitals-shaped fish populating its blinding, neon color palette. It’s stunning. From this point on, it is difficult to tell exactly how much of the film is “real” and how much of it is happening only in Wright’s mind. As one character puts it, “Ultimately everything makes sense and everything is in our minds.” Playing off the celebrities-as-commodities concept of the first half, film studios in the animated future have found a way to convert actors into chemical compounds that can be eaten, drank, and ultimately copied. Instead of watching your favorite celebrities act out fantasies onscreen, you can now become them, so the world is littered with endless copies of familiar faces like Tom Cruise, Ron Jeremy, Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson, Zeus, Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo, and Muhammad Ali. It’s terrifying.

The animated back end of The Congress is by far the more impressive half of the film, but its slow introduction through the “technophobic”, soft sci-fi of the first half is partly what makes it work. There have been a lot of recent films that attempt to tackle the emptiness of celebrity culture (Birdman & Maps to the Stars, for example), but none push their concepts to such a far, overreaching end as The Congress. The film isn’t entirely successful. The significance of the kite & airplane metaphors, while serving as a decent through line between the two segments, were difficult to grasp as a viewer; there’s an uncomfortable line of thought near the climax that risks making the entire film feel like a screed on anti-depressants; the stilted nature of the dialogue on the front end can be alternatingly amusing & frustrating, etc. However, its faults feel trivial in consideration of how ambitious & assertive the film plays as a whole. The Congress may be an overwrought mess in some ways, but it’s a fascinatingly idiosyncratic mess that’s impressive in its aspirations of pushing its musings on celebrity culture to the most far-reaching ends possible, putting good taste & tact aside in favor of a thorough, bizarrely unrestrained exploration of its themes. It’s the exact kind of mess I like.

-Brandon Ledet