Facsimile Lives

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The heroine's name is a contraction of the term Simulation One.
Simone (New Line) is a picture about a computer-generated film star,
a comedy, I suppose, but one that, because of its subject, grinds
away inside the head like a fact we wish didn't exist. The
screenplay was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who wrote
Gattaca and The Truman Show. Thus he is a seasoned explorer of that
frigid territory into which the world seems to be sliding, the area
where reality is less a philosophical question and more a matter of
doorknobs. Is this really a doorknob? Am I really grasping it? Is
that my hand? And what do the terms "doorknob" and "hand" reliably
mean? The examining of the real is no longer merely an academic
pursuit; it is now a matter of getting up in the morning with some
sense of surety.So the theme of Simone could hardly be more immediate. But the
screenplay that Niccol has devised to deploy it is as creaky as the
idea is pressing. At the start, a veteran Hollywood director,
Viktor Taransky, is canned by his studio chief, who happens to be
his ex-wife (creak number one). Taransky's recent pictures have
flopped, and now the star of his current project quits on him, so
he is through. Out of nowhere a scientific genius suddenly
approaches him (number two) and thrusts on him computer materials,
then disappears to die (number three). Taransky, puzzled,
disconsolate, slips the material into a computer and finds that he
has been given the means to create a beautiful screen star, whom he
names Simone. She is gorgeous, sexy, can do anything, can sound
like anyone, if Taransky just touches the right keys. Saved!

Taransky proceeds with his planned film, using Simone as the star
and keeping her computer-creation a tight secret. The other actors
in the film never meet her. She says, via Taransky, that she cannot
work with anyone else, and he provides a body double for the scenes
she has with others; he later digitalizes Simone into those scenes
in place of the double. The picture is finished, is released, and
smashes to stratospheric success.

More smashes follow. Simone becomes Marilyn Monroe to the super-nth
degree. The only interviews that she gives are done on television
from her home, with the invisible Taransky at a console manifesting
her and answering reporters' questions in a voice that the computer
transforms into Simone's. As for Taransky himself, his own story
has to do, lamely, with his possible marital reunion, helped by the
couple's teenage daughter, and the guarding of his computer secret
from a tabloid editor's snooping.

Al Pacino plays Taransky. It is tempting to say that Simone is this
month's Pacino picture, except that he never coasts. I've been
watching Pacino on stage and screen since his earliest Off-Broadway
days, and in his lesser roles (like this one) and his better ones,
he treats each performance as the reason for which he was born.
It's admirable. He almost makes Taransky believable in this
strained plot. Catherine Keener, who plays his ex-wife and boss, is
an oddity. Whenever she gets a cool, hip, controlled, and
controlling role, she is firm and can be snakily funny. Whenever
she attempts any kind of emotion, as in this picture, she becomes
an amateur.

But the paramount fact about this film is that it exists.
Computer-generated images already have a twenty-year history in
feature films, dating from Tron in 1982. Simone, however, is the
first picture I can remember in which the generating itself is
central and in which deception by an image is the basic idea.
Prophecies about the future of digitalized films are available by
the dozen at your corner supermarket: take your pick, pro or con,
abject or dismissive. I note only, and again, that technology
itself is now threatening the first art that technology ever
created.

The most striking moment in this picture is at the end. A year has
elapsed. In an interview the smiling Taransky is seated on a sofa
with his arm around Simone, who is holding a baby. Then we
see--unavoidable word--the reality. He is seated on the sofa alone,
his arm around empty space. Simone and the baby were later added by
computer. The contrast between those two shots is essentially the
whole film.

In Pacino's last picture, Insomnia, he co-starred with Robin
Williams. Not to be outdone in productivity, Williams, too, appears
in a new picture, One Hour Photo (Fox Searchlight), written and
directed by Mark Romanek. Both the Williams performance in Insomnia
and this new one can best be appreciated--a unique criterion,
surely--by those who have seen the actor in his talk-show
appearances.

Williams has created a double public being. On those talk shows he
is manic-- as he is expected to be, is brought there to be. He
never sits fixedly in the guest's chair; he zooms around the stage,
talks to whom he pleases as he pleases, keeps cascading verbal
imitations and gags with miming to match, and in general behaves
like a nutty genie just released from a bottle. In some of his
films, that ecstatic yet cultivated irrepressibility sweeps
in--still, he often plays serious characters. (Oliver Sacks, for
heaven's sake!) In such a role his gravity is meant to be seen
against the background of his mania.

In One Hour Photo he is Sy, a mild, utterly conventional,
middle-aged manager of the film-developing station in a branch of a
huge supermarket chain. His life is as drab as is humanly possible:
job, smiles, dependable service, dull meals, and (lone) bed. Our
first reaction is, as it is meant to be, to mark the difference
between this man and the "real" Williams, the zany one who has been
suppressed to permit Sy to exist. But there is a secret in Sy: he
has a fantasy life. One of his customers is a young wife, usually
accompanied by her small son. Secretly, in a non-sexual, utterly
familial way, Sy feels close to her. He handles all the family
snapshots that she brings in, which she does fairly frequently, and
for Sy those snapshots become a link of intimacy with the young
woman and her family. They lull him into the fantasy of being a
member of the group.

The very last moment of the film is a fantasy snapshot of the whole
family with Sy as one of them. But en route to that last shot, Sy
encounters various problems brought on by his desire to join the
family. This plotting takes Sy into situations that are
inconsistent with the man who has been so carefully modeled for us,
even if they are meant as inevitable extremities in his life.

Much of the time One Hour Photo reminded me of the German
Expressionist drama that flowered in the early 1920s. For example,
Georg Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight is about a bank clerk whose
temperament is much like Sy's and whose hunger for some flavor in
his life leads to catastrophe. But there is an important difference
between Kaiser's play and Romanek's screenplay. Kaiser was using a
form and a timbre to attack a society that fostered sterility.
Romanek's Sy is not unhappy with his life: he apparently would be
willing to continue permanently with his dailiness and his
fantasy--if the plot had not interrupted it. In One Hour Photo the
plot reduces the film to a performance and a problem--Williams's
good work and the author's quandary about what to do with it.

Still, Romanek directed his picture with as consistent a vacant,
echoing tone as his screenplay permitted. And Williams succeeds in
his personal intent: he posits the nerd against the crazy comic who
is waiting just off-camera.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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