Thursday, July 23, 2009

Anna Notaro: ‘Reality is in the performance’ - Issues of Digital Technology, Simulation and Artificial Acting in S1mOne

‘Reality is in the performance’: Issues of Digital Technology, Simulation and Artificial Acting in S1mOne
by Anna Notaro

Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.
(Jean-Luc Godard)

Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our capacity to detect it.
(Viktor Taransky)

Abstract This essay is concerned with the use of digital technologies in Hollywood cinema to argue that they perpetuate the illusionism and verisimilitude of its representations. An initial discussion of the use of digital technology in the cinema will provide the basis for an historical account of the move from avant-garde experiments in virtual, or non-human performance. Such a history is then contrasted with Hollywood appropriations of digital technologies, and its elaboration of a virtual performer – represented in a film like S1mOne (Andrew Niccol, 2002) – which is put in the service of such naturalism and illusionism. In order to appreciate their relevance, the above arguments are placed within the broader contexts of digitization, simulation and virtuality as theorized, among others, by Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard.

It was exactly thirty three years ago that Umberto Eco, following a trip to America, wrote Travels in Hyperreality. Three years later Baudrillard’s “La précession des simulacres” (1978) came out, thus marking the emergence of the ‘age of simulation’. Since then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge of critical debate, and yet some of the early observations are still common currency within today’s discussion, often marked by an uncompromising division between pessimistic (Apocalyptic) and optimistic (Integrated) intellectuals, who either condemn or embrace emergent technologies.[1] Especially in pessimistic quarters it has become a cliché to quote Baudrillard’s view that society has been reduced to simulation or to stress, in the way Eco did with reference to the USA, the commercialized aspect of the recreations and themed environments that now proliferate around the world. Today the age of simulation has acquired a new twist: it has ‘gone digital’. Its culture is one of copying, sampling, animating, imitating, hybridizing, morphing, re-enacting, re-mixing, and re-membering. Our desire to create realistic fabrications has not weakened, rather it has become stronger since we now possess the technological tools to create an alternative (virtual) reality whose seductive appeal we find irresistible.

Contemporary (popular) culture is certainly influenced by the extensive use of digital tools in domains as diverse as entertainment and news broadcasting, so much so that distinctions across media begin to blur. Interesting re-mediations (to use Bolter and Grusin’s terminology) take place for example between games and cinema – one only needs to consider films such as Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), Joysticks (Greydon Clark, 1983), Super Mario Brothers (Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton, 1993), Toys (Barry Levinson, 1993), Mortal Kombat (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1995), Wing Commander (Chris Roberts, 1999), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001), Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2001) and Resident Evil (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002), to name just a few. These films testify to a digital culture that operates in a ‘convergence mode’: the convergence of filmmaking, animation & game development; of art and technology and popular culture; of art and science.[2] It is not surprising then that different disciplines also converge in trying to provide an answer to some of the most pressing questions humanity has ever faced: what happens to our bodies and our identities in a (post-human) digital age? How do we define truth in the midst of codes and copies? How can we distinguish between the authentic and the synthetic? Cinema, itself an elaborate system for synthetic representation, is contributing to the debate in the way it knows best: by creating stories that speak to our innermost fears and desires. Maybe the contemporary craving for (hyper)realistic representation, which seems to mark our dealings with computer technology in most applications (including the cinematic) is not so much a matter of once more simulating the real - we only do that in order to recognize the way in which reality is perceived – but of learning how to build a complex world which has reality content.[3] More specifically, the status of the realism of a film’s diegetic space and its transformation under the increasing employment of digital imaging has long been a chief subject of debate in cinema and new media studies.[4]

In Future Visions Hayward and Wollen have even suggested that the “development of audiovisual technologies has been driven not so much by a realist project as by an illusionary one”. (1993, 2) Birk Weinberg in his “Beyond Interactive Cinema” (2002) has argued instead that: “The aesthetic history of media can be described on the basis of a drift towards greater realism for improved immersion of the viewer”. Others have advanced the controversial opinion that “today the real has become the new avant-garde”. (Rombes 2005) In this perspective, Rombes argues, it is rather ironic that “the re-emergence of realism in the cinema, thanks to the digital, could be traced directly to a technological form that seems to represent a final break with the real.”(2005) “But,” he asks, “is it possible to talk about the real today without being accused of a sort of retrograde orthodoxy, a naive or unreflective reversion to Bazin?” (Rombes 2005) The answer is yes, since “post-humanist theory… has told us what was always already obvious: that reality itself is an apparatus further deconstructed by cinema. In today’s landscape of self-theorizing media… it is once again safe to speak of representations of the real without putting that word in quotation marks.”(Rombes 2005) Post-humanist theory informs the reading of SimOne (Andrew Niccol, 2002) offered by Sydney Eve Matrix in “‘We’re Okay with Fake’: Cybercinematography and the Spectre of Virtual Actors in S1M0NE” (2006). In what follows below I will refute some of the conclusions drawn by Matrix to propose my reading of S1mOne as a film that demonstrates Hollywood’s ambiguous response to the crucial issues of virtuality and simulation.

Simulation One (S1mOne)

As is often the case, key concepts within academic discourse find expression in popular media – a sort of prêt à porter collection of concepts – which renders them more palatable to the general public. The issue of simulation, recurrent in a plethora of Hollywood movies, is emblematic of such a process and of its mixed results. When S1mOne by Andrew Niccol was released in 2002 critics reacted with lukewarm enthusiasm, a far cry from Niccol’s previously acclaimed achievements as a writer/director (Gattaca, 1997) and writer (The Truman Show, 1998). This was “the case of a pregnant premise being wasted by a script that takes few chances and manages to insult the intelligence of everyone in the audience”. (Berardinelli, 2002)

I share Berardinelli’s criticism, however, I would argue that the film’s shortcomings and inconsistencies are exactly what makes it worthy of critical analysis. They are to be considered in the context of Hollywood’s ambivalent attitude towards the use of new digital technology, a technology, which, while it is happily embraced (not least for the huge economic returns that it provides at the box office), is also represented in ‘apocalyptic’ terms.

The plot tells of Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), an ‘arty’ director, who gets into trouble when his prima donna, Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) storms off the set because her trailer is not big enough. Viktor’s career is saved by Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), a dying and deranged computer engineer who has created a synthetic actor that Viktor can ‘cast’ in his movie without anyone being able to tell the difference. She is the ultimate director’s fantasy, an instrument that Viktor can exploit at will for his creative purposes. In spite of his declared computer illiteracy, he manages to digitally replace Nicola with Simone and the film is a hit. At first Viktor is reluctant to use ‘Simulation One’ (shortened to Simone), but he changes his mind when he realizes that “our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it”. Viktor’s justification for creating his digital star is based on the recognition that “since we all live in one big lie… why shouldn’t [she] live too?” So, ‘a star is digitized’, and Simone soon becomes a world celebrity. In truth, Viktor’s intention was to reveal it all after the first reviews were in, since he believed that people would immediately spot the deception. However that is not the case: Simone is just another of Hollywood’s many ‘invisible effects’.[5] In the end, inevitably, like Dr. Frankenstein – tellingly, also a Victor – before him, Viktor is eclipsed by his creation. He may have created Simone, but her image is beyond his control.

Much of my interest in this film stems from the fact that it contradicts its own premises: on one side, it seems to take a stand against our digital ‘age of simulation,’ the ‘big lie’ as Viktor puts it in which we all live, on the other, it celebrates it. As Simone herself puts it: “If the performance is genuine, does it really matter if the actor is real?” Niccol seems to suggest that it does matter: in one scene Viktor is moved to tears by the performance of the ‘human’ actress Nicola Anders. Nicola’s breathtaking performance shows the sublime irony inherent in the acting profession: the more ‘authentic’ an actor qua actor. Performance, like the body and its subjectivity which embodies and enacts the performative, might have been extended, challenged and reconfigured by technology and yet, this scene suggests, the ontology of the performance (its aura and humanness) maintains a unique privileged status. Moreover, Viktor’s hubris for creating the perfect actress is in the end punished, thus warning us against the perils of misusing technology to play God and create (artificial) life. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Viktor’s Pygmalion-style manipulation of Simone is short-lived demonstrates how “Hollywood’s willingness to experiment with new technologies cannot contemplate the possibility of its own extinction”. (Notaro, 2006, 93) What could have been a witty satire of the star system and of the dangers of cinematographic illusion is blatantly contradicted by S1mOne’s marketing strategy by New Line Cinema. Besides the official S1mOne web site ( a whole set of ‘fake’ web sites were produced for each of Simone’s movies, for some of her co-stars, for Viktor Taransky and even one for Amalgamated Film (, the fictional counterpart of New Line Cinema, thus blurring the line between cinematic fabrication and the ‘real’ studios’ need to push the film. This marketing strategy is a further indication, in a film apparently concerned with authenticity and sincerity, of Hollywood’s hypocritical stance on issues of virtuality and simulation. Also, despite Niccol’s initial statements that he wouldn’t reveal whether the character was real or not he later changed his mind, explaining that Simone’s voice and body were augmented by computer with elements of other actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, but Roberts was the principal source. The idea, according to Niccol, was to make a hybrid that was “contemporary but not so trendy that she would be quickly dated”. (, “S1m0ne,” 2002) A commodified digital star with a long expiry date! In addition, Niccol commented, “We’re coming to the point where you won’t know if an actor or newscaster is computerized or flesh and blood… What’s more, you won’t care, as long as they impress us or move us, because as Taransky believes, ‘in our phoney world reality is in the performance”. (, “S1m0ne,” 2002) I find it significant that Niccol himself is perfectly willing to employ technologies in a film that apparently deplores them. The reason for such an ambivalence resides in the fact that Niccol is not outside, but rather implicated in, Hollywood’s economy of manufactured celebrity and in the myth of the authentic performance. Although Niccol’s screenplay does indicate, as Matrix argues, that “digital cinema has the potential to shake up, disturb, and disrupt the methods of production in Hollywood,” (2006, 215) such a potential appears contained (and mitigated) within Hollywood’s well ‘rehearsed’ strategy to wrestle with the dilemmas of technological simulations in a fictional realm rather than in reality. In contrast to Matrix’s arguments, I propose that Niccol’s film engages but, crucially, does not disrupt the discourses concerning the impact of digital animation on Hollywood. (2006, 215)

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