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Film in American Popular CultureVisit Press Americana
SIMONE:
LOST IN TRANSLATION

Directed by Andrew Niccol and released in 2002, Simone is one of the important films of our time. A satire with far-reaching implications, it is constructed with the attention to detail and depth of perception that we expect in a fine, literary novel. It is to the typical product of American film factories what The Great Gatsby  is to a paperback romance. The dual purpose of this essay is to reveal why Simone is significant cinema, and why it has virtually disappeared from public view and critical scrutiny.

Presently, new copies of Simone can be purchased on the internet for less than the cost of a first class stamp. There are several reasons for this humbling circumstance, all of which refocus our attention on various aspects of our popular culture.

Let us begin by taking a modest leap of faith. We will assume that, since Niccol’s second film, The Truman Show was a critical and box office success, he was given a relatively free hand; he could direct Simone in keeping with his script and his vision. Two years after its completion, the film was released in a glittering cloak of deception. The story line introduces Simone as a computer generated character, the product of highly advanced technology. In its publicity, the studio promoted the fiction that all of the scenes in which Simone appears were computer generated. Actually a little-known actress, former Canadian model Rachel Roberts, played those scenes. In the closing credits, Simone is listed as performed by herself. Finally, in an apparent quest for mass appeal and greater returns at the box office, the studio avoided the restrictive, too-literary designation of “satire” and marketed the film as a generic comedy.

This mislabeling was significant in that only a tiny minority of film critics and reviewers questioned the genre and realized that it was, in fact, a satire. Even broad comedies, unless blended with science fiction or fantasy (Woody Allen’s Sleeper, for example), remain grounded in a recognizable and plausible world. Early in the plot Simone begins to depart from that world and exposes itself to the rotten tomatoes which many critics readily hurled at it. A legion of confused and irritated reviewers contributed to the failure of Simone, which earned a little over nine million dollars and lost tens of millions for the studio.

Insidious deception continued to sap the brief half-life of this film. The director, Andrew Niccol, gave interviews in which he trivialized his third effort, dismissing the failure with good natured laughter rather than coming to its defense. But the seriousness of his purpose in this failure becomes stunningly obvious when we view Simone as one of a trio, along with Gattaca and The Truman Show. Written and produced within a relatively short time span, these three films deal with technologies that may, in an uncertain future, be used to control human thought and behavior. In each film, some individual perverts the technology and, by cunning and deception, uses it to advance his own agenda.

When interviewed, Niccol consistently assumed the role of the instinctive, non cerebral director who was having a great deal of fun with Simone. Responding to the critic with the journal Splicedwire, August 2002, Niccol said: “I just don’t even analyze what I do. You may have greater insight into this than I do.” “Simone,”  he declared, is “an out-and-out comedy.”

While the writer/director was publicly trivializing his step child, critics of every persuasion managed to out-perform Niccol in misleading the public about the substance and intent of Simone.  They ultimately succeeded in flailing the film to death. Yet there were occasional opportunities for redemption.

In Mark-Reviews-Movies, critic Mark Dujsik identifies Simone as a satire/social commentary, which is a decent start. Then, referring to the computer-generated actress, he goes on to say that the film ”doesn’t take time to ponder the implications of the production of such a being.” After inadvertently revealing that an understanding of satire is not one of his critical assets, he concludes that the film “prefers a comic approach,” and that “the ideas in Simone appear to be merely window dressing.”  Alas.

The observations of Margaret A. McGuch, writing in The Cincinnati Enquirer, are typical. She says that “the movie only skims the surface of its potential, recycling overused notions about the shallowness of celebrity and the idiocy of the movie business.”

Even the esteemed Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, summarizes the response of the great majority of critics: “The movie sets this dilemma within a cynical comedy about modern Hollywood; it’s fitfully funny but never really takes off. Out of the corners of our eyes we glimpse the missed opportunities for some real satirical digging.”

I am aware of only one critic who comes close to an understanding and appreciation of Niccol’s achievement, Wesley Lovell. Written in August 2002, his entire review is available on the internet: oscarguy.com. I excerpt: “Simone is a revelation of thought-provoking filmmaking. He (Niccol) demands his audience to both think and to respond. Not only is it a deep, topic-driven film, Simone is also a raucus satire that exposes the film industry to its hilarious core.”

Constrained by space, Lovell does not expound on how the satire works. More importantly, he does not indicate how the film provokes and expands our thinking far beyond Hollywood – an aspect of our subject that will be discussed in the final section of this essay.

That Lovell and several other critics respond to the sheer fun in this film is understandable. The comedy emerges quite naturally from the friction of character and event, and intensifies the power of the satire. But the vast majority of critics and reviewers who complained that the comedy was fitful and tepid were entirely justified. Comedy in the commonly accepted sense of the word was not the vehicle Andrew Niccol preferred or even needed to deliver his vision. As Wesley Lovell so astutely discerned, Simone is principally about provoking thought. As Taransky’s angst steadily intensifies, the comedic element dissipates and virtually disappears.

The casting of Al Pacino in the role of Viktor Taransky,  a pretentious auteur who writes and directs art films that “speak to the human condition” but fail, alas, to impress the critics and the public.  He has had three successive flops, and his future looks bleak. Adding to his angst is the fact that his ex-wife, Elaine (Catherine Keener), is his producer, and she is very close to pulling the plug on his directorial career.

Pacino has been established in the public mind as a dominant Type A male, aggressive, sensual, and sometimes dangerous.  When he first appears on screen in Simone, we see him as a hulking figure bent over a table on the studio lot, intently sorting through a huge bowl of multi-colored candies. We learn that he is removing the red candies, which the star of his film detests. The viewer quickly understands that  desperation to complete his current project humbles and reduces him to the level of a servant. When the petulant star, Niccola Anders (Winona Ryder), makes her appearance on the lot and demands a trailer that is bigger and taller than every other trailer, there is a kind of dark humor in Taransky’s exasperation as he fails utterly to placate her with patience and reason.

Pressed to the outer limits of his patience, Taransky impulsively fires Ms. Anders, hustles her into a car, and instructs the driver to take her to hell. He has momentarily rescued his self respect, but he is also without an actress to complete the film.

At this point, Simone begins the countdown from ten to one as it prepares to leave the launching pad of dramatic narrative and thrust us into the less familiar smoke-and-mirrors world of satire. Enter Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), who inserts himself uninvited onto the lot. Dressed like a street person, his hair unkempt beneath his filthy cap, he is a repellant alien presence. Wearing dark glasses behind which we can make out a white patch over his right eye, he is the archetype of the significantly deranged man who periodically emerges from a dark netherworld for some sinister purpose. He is the mad scientist whose creation foreshadows destruction and doom.

Aleno is actually a mono-maniacal genius who claims to have the solution to Viktor Taransky’s problem. He has developed a digital technology so precise that he can create a believable, life-like human being out of pixels. His triumph is a beautiful young woman who can be computer-manipulated to obediently, sans temperament, serve as Taransky’s next star.

Convinced that Aleno is delusional, Viktor orders him to leave the lot. Aleno presses him, tries to force his hand with the information that his eye is cancerous, beyond treatment, and that he will be dead within a week. He also warns Victor not to get too close to the computer screen, because the microwaves which it emits will sicken him as well. The cancer-computer link is a foreshadowing, the importance of which we gradually understand as the story unfolds. The point being made in this satirical morality tale is that any technology that provides the power to dispense with the human, to deceive in order to advance a personal agenda, contains the seeds of destruction and ultimate failure.

As Aleno correctly predicted, one week later he is dead. But he has willed his technology, computer, and software to the besieged director whose wife has shut down  production. Facing a failure that will end his struggling career and shatter his dream of  greatness, Taransky installs the computer in an empty sound stage, where he secretly begins the process of examining its contents. His acceptance of this gift carries overtones of the Faust legend, in which Faust, who seeks transcendent knowledge, power, and self-fulfillment, makes a deal with the Devil.

If the viewer still has any doubt that Simone has gone beyond the comedic and morphed into supra realism, those doubts should be quickly dispelled. Within weeks of receiving Aleno’s bequest, Taransky—who has no computer skills whatever – masters the technique and eventually inserts Simone, his new computer-generated star, into every scene in which the dismissed Niccola Anders appeared. Implausible? Improbable? Incredible? Of course. And also the magnitude of liberty allowable, as well as expected, in satire.

Gulliver’s Travels  is probably the greatest satire in the English language. Written in the first person, the work begins as a memoir, pages of specific detail about Gulliver’s life and the world of contemporary England. The tone is earnest and sober. When he takes us on board the sailing vessel for his first voyage, his knowledge of seafaring is so detailed and precise, we are utterly seduced by the aura of realism. When the vessel sinks during a terrible storm, we are absorbed by his fate, his struggle for survival. Ah, but when he awakens on the beach the following morning and discovers that he has been bound by tiny pegs and strings, and that his captors are human-like creatures a mere six inches tall, we know we have been shamelessly and cleverly deceived.

Andrew Niccol, our contemporary Swift, has used essentially the same device. After he has pulled us into the drama, we can go along for the ride, have some unpredictable fun while the story unfolds, or abandon the entire enterprise as a feeble failure.

As Simone continues on its journey, it offers a sequence of improbabilities that resemble visual effects in a funhouse – recognizable but oddly distorted. Taransky has little difficulty convincing his staff that the new star of the revived production is so retiring and private, she refuses to meet any of the other actors. He easily convinces the leading man that his love scenes with Simone must be done with a body double, because she refuses to be in his presence. Most incredible of all is that this computerized actress, who has no soul and performs in a rather muted style, totally captivates the crew during an advance showing of the film.

Eventually Simone, the actress who incredibly emerged from nowhere, captivates the nation. Reporters are utterly fascinated, almost obsessive in their desire to see Simone in person, off screen. Of course, the desperate and increasingly frantic Taransky must perpetuate the deception by devising ingenious uses of his technology. He allows Simone to appear on talk shows, but only via satellite, so that he, in his locked, inaccessible sound stage, can speak for the image as her lips move. Invited behind the scenes, we can watch with an amused delight as the puppet master performs.

Important insights into the heart of the satire are periodically uttered by Taransky in brief asides reminiscent of Elizabethan drama.  When he agrees, finally, to present Simone in a huge arena performing an act on stage (a feat that truly boggles the mind of the rational viewer), he remarks to the unseen audience, “It is easier to make a hundred thousand believe than just one.” This is so incisive an observation, it could be the subtitle of the film.

One of the reporters, an old hand and hardened cynic, is implacable in his determination to uncover the truth about Simone. Not satisfied with the evasive explanations provided by Taransky, this character represents the small cadre of relentless investigative reporters who dig for the facts behind the official façade. He rents the suite in a hotel that Simone was reported to have occupied with Taransky. There he finds evidence of Simone’s presence, actually feminine clothes left behind by the endlessly ingenious Taransky. Now, to the profound disappointment of those viewers who expected  the reporter’s pursuit of truth to result in some interesting plot complication, we observe his seduction. After handling her undergarments, he flings himself onto the very bed where Simone had supposedly lain and, on his back, writhes in a brief paroxysm of ecstasy.

The story now enters its final phase. Quite unlike Gulliver’s Travels, which leaves no aspect of human and social behavior unscathed, Simone has a clearly delineated dual target: the use of the image for manipulating human behavior, and the effects of this perversion of technology on the person or persons in control of it. Just as Hank Aleno had feared, Taransky has gotten too close. But instead of contracting cancer of the eye, his personal life has become terminally ill. A la Dr. Frankenstein, he has created a monster that is more powerful than he. While all of the public’s adulation is focused on her, he remains virtually invisible, as unrecognized and unfulfilled as he was before Simone. His personal relationships are also failing. His ex-wife, Elaine, is convinced that he is hiding Simone in order to have a secret affair with her. She accuses, questions, and spies. Observing how stressed and preoccupied he is, Taransky’s daughter, Lainey, confesses that she longs for the return of the father she once knew. But he is detached, set apart by his fear of exposure and his all-consuming frustration and resentment.

Alone on his sound stage, Simone’s image on the screen, Taransky utters another trenchant aside which underscores the moral tone of the satire. He declares that Simone has "taken on a life of her own.” And that he “can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” It is possible to imagine Andrew Niccol, at a computer keyboard, mentally nudging the viewer to think about the power of  mass communication to shape public opinion and the course of events as we enter the twenty-first century. Dear compatriot, do you imagine that  we can ever hope to get this genie back into the bottle?

Driven by his desperation to get Simone out of his life, Taransky produces a short film in which Simone appears as a repulsive and disgusting creature. But the audiences, after their initial shock, still love her. She belongs to them. The only solution is murder. He decides to get rid of the software and declare that Simone has died while traveling in a foreign country. He loads the files into a trunk and dumps it off a pier. In a brief press conference, he announces her death.

If this were a mere spoof of Hollywood fakery and pretentiousness, the story could have ended here. But Niccol is casting a much wider net. He does not allow Taransky to extricate himself so easily. In this world, death is not final or irrevocable. Taransky has been overheard on the lot muttering, as he passes a huge representation of Simone, “I wish you were dead.” And he was captured by a security camera as he dragged the trunk across the pier to its watery grave. He is taken into custody and grilled until forced to tell the truth. Simone, he admits, never existed. She’s a fake.

Naturally, he is not believed, taken for a murderer coming up with a fanciful defense. The prosecutor has clipped and suspended a dozen magazines on cords, like so many garments on a clothesline, all with images of Simone on the cover. “Are these fakes?” the confident prosecutor demands. “Yes!” Taransky insists.  And thus we move beyond the making of film to the next concentric circle of this satire, the fabricated construct of celebrity, an industry that holds much of the public in thrall. All fake, Taransky insists, speaking for Niccol, his creator.

This satire/morality tale then moves us along to the next circle. Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood), the teenager who adores her father, instinctively understands the nature of his deception, but believes in his essential goodness and knows how she can save him from imprisonment and possibly a death sentence. Along with most of her generation, Lainey feels totally comfortable with computers. Her mother by her side, she seats herself before the Aleno computer and quickly confirms what she suspected: Simone was a computer generated fake that her father destroyed by introducing a virus into her software. Knowledgeable about how to reverse the effects of a virus, Lainey brings Simone “back to life.” She produces an animated sequence in which a smiling Simone holds up a copy of a current newspaper and declares that she is actually alive.

Taransky is exonerated and released. Later, he sits at the computer, faces the image of Simone, and in an emotional soliloquy confesses to his creation that she was created in order to prove that that he, Viktor Taransky, existed. It was all about his ego and not the work. In this moment of insight and clarity, he appears to be sincerely contrite.

But this morality tale is not yet over. Confession may be good for the soul, but our actions have unintended consequences that move in ever-expanding waves throughout the universe. Seated next to her father in the family car, Lainey solemnly states, “It’s alright to create fakes, but not to lie about it.”

What may appear to be a tepid, anti-climactic moment is actually central to Niccol’s vision. He seems to be asking, how much comfort can we take from the next generation?  Will we forever lose the ability, or the will, to draw the line between the authentic and the fake?
    
The final scene insists that we contemplate the most important question of all. We leap forward several months, perhaps a year. Taransky is now married to Simone, and they are seated on a sofa where a poised, maternal Simone is holding their young son. We understand that Taransky is no longer repentant but is perpetuating and savoring his success as grand deceiver. This ego-driven blending of the real and the fake goes on as naturally as the sun rising. The final words are Simone’s. “We’re concerned about the kind of world Chip is going to live in.”

The answer was foretold about sixty years before Chip’s birth with the appearance of Lena Riefestahl’s documentary, Triumph of the Will, in 1934. It has been described by historians and students of film as the greatest piece of propaganda ever produced. Riefenstahl always vehemently denied that her purpose was propaganda. She correctly stated that the film accurately captured in exact chronology the arrival of Adolph Hitler in Nuremberg for a rally of the Nazi. But her ingenious, highly imaginative use of the camera projected Hitler as a mythical, superhuman character who had the power and the will to lead Germany to a heroic future. He was, at the time, a little-known political figure. Within a relatively short time, he became the most powerful man in Germany.

Less than a year after the filming of Simone, the entire world was exposed to a sequence of striking images that significantly shaped opinion, attitudes, and the course of history. These began with the collapse of the towers in New York on September 11, 2001. Understanding the power of electronic imagery, the administration in Washington did not have President Bush address a shocked nation from the Oval Office. Instead, the leader of the free world stood on a mound of rubble at the site of the attack and rallied the nation and the world in a war against terror. That image thrust him before the public consciousness as heroic, decisive, in control.

Then the world witnessed  the invasion of Iraq over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, a fantasy that took flight on the wings of a compliant, manipulated media.  This event provided dramatic opportunities to project America’s invincible power through the shock-and-awe filming of the attack on the Iraqi army, and then Baghdad.

Just as Viktor Taransky vigilantly prevented access to the truth, the Department of Defense controlled the flow of images by imbedding journalists. The men and women of the press, and the photographers, became co-conspirators who saw their mission as identical with that of the government. Conversely, Americans never saw the mangled bodies of our soldiers after the blast of a roadside bomb. And they never saw the corpses of Iraqi non-combatants, especially women and children, in their homes, or strewn on the streets. And they never saw the flag-draped coffins of American military personnel on their return home.

The myth of American invincibility and the heroic stature of the President were further enhanced in May 2003, when he was borne by helicopter to the deck of an aircraft carrier. Wearing full military gear, the President stood triumphantly before a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” Viktor Taransky, with all his directorial and computer skills, could not have done it better.

A careful examination of Simone as serious satire, and cautionary moral tale, supports my contention that Andrew Niccol is interested in much more than poking fun at pretentious directors and the celebrity machine. My ultimate purpose in writing this essay is to advocate that Simone be included in the curricula of such courses as social psychology, politics, government, mass communications, and modern history. It deserves a much different fate than it has suffered.

June 2008

From guest contributor Allan Wagenheim

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