Letter From The Editor - Issue 57 - June 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2017

The Circle

The broken 'Circle' breakdown

On the seven deadly sins of this failed dream, failed thriller, failed cautionary tale, failed satire

The Circle
STX Entertainment
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenplay: James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on the novel by Eggers
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes / 2.35:1
April 28, 2017
(out of four)

The catastrophic failure of James Ponsoldt's The Circle is so comprehensive - so thorough, from the very top, trickling down to every decision made at every level - that I'm afraid I'm going to need some assistance. I'm going to need some visual aides. It's the only way we can really put this fiasco into perspective.

First things first: The film is an adaptation of Dave Eggers' novel about a social-media juggernaut that metastasizes into an omnipotent global overseer, as unassuming in its malevolence as it is virtuous in its stated intentions. Digital totalitarianism under the guise of altruism. One unwitting instrument of that transition is Mae Holland (Emma Watson), who, like much of her generation, sees an entry-level job at The Circle as a career-defining event. With that very opportunity, she becomes both witness and participant - both skeptic and evangelist - in the company's progression from innocuous communication apparatus to 21st Century Big Brother.

In telling a story explicitly about corporatized surveillance and pseudo-voluntary forfeiture of personal sovereignty, both book and film probe familiar grey areas of privacy vs. security, liberty vs. safety. The perpendicular paradoxes of transparency and free will. All of which sounds fine on paper but turns to dust in Ponsoldt's hands. To get across exactly how and why, how about a few object lessons? 7 films, 7 directors. Please note these are not direct parallels to The Circle; these are not movies with the same premise or the same objectives. There are pointed similarities in each case, but I'm not arguing that The Circle should have been this or should have been that. But these examples should, in specific ways, illuminate how this movie fails and how - in some abstract way - it perhaps could have succeeded. By design, the below films skew modern and American, as I was looking for some aggregate sense of what The Circle could have realistically looked like - if only there were a different set of impulses, a different set of hands. To put it more simply: Everything about this incarnation of The Circle is shit, and here are seven movies to prove it.

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Forget futurism - both Brazil and The Circle are direct commentaries on, and interpretations of, the world and time in which they were made. But from looking at the latter, you'd never know it. Oh sure, it looks like the modern world, all right - it just has nothing to say about it. Terry Gilliam's satirical classic, meanwhile, ingested all the frustrations and absurdities of municipal British life circa the mid-1980s and spit out a frantic, funhouse-nightmare reflection of it, simultaneously ordinary and alien. His world was a "perfect" systemic organism of regulations and protocols, asserting perpetual control over citizens yet somehow administratively absent - a well-oiled bureaucratic dystopia with no oversight and no responsibility.

Modern life in Brazil was an engine of elaborately constructed yet carelessly antiquated machinery. Rusty ducts and cloudy chutes dipping into every office and living room and restaurant; transparent, fish-eyed computer displays - one warped screen within another, like bifocal windows into distorted psyches - serving as a mocking reminder of an oppressive yet inept surveillance state. An ornate existential infrastructure - social and spiritual chaos masquerading as order - with the exaggerated height and breadth of every physical structure, overpowering greys and shadows, and relentlessly circular pace of information and illogic breathlessly reflecting the state of mind of the film, its hero, and its creator. Gilliam saw a mad world and captured its madness. A world in which identity - constantly questioned, surveilled, intruded upon - is literally as fragile as a typo.

(While we're at it, his recent The Zero Theorem is a lesser but a similarly interesting example. His soft interpretation of modern life is a candy-colored, noisy, shiny fantasia retrofitted onto the dilapidated, derelict architecture of abandoned cathedrals and fading 20th Century metropolitanism. One civilization plopped on top of another.)

Few can create a world the way he can, and few, at any rate, have the inclination to be as toweringly expressionistic. But even without Gilliam Vision, one should expect ... well, something out of Ponsoldt's adaptation. When in contention for a job, directors pitch their unique vision for the project. What was his pitch for The Circle? Or rather: What could his pitch possibly have been, now that we see this flat, flavorless result? Something like Brazil is an example of a triumph of directorial vision; it has a world and point-of-view entirely its own. The Circle has neither. Regarding the former, we can assume that a certain proximity to reality was a starting point - fair enough, given the way its premise and titular company are based on so many mainstays of modern living. Social media, smartphones, ubiquitous cameras and microphones and tracking devices - and the pervasive communication and visibility that come with those things. But proximity to reality sounds better than it plays. The film's setting is one of those extravagant Silicon Valley campuses, and yet Ponsoldt displays absolutely no imagination for how we should be visually experiencing this place. Yeah, so it looks like the brochure. And? We're talking about an entity that pitches itself as the friendliest place on earth - a welcoming, chummy, optimistic, one-size-fits-all humanitarian utopia - only to offer tyranny at its most cheerful. And, what, a blandly realistic rendering of this world is the best we get? Ponsoldt simply has no point-of-view with which to tell this story - or if he does, he certainly has no idea how to express it.

The Game (David Fincher, 1997)
On its surface, The Game has little in common with The Circle. This is an urban thriller from the late 1990s, when social media wasn't even a concept, let alone a threat for cultural takeover. Its protagonist is a jaded, unhappy corporate power player, rather than a bright-eyed young idealist. Even by late-20th Century standards, it skews toward the old-fashioned in its plot devices - neo-noir rather than tech thriller. Analog puzzles, handwritten clues. City buses and hotel bars and Polaroids. An inverted scavenger hunt, elaborately designed and executed by hand. And to add to that, the whole thing is an intimate, one-person story. Michael Douglas may be fighting and running for his life, but it's just one life; everyone's under threat in The Circle.

Except that's just it. The Game is so existentially frightening precisely because of the impact its oppressive, rigged system has on the individual. The loss of privacy, the loss of identity, the surreal removal of the character's apparent agency. In The Circle, whether this burgeoning dystopia revolves around any one person is beside the point; what matters is that it will invariably feel that way, to anyone who happens to find him- or herself under observation. The film has one clumsy subplot that attempts to amplify this idea. However, it's not only a badly underdeveloped storyline to begin with, but its chosen perspective for the climactic scene fails to get across the (admittedly complicated) blend of emotions, visceral impulses and states of mind it's trying to play with. Empathy and sadism, fear and exhilaration, complicity and indifference, active and passive. To its credit, this sequence also provides the film's only memorable shot - in which Mae is framed against a live recording on a massive screen, pretty much exactly proportional, to evoke her active participation in the act of horrifying invasiveness taking place in front of us. But that's one evocative image among too many empty ones. And Mae herself - our protagonist - is rarely interesting, let alone plausible. She is a nonsensically written patsy who behaves with a casual indifference to free will, except when the movie needs an ending.

To these points - the emotional or psychological feeling this type of story, one of personal encroachment from omnipotent powers, is meant to provoke - it once again comes down to interpretation and point-of-view. Like Brazil, The Game creates its own reality, even as it's grounded in a recognizable, contemporary setting. The film is set in the real world, more or less, but it has the distinct whiff of science fiction. The production design - particularly the interiors - feels futuristic not only by 1997 standards but in a certain sense even now. Which is to say, it feels like a time and place entirely its own. It has the Kubrickian mood of alternate reality. The black porcelain walls of a high-rise bathroom; the rich, dark hues of the decor; the cold metallic heaviness of the air inside building after building. To say nothing of the shadowy emptiness outside. It doesn't feel just like a game designed for investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, but an entire planet, sparsely populated and meticulously calculated to provoke in him anxiety and dread. To take away control. Horizontal and diagonal lines slice unnervingly through David Fincher's frames with conspicuous regularity: the imbalanced partitions of the glass curtain-walls in a mysterious corporate office; the decorative horizontal lines hugging him on either side of an elevator's reflective black and silver surfaces; the sharp beams of light cascading down upon him from a film projector.

The Game plays largely like a precursor to surveillance-state paranoia (loss of data, loss of control) in a way that feels markedly different from the many corporate thrillers from the same era that now look archaic. It functions psychologically rather than technologically, so it never comes across as a product of its own time. It feels both post-Matrix and post-Nolan despite being made well before either. While barely even addressing it explicitly, The Game somehow manages to say volumes more about the formidable power of technology than a film like The Circle that is built entirely around the idea.

The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
The declared intention of The Circle - namely its braintrust of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (a miscast Patton Oswalt) - is complete transparency. Everyone's lives recorded and stored, all day, every day. Their approach is piecemeal - they convince individuals to volunteer to "go transparent" (which involves wearing miniature cameras at all times), starting with politicians (in an effort to stamp out corruption) and then continuing with private (or once-private) citizens, with the goal of bringing virtually everyone on earth into the fold in due time. There are brief exceptions for one's transparency, for things like bathroom breaks or sexual activity. (Three minutes for the former, hopefully longer for the latter.)

Inevitably, Mae becomes one such volunteer to go transparent - deciding to record every second of her life, the direct interaction with her millions of watchers and followers becoming part of her daily routine. Much to the chagrin of her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton) and ex-boyfriend Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane, who does not have a future in acting). She is an instant celebrity, her daily life being of apparently great interest to people across the globe. (Although, given that the goal is for everyone to eventually be transparent, diminishing returns are an inevitability, once and more viewing options open up and fracture the audience.)

While this deliberately expands on our own real-world tools of performative individuality and neo-celebrity - Periscope, Snapchat, and various other forms of social media - there's also an obvious line going back to the late '90s, when Peter Weir's The Truman Show and Ron Howard's EDtv were released within a year of each other, when reality television was in its infancy. Nearly two decades later, Truman - and its title hero, Jim Carrey's Truman Burbank - remains the benchmark, fictional or otherwise, for the idea of normal lives being lived in front of a live audience.

The Circle posits the same idea on a bigger (and obviously more voluntary for the person being broadcast) scale. But mostly it just throws its ideas on screen - messages from around the world constantly pop up, responding and commenting on every detail of her life - without ever fully embodying either her experience (as the observed) or that of her audience. I use The Truman Show as an example not just because of the similarity of premise but because of aesthetic choices. My previous examples of Brazil and The Game are both driven by expressionist impulses, to the point of fantasy, but that doesn't apply here. That Ponsoldt's filmmaking is aesthetically banal is not a result of a lack of Gilliam's sensory overload or Fincher's psychological distortions, and Weir's work on The Truman Show is proof of that. There's nothing fantastical about it. By design, it reflects the soothing cleanliness of broadcast television. Everyone but Truman is aware they're on TV - it's their job, after all - and how they behave while they're being recorded and watched is a subtly fascinating mixture of authenticity and performance. There are two different modes of behavior worth watching here: First, Truman himself, blissfully unaware anyone but his friendly neighbors and loved ones are ever watching him, before gradually coming to the realization (or, in his mind, possible paranoid delusion) that he's under constant surveillance (by conspirators or gods?) for some unexplained reason. We (and his global following) watch as his behavior undergoes changes - sometimes a desperate or frantic gesture, sometimes a simple change of expression - the more and more aware he becomes of his reality

And then there's everyone else - the career performers whose job it is to create Truman's reality every minute of every day. They, like Mae, are willingly aware of every camera, and every viewer. The Truman Show never actually asks, as The Circle explicitly does, how being constantly observed alters (improves? limits?) your choices and behaviors, and yet it (and Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone and Laura Linney in particular) provides profound insights into that very question. The Circle's voluntary personal surveillance is meant to represent a sort of systematic coercion and control, and yet Ponsoldt's perception of it is the cinematic equivalent of a shrug emoji.

Gamer (Mark Neveldine / Brian Taylor, 2009)
Filmmakers have had a tough time figuring out what to do with modern messaging. That's no secret. Texting, tweeting, Instagramming - it's all so simple and clean in reality, and yet efficiently translating that into a compelling visual has been a persistent challenge. And, perhaps unavoidably, a monotonous one. Bubbles pop up on screen as characters type - or in some cases only the words themselves. Sometimes a director will go with a split-screen. Or a character will speak out loud what they're typing, or narrate it internally. (In the case of Jon Favreau's Chef, tweets actually whistle and fly away when they're sent.) (That was ... not a good idea, but at least it was an idea.)

But it goes beyond just dramatizing texts and tweets, to the larger question of how to represent the interfaces that have become such an unavoidable part of daily existence. That such things are fairly rigid in their usage, purpose and appearance only complicates matters. Cinema is in a sort of limbo where it's necessary to acknowledge these aspects of life but not necessarily essential to do much with them beyond their basic functions. I have no doubt that great filmmakers will find remarkable things to do with it all, in time, especially as our technological and visual experiences and expectations continue to expand. Films like Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows and Levan Gabriadze's Unfriended effectively use screen experiences as their visual canvas, but both have very specific plots that require it. They are "exceptions" largely by default. Something like Benjamin Dickinson's Creative Control opens things up a bit, with its near-future depiction of augmented reality glasses.

On more overt futuristic terms, the best example is of course Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, whose brilliantly inventive use of fluid visual interfaces has been copied by everyone on the planet in the 15 years since its release. But unlike that film, Gamer - Neveldine/Taylor's big-studio follow-up to their Chev Chelios opuses, Crank and Crank: High Voltage - came along just as social media was taking off as the force we know today, and the filmmakers went out of their way to turn that and other online concepts into a huge, bustling, self-contained environment. As seen through the eyes of (primarily) its teen gamer played by Logan Lerman, Gamer creates a relentless panorama of apps, videos, messages, broadcasts, games, advertisements, music and animation. Audiovisual chaos as the new normal of daily living. I'm not using Gamer as an example because it's a great movie or anything, but because, if nothing else, its experiential vision is absolutely fully formed.

The Circle stands in contrast to it because, hello, its entire world is a broadcast social-media existence. Especially once the plot fully kicks into gear, but even before then, Mae and everyone else at The Circle interact with the world on almost nothing but digital-social terms. This wide-reaching, endlessly capable apparatus is, or at least quickly becomes, Mae's entire world, all of her surroundings, and all of ours. And yet its visual interface - which is to say, its entire physical environment - is a giant nothing. It offers only the same banal visual ideas everyone else has been going with for the last decade. This movie is not only depicting an invasive system, but rapid change within that system - something getting bigger, more expansive, more invasive. A self-perpetuating organism of constant stimuli. And yet it more or less just settles for the same few old-hat ideas, on repeat, and never gets anywhere else. A director should have been able to go nuts with this canvas. It begs for imagination! Instead, I've rarely seen a movie less visually interesting than this one. There's cleanliness and simplicity, and then there's simply a vacuum of creativity.

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
So: About cleanliness and simplicity. Both The Circle and Spike Jonze's Her adhere to that visual philosophy, and a key factor of both films is their relationship to current culture and technology. The former is grounded only in what is technically feasible, but heightens it, pushes it to the extreme; Jonze's film is an evolution of it all - artificial intelligence in particular, but more generally, interactive and virtual technologies, communication itself, and trousers. In fact, it's ultimately even more significantly concerned with evolution than expected, with the technology humans had come to connect with leaping far beyond its intended design and leaving humanity behind.

But the detectable, superficial similarities between the films' aesthetics (Apple's influence on both cannot be understated) reveal what a deep divide there is between a film with vision and one without any. Aside from both stories' reliance on interaction with an operating system, the most noticeable similarity is the emphasis on red in the color scheme - the dominant color of the visual interfaces that pop up in both films, reflected consistently in the lighting and fashion choices. But in The Circle, we're seeing a utilitarian choice. A nice, clean presentation - attractive, in a boring sort of way. (You never get the sense that it's particularly seductive - a relevant point, considering it's meant to clandestinely light the way toward a mass sacrifice of basic privacy and civil liberties - but then again, the clean/attractive/boring trifecta worked brilliantly for Facebook, so we'll let it slide.) In execution, it's never anything more than practical. As for Her, all of its emotional data is conveyed in those muted, overcast pastels. The red windowshades, the pink shirts and set dressing and background details. The film is soft, warm, optimistic, underneath a veneer of melancholy. Consider how drastically different the film would feel if its reds were replaced with greys and browns, or with washed-out blues.

The Circle is a good illustration of how the effectiveness of a film's visual language boils down to the collaboration between director and cinematographer. It was shot by Matthew Libatique, who has done great work with Darren Aronofsky and Spike Lee over the years. Together, he and Aronofsky made Pi (incidentally another film I considered for this piece). That shoestring film was buoyed by its visual energy, which immaculately got into the state of mind of a character who gets caught up in a situation against forces of power he has no idea how to contend with, or even comprehend. Sounds familiar, and yet The Circle is so visually indistinct it might as well have been a radio play.

The Congress (Ari Folman, 2014)
The objectives and ambitions of The Circle and Ari Folman's The Congress are on completely opposite ends. One is meditative and abstract, a decade-spanning self-referential experiment whose shifts from live-action to animation and back again embody the instability of the plane(s) of consciousness in which its characters and ideas reside. The other is an attempt at a pure, straightforward thriller - uncluttered, linear, to-the-point, deriving all of its intended drama from its very tangibility. And while both deal, to one degree or another, with the volatile future of identity itself, here too they are at odds - The Congress' narrative is built on the fungibility and replicability of it; The Circle's premise revolves around its confined inescapability.

Leaving aside that Folman's expressionistic daring is an approach that definitely could work for The Circle - one can easily imagine the same premise taking a bold conceptual leap - the version we get still treads in similar waters as The Congress, just from a different angle. Identity in the digital age is, I suspect, a subject that will be returned to at an exponential rate in the years to come; The Congress is far from the first, but it may get to the spiritual, intangible truth of the matter better than any other. Its basic plot quite literally turns identity into a commodity, as Robin Wright - playing a version of herself - digitizes and signs over all rights to her image, her name, to a certain degree her existence. As the years pass, that image gets packaged and resold, and eventually there are countless coexisting versions of "Robin Wright" running around, with various people abandoning their former selves and "becoming" Robin Wright. All while she, now a private citizen and no longer legally allowed to be the public figure she was, has faded into obsolescence. Thematically similar movies often wrap those ideas up in narratives that more or less reduce self or identity or self-determination to simple mechanisms, rather than exploring the ideas themselves. But Folman, by transforming them into something allegorical, speculative and surreal, expresses something almost inexpressible about identity, and the loss of it, and the cheapening of it. Ever wake up from a dream feeling like you lost something profoundly important but can't remember what it is? There are moments in The Congress like that - quietly devastating in a strange, fuzzy, obscure way.

In both films, reality is traded for a simulated form of reality - but only in The Congress do those simulations and transformations and replications mean anything. The experience of The Circle is meant to be increasingly scary the more and more one's life is put under a microscope, or lived at the mercy of those watching (and, in a sense, possessing) it; and yet on a visceral level it's not scary at all. The Congress, meanwhile, is restrained in its pace and mournful in its tone, but when it contemplates itself and its world, stares into that void, it's shattering. Fear is the least of it.

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
Two Finchers, and neither one of them is the movie he actually made about the Internet. But though a hypothetical Fincher-directed version of The Circle would have made a fascinating, alternate-reality companion piece to The Social Network, his Fight Club is, in a sense, a pre-Internet version of ... well, if not The Circle, then something an awful lot like it. And just to be clear: Yes, the film isn't technically pre-Internet at all - I remember the 1999 version of the Internet quite well - but it has virtually no presence in Fight Club. Like so many of the other perks of modern living, the film's denizens aggressively reject it, even without saying so. Instead, it's all phone booths and bulletin boards and catalog shopping and fax machines. Fliers and brochures and good old-fashioned word of mouth. In whispers and rumors, mostly. (After all, imagine how much harder it would be to enforce the first and second rules if members could just post something anonymously online.)

Any decent movie about a cult might have worked as an appropriate counterpoint to The Circle, but few (if any) wrap themselves up in a psychological quagmire, of both leader(s) and followers, in quite as propulsive, tumultuous a fashion as does this one. It is a rebellion, then a lark, then an ideology, then a manifesto, then a terrorist creed, with countless contradictions sprinkled in between. It is, the film (if not all of its fan base) is fully aware, a grand absurdity, but the way it indulges its charismatic leader's bullshit allows it to glide into the fatalistic (but fun!) sense of inescapable (but fun!) doom that takes over the mood down the stretch. As in so many paranoid, psychological and/or political thrillers - not to mention screwball comedies - Fight Club's protagonist gets tangled up in something he only realizes is perilous at the moment when it's too late to get out. The Circle fits the same profile, yet its attempts at scaring us (or the members of its cult) straight never feel momentous, if only because The Circle itself never feels like anything more than an overly nosey, overly friendly corporate machine. It could use that to its advantage, but it never does. Tyler Durden's cult becomes as powerful as it does - and Fight Club the film follows suit - because the cult itself takes on a life of its own. The creation becomes far more powerful than the creator. In theory, this is the exact same thing that The Circle is going for - all the rules rewritten, the freedoms given up, the surveillance infrastructure put in place, designed to make the thing itself an all-knowing, all-powerful entity. But in its cinematic conception, it's far too normal for its own good.

Eggers' source novel isn't particularly good either, displaying a strange lack of confidence in its ability to illustrate what it wants to say. He resorts to giving certain characters long-winded speeches that didactically outline all of their (and, presumably, our) objections to this snowballing techno-dystopia, point by clunky point. It's thunderingly obvious in its premise, its argument, its ethical dilemmas. It makes the implicit unnecessarily explicit. The movie version somehow both doubles down on everything that failed about the book and makes the book look much, much stronger by comparison. The novel may be didactic and simple, but the film adaptation is too spare in its thought and intellect to even be didactic. It doesn't know if or how to be a cautionary tale, or a satire, or a straight thriller; it doesn't know if or how to be political or psychological, angry or detached. It doesn't know what to do with its protagonist, let alone anyone else. That's the most curious part. I mean, if anything, you'd think Ponsoldt could relate to a story about being in way over your head.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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