Gilbey on Film: virtual reality bites

What happens when directors venture into cyberspace?

In the week that brings the release of Tron: Legacy, the new Disney blockbuster set inside a computer system where gladiatorial combat and neon are the new big things, I read that the 87-year-old film-maker and perpetual adventurer Chris Marker has set up shop in virtual reality. The latest issue of Film Comment reports that Marker, director of La jetée, Sans Soleil and AK, has built a museum in the sky of Second Life, that virtual world where users pilot their avatars through a plasticised parallel reality in which everything seems to be the colour of sports-casual wear on a Florida golf course (at least to these Luddite eyes).

Should you wish to explore the byways of Marker's museum, make a note of these numbers: 187, 61, 39. Those are either the Second Life co-ordinates, or the bus routes that will get you where you're going. Once you've reached the museum's skywalk, writes Film Comment's Jesse P Finnegan, what awaits you inside is a "digital Xanadu . . . strewn with cat-shaped coves, roving humpbacks, a castle keep, and a downed 747 . . . secreted hidden goodies in the nooks and crannies; animated loops, ironically reimagined silent movie posters, and a snapshot of Marker's feline alter-ego, Guillaume, visiting an SL version of Lenin's tomb".

Second Life has already hosted film premieres, but the participation of someone as esteemed and rigorous as Marker brings a hint of class to an enterprise that, for many of us, has never quite shaken its connotations of Dungeons and Dragons. (Not to mention the lunacy of users paying actual money to buy virtual real estate, in an ironic reversal of the situation that precipitated the recession – that is, actual real estate bought with virtual money.) My first thought on hearing about Marker's involvement was: "Maybe Second Life isn't a waste of time after all." This was followed swiftly by: "Peter Greenaway's going to be kicking himself when he hears about this: 'What am I supposed to do with all these bloody CD-Roms?' "

It's possible that there will always be something inherently ridiculous about cinema's dalliances with the virtual realities of cyberspace. Could it be that the art form is too much a limitless virtual reality already? Any portrait of a cyber world can only seem inhibited by comparison. Look at Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, or the original 1985 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, or the recent Coraline, or anything by Buñuel or Polanski – these films establish quickly and vividly the contours of their respective alternative existences with a formalist authority that makes, say, the Matrix sequels, or the Tron movies, seem improvised and off-the-cuff.

I've reviewed Tron: Legacy in this week's NS Christmas Special, but regardless of that film's strengths or weaknesses, it belongs to a tradition of cinematic storytelling that has to work overtime to impress and convince. Suspension of disbelief is a given when we enter a cinema – we may be handing over cash at the popcorn counter, but I always feel like I'm checking in some of my churlish everyday scepticism as well.

A double suspension is asked of us by pictures like The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity or Disclosure (which ends with a cringe-making cyber-showdown); in those cases, the correlation between the corporeal world and its cyber stand-in is so flimsy that the stakes tend to fall to the point of being negligible.

Better for a film-maker to spike the visual excesses of these brave new worlds with scepticism. When Kathryn Bigelow, in Strange Days, or David Cronenberg, in eXistenZ, ventured into the virtual, they did so not to dazzle, but to disorientate. The worlds created in those films are unsettling yet still vaguely familiar – the ad-agency gloss of the fantasies in Strange Days, the humdrum griminess (a factory, a petrol station) of the locations in eXistenZ.

Bigelow and Cronenberg showed that virtual reality offers not an escape from our daily problems and neuroses, but a mirror in which they are magnified to new and horrific proportions.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism