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Simone
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Simone, short for Simulation One, is the most recent film directed by Andrew Niccol, who also directed the enchanting Truman Show and the sinister Gattaca. It’s playing in cinemas everywhere, one of the last big summer blockbusters. This film stars Al Pacino in a comic role, which is quite unusual for this intense, somber actor. It also stars Catharine keener as Pacino’s ex-wife and someone mysteriously referred to as only “Simone” in the credits as Simone. Pacino is a has-been director by the name of Viktor Taransky, who rails against Hollywood’s sell-out and the prima donna character of leading ladies nowadays. Winona Ryder makes a brief appearance as the prima donna in question. His films are, from everything we can gather, given their titles and the odd dream-sequence/soft focus scenes we are shown, absolutely atrocious. Desperate to make his movie and having been dumped by his leading lady, Taransky accidentally receives an unexpected posthumous gift from a mad scientist/computer geek-type who dies of cancer from spending too much time near his screen. The gift is Simone and, in a citation of some of the oldest stories known to the west,--Pygmalion, for example, or the story of Xeuxis--Taransky proceeds to make a living star from digital “bytes” and pieces, cobbling together facial features expressions from the classic Hollywood stars of yesteryear.

Simone is, predictably, a smashing success, and becomes a national emblem of realness, satirizing American gullibility and the cut of the movie star. As the plot heats up, the public becomes more and more insistent that Simone show her face, so that much of the film follows the antics of director Taransky in his attempt to give the people what they want while realizing his cinematic dream. Like Wag the Dog, this is a movie that cynically takes aim at our unfaltering belief in illusion and at the industry that capitalizes on it. But, like any movie that tries to tell this particular story, Simone is also a joke about itself, since it too relies on the illusion to captivate us and force us to suspend our disbelief. Do we? This is a question you will have to answer for yourself, since the movie keeps the digitalized actress’s secret right through to the credits.

Thoroughly entertaining in its effects, and clever in its jokes, Simone asks us to wonder what it might mean for directors to do away altogether with “real” actors. Would we know the difference? Would it matter? Ironically, for those of you who read the recent New York Times article on the making of a pop star, this is precisely what has scandalized—or not—the pop industry for quite some time: stars are made, not born, voices digitally enhanced, body doubles substituted for the bodies who are singing, all in the name of success and profit. But leading ladies? As the film reminds us, our historic Hollywood hopes and dreams are caught up in images and memories of the likes of Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn, and Bette Davis—what will it mean if Hollywood goes the way of simulation, delivering not divas but digital avatars? Or, are we always already only caught up in an illusion?

This is the oldest male fantasy in the book, that of the artist giving technological birth to (second) nature, represented by the figure of feminine beauty, and succeeding in creating perfection where nature sometimes fails. To Niccol’s credit, the creation in question clearly lacks the character of the leading ladies of the past, while the creator is, like the wizard of Oz, a kind of pathetic bumbler who really has very little talent at all. And, although he suggests that the American moviegoing public is easily fooled and seems to look down on us a bit for that, Niccol also seems aware that most directors lack the wherewithal to hold our attention. The real geniuses, if there are any, are the computer geeks and the business folks, those who know either how to create effective illusions—Marx’s talking commodities, if you will--or those, the capitalists, who know how to profit from them.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.