Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wild Palms (1993)

So, as in my recent excursus to the Southland, I find myself again in a Los Angelean world of sur/hyper/realism, set almost but not quite in the present (WP is in fact set in 2007, then fourteen years or so in the future) in a techno-magical-realist world in which plots are convoluted, costumes are outrageous, and seeing is definitely not believing.

WP, a mini-series written by Bruce Wagner, is based on a comic strip of his, which I haven't read (Oliver Stone was an executive producer, but he was using his powers for good, not for evil). Wagner described the comic strip as a 'tone poem' and there's definitely an element of that to the TV series. The plot follows Harry Wyckoff (Jim Belushi), a patent attorney and family man living 'the dream' (including the element of the dream where things would always be more satisfying if you just had that much more material wealth) in Los Angeles. Harry's been having strange dreams about finding a rhinoceros in his empty pool; and he's about to run into an old flame, Paige Katz (Kim Cattrall). Meanwhile, technology has just given birth to interactive, 'virtual reality' television, embodied in the new series Church Windows, spearheaded by Senatoir Anton Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), head of Channel Three, founder of the Synthiotics religion and champion of New Realism. Oh, and there's an ongoing conflict between two shadowy underground groups, which nonetheless seem to have conspiracyesque connections to the corridors of political power. lost yet? You should be...

Wild Palms is a treat. It has a very filmic and decadent quality, and visually it's gorgeous - I'd say, more of a late eighties than a nineties sensibility, with a strong Japanese thematic, post-modernised fifties elegance, and some post-apocalyptic post-punk thrown in for good measure. The casting is inspired - I particularly enjoyed Ben Savage (for those of us of an age to cherish fond childhood memories of The Wonder Years, he's Fred Savage's brother) as a child who's definitely not what he first appears to be...

Thematically, there's a definite problematisation of the role of television as a form of 'brainwashing' (with more than a nod to Christianity), and the pleasures and dangers of a virtualised reality, without being heavy-handed or anti-technology in that tiresomely common way which suggests that we'd be a healthier society if we were to sit around playing parlour games, or (worse still) playing sport; while Senator Kreutzer seems to be at least in part a satire on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology (though in the present-day context, both in terms of media dominance and conspiracy, I'd also think of Italian prime minister and monopolistic media mogul with the daytime soapstar looks, Silvio Berlusconi). The series itself, with the soap-opera quality of the interactions between characters (Angie Dickinson, as Wyckoff's scheming mother-in-law, is particularly effective), reflects the glossy surfaces which the series itself takes as its subject. Throughout, the influence of Philip K. Dick is very much in evidence.

As a viewer, every time you think you've got a grip on what's going on, even if only in relation to one character or plotline, your expectations are suddenly confounded, mirroring Wyckoff's experience. Particular phrases and symbols echo through the narrative like reverb-drenched samples - indeed, there's very much a 'remix' aesthetic to this work; all the elements of a traditional narrative are there, but they've been taken apart and stuck back together in a very decentreing way. Points of comparison would be Twin Peaks, another early nineties show playing deep games with appearance and reality; and works like Existenz or Videodrome which use science-fiction futurism to blur and interpenetrate the line between appearance and reality, between flesh and technology.

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