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Synthetic Pleasures

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Synthetic Pleasures

Starring: Timothy Leary, Michio Kaku
Director: Iara Lee
Rated: NR
RunTime: 83 Minutes
Release Date: September 1996
Genre: Documentary

Review by Steve Rhodes
2½ stars out of 4

I love documentaries. If I had a bumper sticker on my car, it would probably read "This car breaks for documentaries" or "Documentarians do it with realism."

The best documentaries are made in the cutting room where the documentarian decides just how long to go with each scene. Of those practicing their craft today, Leni Riefenstahl is pretty much retired, Michael Apted is the best at this. I would suggest that everyone interested at all in film see his 28 UP and 35 UP. As he follows a group of English men and women as they grow up, he has an uncanny ability to linger with an interview at length and yet know exactly when to cut away. MTV directors and most American newscasts have the five seconds and cut rule. Makes for a fast past, but does little to enlighten.

SYNTHETIC PLEASURES is a new documentary made in the Silicon Valley, where else with a name like that, but it features scenes from all over the world with special emphasis on Japan. The film is produced by the owner, George Gund, of the local San Jose Sharks hockey team and is directed by his wife Iara Lee. Both are first time film makers and the results show. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and provocative film and worth seeing.

If I had a single criticism, it is of the editing by Stacia Thompson and Andreas Troeger. Lee's choice of subjects are fascinating, but the editors are way too influenced by MTV. Lee should have edited the picture herself, and she should have spent more time on the synthetic pleasures part of the movie and less on the peripheral material like cryonics.

So what does the documentary show us? Well, it starts mainly in Japan with large indoor artificial environments of all types. This is the best part of the film. We see gigantic buildings where people inside are skiing, surfing, golfing, fishing, you name it. The film says people like these better than the real thing because they are guaranteed consistency and perfection - the snow will always be white powder, the waves large, the fish biting, etc.

The movie is a three way blend of visits to places of synthetic pleasures, talking heads about technology and computer animations. The first is the most fascinating, and the last the most boring. The expert's views provide as much comical relief as insights. Among other things we are told are, "Technology is power to us," "You no longer have to go to the Pyramids, the Pyramids come to you [in Las Vegas]," and "The electricity goes off, and you discover you're not living in Paradise, you're living in Hell." The last quote seem apropos since I saw the movie the day after a ten statewide power outage! It also reminded me of WESTWORLD where they have a little trouble with their artificial environments. See my recent review of it for more details.

After a while the show begins to bog down with all of the stuff Lee tries to cram in. We have everything from old science fiction movies to women who want to use virtual reality to feel the sexuality of a man to people discussing all of the places on their bodies that have been pierced to a section on cyberporn. Lee takes a kitchen sink approach which almost sinks the film.

Like the photographer who takes a thousand pictures in the hope that a few good ones will emerge, Lee interviews countless number of people. One is French performance artist Orlan who tells us, "I gave my body to art." She is shown getting her ninth plastic surgery to rearrange her face to make a different artistic statement. In a very gory sequence we see her face being cut open so that her doctor can make large puffy areas the size of a sliced peach above her eyes. Another low point in the show is a very spaced out guy with rings all over his body and with multicolored hair who informs us, "I definitely think artificial intelligence is happening and will take over." The film is full of pop science, and provocative choices of experts.

SYNTHETIC PLEASURES runs 1:25. The film is not rated, but would be an R. It has nudity, sexual situations, and one gory scene. It would be fine for most teenagers. I recommend this film to you even with its flaws. The good parts are fascinating, and if you don't like a section, all you need do is wait two minutes, and the film will have switched to something else entirely. I give the show ** 1/2.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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