- American Cinematographer
- AP Magazine
- Asia Week
- The Austin American-Statesman
- Babel Online Magazine
- Dazed and Confused
- Entertainment Weekly
- The Hollywood Reporter
- KGB Magazine
- The New York Times – September 13, 1996
- The New York Times – September 16, 1996
- Next Generation
- PCWorld (Brazilian edition)
- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- The Plain Dealer – March 22, 1996
- The Plain Dealer – September 21, 1996
- Project X
- The Record
- The San Diego Union-Tribune
- San Francisco Chronicle – April 19, 1996
- San Francisco Chronicle – August 30, 1996
- Silicon Graphics World
- URB Magazine
- The Village Voice 1
- The Village Voice 2
- The Washington Post
The feminist writer George Sand accepted the future as a fait accompli. “If the people of the future are better than us,” she wrote in 1834, “they will perhaps look back with feelings of pity and tenderness for struggling souls who once divined a little of what the future would bring.”
Sitting on the edge of her bed in her Manhattan apartment-cum-editing studio in 1995, 28-year-old film director Iara Lee echoes Sand’s sentiments: “You can’t put a stop to technology. The issue becomes, ‘how can we guide ourselves to a better future? How can we write a constitution for the future?”
Lee has just finished Synthetic Pleasures, the award winning director’s first feature length documentary which attempts to divine a view of the future from the 1990s. The film is an electronic road movie whose frenetic editing technique replaces a traditional film narrative; the quick pace coupled with a techno soundtrack simulates the intensity of a manufactured world.
Synthetic Pleasures begins with an extreme example of humankind’s effort to tap nature’s power; a memorable image of a Japanese indoor ski slope and indoor beach. While a horrific storm rages outside Seagaia (AKA Ocean Dome), inside individuals continue to sunbathe and surf.
Lee cuts to a scene featuring the chair of philosophy at New York University, Bob Gurland. “We distill these parts of the experience which are pleasant, positive, danger-free,” Gurland says of these controlled environments. “We don’t need to worry whether or not the sun is really going to be out, because we create an environment that is essentially optimal.”
Among the many others who ponder the inauthentic around us are Timothy Leary, R.U. Sirius, editor-in-chief of Mondo 2000 magazine, DNA scientist Robert Pollack, and Virtual Reality pioneer Howard Rheingold.
Lee leads us to Las Vegas’ cyber chapels; to the controversial biosphere project, in Arizona; and then on to the CAD (Computer Animated Design) Institute in Phoenix, the first institution to offer a degree in Virtual Reality.
The next section turns with “pity and tenderness” to the obsession with the body and the ability to change our anatomy through previously unimaginable avenues such as genetic engineering and plastic surgery. French performance artist Orlan, who is using her own body as her canvas, intones to camera: “I don’t do plastic surgery to enhance my beauty or age, but to get a total transformation of my look and identity. I want to prove that the body is obsolete, just a costume.”
Finally, the film examines the increasing ability of humans to change their identities through such mood-altering drugs as the now ubiquitous Prozac, which even Princess Di is said to have a prescription for. Says one Prozac user: “If you want to be a blond, you get your hair dyed. If you want to be a peppy blond, you get your hair dyed and a Prozac prescription.”
And how does Lee think future societies will look back on the 1990s? Lee pauses for a few seconds and laughs. “While exponential change is still relative. Think about how the early science fiction writers envisioned the turn of the millennium. In the mid-90s we still have cars polluting our highways, not personal jet capsules…There are no Earth colonies on distant galaxies. I think what is happening now in the cyber world is akin to Ford’s Model-T. It’s all so primitive.”
Several segments of Synthetic Pleasures are already available on the Net, including a 10 second segment from the indoor beach. Lee hopes the entire film will eventually be available for downloading, “if anyone has the patience to do that.”
Festival Circuit – Unusual Offerings Highlight Toronto Film Festival
Of the many fine documentaries at the festival, one stands out as especially unusual and thought-provoking. Synthetic Pleasures, conceived and directed by Iara Lee and produced by George Gund, is a feature length sci-fi documentary that explores the world of cyberspace in a most imaginative fashion.
Lee’s previous short films have been poetic, visual and beautiful, but Synthetic Pleasures, her first feature, carries forward her lyrical visual style. It captivates the viewer as she guides us on an encyclopedic journey into the startling universe of high-tech living and demonstrates the extent to which cutting edge technology has permeated our lives.
The film opens with a montage of natural landscapes – beaches and forests, mountains and deserts – contrasted with a number of artificial spaces such as theme park jungles and indoor environments. A voice-over presents the question of whether our human drive to control nature and overcome it’s limitations is serving us well or rather is disconnecting us from the ecological cycle and even ourselves.
We see shots of surfing, a sport which demands a respect for nature’s power, form and rhythms. But then the camera pulls back to reveal that the surfer is actually riding the waves of a man made sea, contained within a huge structure, complete with artificial beaches and filtered air.
In Japan, where this biosphere is currently in use, many people prefer this environment to the real thing. It’s reliable, clean and easily accessible – a respite from polluted waters, dirty air and overcrowding. The Japanese have also built artificial mountains, complete with snow and ski resorts, all contained in huge buildings.
“In Japan the people consider this technological wonder to be just a part of life,” Lee says. “It’s only bizarre and science fiction for us because we observe it from the outside.” The film shows how people today are seeking out new ways to be gratified by unnatural pleasures, and then moves to the world of high-tech computer-generated images of nature as seen in video games and in virtual reality – all of which, as the film tells us, has the potential for transforming human consciousness.
“Human beings have always had this desire for transcendence,” says Lee. “We are essentially insatiable animals. Intrinsically, we don’t accept nature; this desire to change is innate. Technology seems to give us more power to change or at least the illusion that we can do it.
“There are many adventures that are inaccessible in the physical world, which could only be enjoyed in the virtual one,” she says. “Computers and RV help us transcend the physical world, and therefore can be considered mind expanding. This infinite quest for expansion of the mind goes back to ancient times and is being continued in our day through technology.
“Technology becomes a lifestyle. Synthetic Pleasures tries to get beyond high-tech theory and engage technology where it is lived. Computers facilitate tasks, but somehow make us work even harder. Technology frees and slaves at the same time. It is a wonderful contradiction.”
In a mixture of interviews, previously-produced footage and original computer graphics, the film delves into genetic engineering, smart drugs, mood drugs, “body art” (scenes of a performance artist who videotapes herself undergoing plastic surgery in order to “make herself a work of art” are particularly bizarre), cryonics, robotics, artificial life, life extension and, of course, erotic pleasures.
Lee’s extensive use of mind bending footage, good pacing, and lively editing succeeds in drawing the viewer deeper into this futuristic time warp and in bringing home the point that all of the elements the film discusses are happening to some extent today.
The film offers broader perspectives on our relationship with technology, where this relationship is taking us, and what its implications will be for the future. ” The reality is that we are all living in the post industrial age and there is no way we can stop technology,’ says Lee. “We can only go beyond it by living through it.”
What Becomes Of Our Humanity When Technology Is Both Our Slave And Master? Iara Lee Explores The Possibilities In Synthetic Pleasures.
This modern world is, in all facets, shaped by technology. However, the society affected by all this technology is the same one creating it.
Therefore, the role of digitalia is one yet to be established by contemporary civilizations: How does one control that by which one is controlled? It’s an interesting conundrum and, with the advent of both Internet culture and hi- tech, fast paced digital technology, ours is a culture that is continually blurring the line between Virtual Reality and Reality Reality. Those issues of control, as well as that ever blurring line, are the subject of director Iara Lee’s new film Synthetic Pleasures: A Sci-Fi Documentary About Our Hi-Tech World.
Less a traditional documentary than it is a philosophical travelogue through the assets and absurdities of the Information Age, the film examines how modern culture is detaching itself from traditional, “real” life experiences in favor of controlled environments and existence. The role of “hi- tech” is but a subtext to the picture’s larger message, and Lee demonstrates that humans- whether online or in Las Vegas- seem to be always searching for ways to manipulate their lives in finite, manageable ways and that controlled, “synthetic pleasures” are slowly but surely replacing the long- accepted randomness of life on earth. ” I think that as soon as you’re going to die, and that thought is always very strong in our mind, and we have no control, no matter what we do, to prevent that from happening, “says Lee via telephone from her New York office ( ironically, we attempted and email interview, but she couldn’t get online) . ” I think that now, technology allows us to control our fantasies somewhat, but the ultimate goal is to control life and to be able to reach immortality.
“But, the question is, is that really the point? Should we just accept nature as it is, or should we feel entitled to manipulate it? Should we go skiing in the summertime? Should we, if we’re born a boy, become a girl? Accepting nature as it is seems to be the past thing on anyone’s mind in Synthetic Pleasures. Indoor Japanese golf courses, the ritzi plastique of Las Vegas, body sculptress Orlan, mood- altering and “smart” drug use, gender manipulation, and the potential for true artificial life- is there anything left in the world that is truly real?
The most telling example of how this tendency to control reality is more a human trait than a byproduct of technology is the contrast Lee paints between Seagaia (an enormous, hi- tech, enclosed “beach environment” that, though complete with tides and sand, is completely impervious to weather from the “real” world) and a shot of a Japanese fishing shack in which patrons gather in a dingy, cluttered building to catch fish from a regularly stocked tank no bigger than a small car. “That’s my favorite shot,” laughs Lee of the people fishing, ” because it’s so low- tech. It’s the ultimate absurdity. It’s like, I understand you want guaranteed pleasure, so you’ll spend billions of dollars to create this dome where everything’s perfect, but really, what’s the point of going to this shabby place where you go fishing in a tank? If you’ve got your pleasure guaranteed, then how do you get your pleasure out of it? You mind up fooling yourself. Humans desire predictable adventures.”
And, though Synthetic Pleasures is about much more than simply computers and technology, those very things play quite an important role in the film. Interviews with R. U. Sirius (Mondo 2000 co- founder) , Lisa Palac (Future Sex founding editor), John Barlow (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the ubiquitous Timothy Leary are interspersed with dazzling (though sometimes overbearing) computer graphics and a stellar soundtrack (featuring Young American Primitive, Banco De Gaia, Single Cell Orchestra, Tranquility Bass, Terre Thaemlitz and others).
The way Lee seamlessly moves through a wide variety of topics makes Synthetic Pleasures a highly engaging- and alternately terrifying and hilarious- film. However, Lee is quick to point out that the movie is far from a complete synopsis of life in the computer age; rather, it’s simply her way of posing a few of the many questions that are bound to come up as we move into an age where telephones and television will soon seem as anachronistic as telegraphs and hand cranked phonographs.
“(The movie) is more about how people interact with the machinery,” says Lee. “I didn’t want to make a movie about who makes the best VR machine. I wanted to look at how people deal with VR machines. It’s about how people deal with- and need- this power that they’ve given themselves.
“It’s true that we really are leaving the Industrial Age and moving into the Information Age and it’s a really big transition. But it’s very exciting because there are no rules or regulations and everything, pretty much, is up for grabs. Therefore, you’re shaping a whole new world and writing the constitution of the future.”
Synthetic Pleasures is scheduled for release this summer. The soundtrack is available on Moonshine. For current information and screening dates near you, set your Web browser to http://www.caipirinha.com.
A Brazilian-born Korean makes her movie debut
IT IS SITUATED SOMEWHERE between the present and the future — just as the woman behind it seems drawn between the Americas and Asia. Synthetic Pleasures, the first full-length film by Brazilian-born Korean Iara Lee, is described as a cyber road movie. Others call it a journey into trans-humanism. Confused? Well, there’s more. It’s also a World Wide Web site, a compact disc and a book. And it has inspired a line of synthetic clothes designed by the director’s sister.
What Synthetic Pleasures is not — despite its titillating title — is a skin flick. “I’m not much into sex,” says Lee, 29. “I want to travel with my mind as much as I can. I want the body not to be an obstacle. I want the mind to be liberated and to discover experiences through Virtual Reality that are not available otherwise.”
Synthetic Pleasures started off in 1993 as a possible look at Japan’s indoor ski slopes and beaches. But it swiftly morphed into a major study of transformation in all its forms — from controlled environments to Virtual Reality, from plastic surgery to the use of mood-enhancing drugs such as Prozac. Says Lee: “I thought I would expand it into a full-length film because technology gives us the capacity to control not only the environment, but the body and the mind.”
According to Synthetic Pleasures’ promotional material on the Internet, the film appeals to everyone. In reply to the question “Who will watch SP?”, it lists, among others, nerds and nerdettes, housewives, cyberanthropologists, nanotechnologists and space colonizators. Not listed are movie-goers looking for a story with a beginning, middle and end. Still, if comments on the Net are any guide, Synthetic Pleasures has had an impact. Said one e-mailer: “I saw your film at the Toronto Film Festival. Now I can no longer go to aerobics classes without being struck by the artificiality of the situation.”
The movie begins with a warp-speed journey through natural landscapes, theme-park jungles, indoor beaches and ski slopes before penetrating a computer screen to reveal a digitally enhanced virtual landscape — a glowing simulation of the opening sequences. Occasionally, Synthetic Pleasures slows down for chats with cybergurus such as R.U. Sirius of Mondo 2000 magazine and Virtual Reality visionary Jaron Lanier, as well as with Timothy Leary, the 1960s disciple of LSD and other mind-bending drugs. Says Lee: “It makes sense. LSD was for the 1960s what computers are for the 1990s.”
Parallel to the release of the film, Lee’s sister, Jussara, unveiled her SP Collection of clothes. Described as “suitable for the street, your favorite cybersport or for adventures in simulated environments of all kinds,” the outfits come in Polyester, Polymid, Polyacril, Lycra, Spandex and a host of other synthetic materials. The SP Collection, says a notice on the Net, is not for the old-fashioned or the technophobic. “It is about discovering pleasure, adventure and confident attitudes as we abandon the Industrial Age and speed into the next century.”
The Lee sisters were born in Sao Paulo, where their parents settled after the Korean War. Iara became interested in film at an early age. “It was a good way of expressing myself and perceiving the world,” she says. At 17, she joined the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, where she eventually became programmer — a position that allowed her to attend festivals around the world. In the mid-1980s, at the Munich Film Festival, she met George Gund, a millionaire who was to become her husband and the producer of Synthetic Pleasures.
Before that, though, they collaborated on a short film, An Autumn Wind, made in Kyoto, Japan. The short combines visuals of calligraphic brush strokes and temples, the haiku poetry of the 17th-century Japanese writer Basho Matsuo and narration by 1950s Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg. Lee describes Ginsberg’s contribution as “spicy.”
Aside from directing her own productions, Lee has arranged for the screening of a number of Korean films in Brazil and has collaborated with New York’s Asia Society in presenting a Korean film festival. Now, she says, she wants to work more closely with Asia. In particular, she is drawn to Japan. “I would like to try it at some point. The technologically bizarre attracts me.” But that’s for the future.
The Review Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Space Music – Synthetic Pleasures Volume One, Various Artists (Moonshine)
This 10- song disc is the soundtrack to the new “electronic road movie” Synthetic Pleasures, although the music itself is solid enough on its own to serve as a compact collection of recent and decent ambient “hits” . The film explores cutting- edge technologies and how they help people create artificial realities. It’s an appropriate mix of music and subject matter, as many of the acts utilize the latest in electronics and sonics to structure their ambient environments. The best cuts include Young American Primitive’s sample- saturated “Over and Out” , which offers stock SF snippets like “There’s a whole universe out there Steve, but totally unknown, beyond anyone’s comprehension,” and “Transmit Liberation,” a stunning composition by the always amazing Single Cell Orchestra. As with most multi- artist packages, not every work is a winner, but the tunes here are interesting and varied enough to make this CD worthwhile and worth hearing. ( Moonshine Music, 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069 ).
Reality re-creation, and humans who do it
Iara Lee’s documentary “Synthetic Pleasures” begins with a series of provocative statements.
“Human beings have a built-in dissatisfaction, an itch that can’t be scratched,” says one voice, while techno/ambient music pulses in the background and a series of computer-generated images fill the screen. “Our efforts to scratch it have created civilization, which is essentially the practice of trying to adapt the environment to us rather than adapt ourselves to the environment.”
Which begs the questions, what happens if we go too far in trying to adapt the environment to ourselves? What if we have already gone too far?
Lee’s “electronic road movie” doesn’t provide overt answers to either of those questions, though its tones of ironic detachment and cynical bemusement seem to suggest she’s thinking, yes, we have gone too far, butso what? Isn’t it fun?
“Synthetic Pleasures” attempts to link as points along a continuum all of mankind’s attempts to “re-create reality”: man-made environments such as the Seagaia Oceandome Indoor Beach in Japan; attempts to “transcend the human body” via plastic surgery and cryonic suspension; pharmacological attempts to modify personality through drugs like Prozac or Ecstasy; attempts to molecularly rearrange matter through a process known as nanotechnology.
Along the way, Lee’s camera stops to record brief snippets of conversations with Orlan, a French performance artist who uses plastic surgery to remold her face in the image of the Mona Lisa; freedom of information advocate John Perry Barlow; Max More, whose ultimate goal is to become “posthuman”; Robert Ettinger, president of the Cryonics Institute, who speaks about freezing and then reviving his mother and his first wife, and a host of others — even cyberluminary R.U. Sirius, who speaks from his bathtub.
The expert opinions are juxtaposed with views from the streets, the kids who say, for instance, “Once they thaw out (Walt Disney), he’s just going to die again, cause he’s so old. You know what I’m saying?” or one lip-pierced clubgoer who proudly displays the studs in his tongue but volunteers that he’s not wearing his nose ring “because I’m job-hunting today.”
Talking heads don’t dominate the film, though, because Lee devotes much of her footage to detailing these artificial environments (the Japanese oceandome, the casinos of Las Vegas, the rave scene, video games and virtual realities) or underscoring the commentary with cartoon or movie footage.
The film brings up a number of interesting points, but barely follows through on them. By the time one point is raised, it’s off to another. Cryonics is explained, and then Ettinger talks about bringing pets back from the dead, and then it’s off to describe Orlan’s quest to recreate herself. Most of the concepts this film explores will seem familiar, and “Synthetic Pleasures” never stops to detail its concepts in anything other than a superficial way. It’s as if the director is always in a rush to get on to the next thing, the next concept, the next interview.
“In essence, our generation is writing the constitution for the future of history,” says computer scientist Jaron Lanier in the film. “We are creating many things that cannot be undone and yet we have no choice. There is no such thing as standing still. We are too in love with technology to retreat from it.”
Iara Lee’s “Synthetic Pleasures” is an effective tribute to our love affair with technology. Just don’t expect any deep relevations to arise from it.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival took place January 19-28 in the mountainous village of Park City, Utah. Far from the glamor you’d expect from a major international festival, there was little sun, no beaches, and definately no scantily clad stars vying for paparazzi attention. Instead there was snow, snow, and more snow. Beside stargazing, it seemed the favorite activity at Sundance was to sit around listening to the media bitch about the weather. Other favorite pastimes were speculating on the whereabouts of the festival’s founder – Robert Redford, skiing, and, of course, trudging through the snow to the festival’s five different cinema venues.
Of the approximate 10,000 festival attendees, its safe to say that at least 90% were either media or film people. Producers, directors, actors, production people, and distribution reps all lined up to shmooze, promote their films, and troll for that next project. You might just say Sundance is a celluloid feeding frenzy; at heart, a hyped up Hollywood business convention. Of course, Sundance does screen well over 100 independent features, providing a prime opportunity to view some excellent films that you’re not likely to see elsewhere. While some of these films are sure to find wide theatrical release, the sad fact is that most, up to 75%, won’t.
While being selected for Sundance pretty much assures that a director’s phone will ring off the hook for months on end, there are no guarantees that their film will find distribution. You’re typical festival attendee is likely to sit through four or five films a day, hoping to discover one of the hidden gems – a low-budget underdog that takes Sundance by storm, and then busts out into the profitable world of suburban America’s cineplex network. The odds for this happening certainly are long, but some of Sundance’s racehorses of the past have been Sex, Lies and Videotape and last year’s Brothers McMullin. Our vote for this year’s bust out film goes to Lisa Kreuger’s Manny an Lo and Iara Lee’s Synthetic Pleasures (*Top 10 films*).
Some critics have begun to rumble that Sundance has become too commercial; too much of a well-oiled machine. Last year an alternative festival – Slamdance (*link?*) – took up residence in Park City with the goal of challenging Sundance’s hegemony. Some of these charges may have some validity, but it really is hard to argue with the mission of Sundance, which is to present a forum for independent filmmakers to present their work to their peers and the public. Sundance, in its tenth year, has done an excellent job of boosting small independents and allowing them to share the stage with bloated Hollywood productions.
The Slamdance International Film Festival is the upstart, alternative to Sundance that sprang out of nowhere last year, screening several films that were rejected by Robert Redford’s 10-year-old festival. Sundance’s Director of Programming, Geoffrey Gilmore, proclaimed that Slamdance was “nothing more than sour grapes,” and last year’s festival was notable for the hostility and uneasy tension that ensued.
This year, it seems Park City, Utah really is big enough for two film festivals, and Slamdance has assumed an identity somewhere along the lines of Sundance’s little, if not rebellious brother. Slamdance Co-founder, Jon Fitzgerald, describes the relationship as follows: “Sundance is the rich man, with tailored clothes who lives in the big house uptown. Slamdance is the street urchin attempting to make his place in the world through luck, pluck, and virtue.” The big media spin on this is Slamdance = Generation X, Sundance = Baby Boomers.
Forty films (there were 450 submissions) were screened at Park City’s Yarrow Hotel and Conference Center, Slamdance’s headquarters. Hanging out at the Yarrow, your likely to hear directors boasting about how their films were made for less than the price of a new Mercedes. The actors – mostly unknowns, highly accesible, some of them from Austin, Texas – mingle in the lobby and at publicity tables, hardly distingishable from the audience. Don’t go to Slamdance expecting to find a THX theater loaded with sophisticated sound and projection equipment. The single screening room is small, and equipment breakdowns just add to the flavor and authenticity of this indie festival.
We offer no hard and fast rules for our top10 films of Sundance list. With each film – we either loved it outright, thought it had the right stuff for getting released commercially, or were awed by its potential to become a cult classic.
1. Welcome to the Dollhouse
2. Manny and Lo
3. Care of the Spitfire Grill
4. Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern
5. Synthetic Pleasures
7. A Midnight’s Winter Tale
8. I Shot Andy Warhol
9. If Lucy Fell
10. Celluloid Closet
Synthetic Pleasures takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the far reaches of cyberspace. Director Iara Lee bills her film as “a sci-fi documentary about our hi-tech world,” and this promise is more than kept. The animations and eye-popping visuals alone would qualify Synthetic Pleasures as a major animation festival in its own right. Structurally, Synthetic Pleasures is divided into three sections: “Synthetic Environments,” “Synthetic Bodies,” and “Synthetic Identities.” Lee’s interviews with cybergurus such as R.U. Sirius, Timothy Leary, Lisa Palac, and Robert Ettinger beautifully illuminate visits to Japanese theme parks, cryonics and nanotechnology labs, virtual reality arcades, and beyond. Synthetic Pleasures is an increadibly seductive film, but, underneath it all, Lee is cleverly prompting the viewer to question the strange artificiallity of a world that is increasingly becoming slave to technology.
Weird Science…Synthetic Pleasures
Synthetic Pleasures is not another hyped piece on advanced technology. A melange of sources makes up this documentary film, which is due to be screened at Sundance and other film festivals during the year. The most wild futurist developments are illuminated with commentary from key figures like Jaron Lanier (Virtual Reality pioneer) and Timothy Leary. The documentary focuses on the human need to rediscover paradise, and how the boundaries between the artificial and the natural are being merged. Director Iara Lee is suitably multicultural. Brought up in Brazil by Korean parents, she programmed the Sao Paolo International Film Festival for five years before moving to NYU to study film and philosophy. Her favourite synthetic pleasures are: “Dolby sound, e-mail, high-tech graphic design, computer music, pro tools sound editing, and virtual reality thrills”.
“LSD was for the ’60s what computers are for the ’90s,” she states. “Computers and Virtual Reality help us transcend the physical world, so can be considered ‘psychedelics’. There is this infinite quest for expansion of the mind that goes back to ancient times and is being continued in our day through high technology.”
The Synthetic Pleasures experience has been taken to its logical conclusion by incorporating not only film, but a book, a soundtrack CD, fashion line and a web site. (http://web.emedia.net).
For further information on Synthetic Pleasures contact: 1-212-410-5117
A (currently non-standard) medical technique of attempting to prevent the permanent cessation of life in individual o the brink of death. It involves the use of low temperatures to halt metabolic decay. The reason for performing a Cryonic suspension is the belief that science, technology and society will advance to the point where the revival of the person is both possible and desirable.
A new discipline that studies natural life by attempting to recreate biological phenomena from scratch within computers and other “artificial” media.
Human-made closed systems; environments that are controlled and predictable.
A new breed of drugs termed ‘nootropic’. Nootropic comes from the Greek word meaning “acting on the mind”. These work on the brain and/or blood/brain barrier and have fairly low toxicity levels. Smart drugs can do things like: 1) Improve mental functioning and even increase IQ (lots of arguments on the IQ increasing – but research is proving it true) 2)Increase lifespan (30 percent or higher) 3)Decrease some of the bad degenerative effects of aging 4)Increase mental clarity.
The manipulation of DNA.
The process of transferring DNA from one organism to another resulting in a genetic modification; the production of a transgenic organism.
(from nanometre: a billionth of a meter) The manipulation of matter at the atomic level. This most exciting of new technological advances will handle individual atoms and molecules with control and precision. It will change our world in more ways than we can imagine.
The engineering field that builds machines with the cognitive abilities necessary to interact with the real, physical world. Current roboticists are producing machines whose cognitive performances are somewhere above the simplest insects and somewhere below the cognitive performances of the simplest mammals.
“Today the difference between the artificial and the natural is fading…”
“The world is packaged – we just have to consume it…” “I think television’s great – don’t you?” “Have the world – your way.”
The voices of the future, many alternative futures, express themselves in Iara Lee’s intriguing new “electronic road movie,” Synthetic Pleasures, a dizzying exploration of “artificial paradise” that could set Baudelaire’s head spinning.
“The thing that sets human beings apart from other creatures is a built-in dissatisfaction, an ‘itch’ that can’t be scratched. Our efforts to scratch it have created civilization, which is essentially the practice of trying to adapt the environment to ourselves, rather than adapting ourselves to the environment.” — Jaron Lanier, virtual reality pioneer
A triptych of artificial delights, Synthetic Pleasures divides the future into three distinct and mutable categories – Environment, Body and Identity – then details the attempts to modify them.
Artificial nature reaches its apex with the Japanese, who frolic bucolically in faux summer and winter, according to their whims and regardless of “real” nature. Whether riding an endless summer of machine-generated surf-and-turf in a gigantic Ocean Dome known as Seagaia, or downhill racing on perfect powder in the enclosed ski slopes acronymically named SSAWS, for “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter: Snow,” the Land of the Rising Sun takes its Nature straight-up, no twist.
What distinguishes the Japanese from their American counterparts in the arena of “faux naturel” is most succinctly illustrated by the Byzantine horrors of Las Vegas, Nevada. Archaic Vegas looks positively quaint compared to the theme-park extravaganza that has supplanted it, an oasis for the whole family, complete with pirates, volcanoes, virtual reality rides, a Sphinx, and a pyramid. What once was simply a place where people came to lose money has now been transformed into a place where they can just as easily lose their minds.
“Our skin is disappointing, but it’s all we are given in life,” postulates performance artist Orlan, who since 1990 has undergone a series of operations to transform herself into a new being, modeled after the selected characteristics of classical art. Appropriating the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the eyes of Gerome’s Psyche, the mouth of Boucher’s Europa, and the brow of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the artist is undeniably a work in progress, if not exactly the sum of her parts.
“From cave paintings to web pages,” Mondo 2000’s RU Sirius tangentially theorizes, “we’ve expressed the contents of our imaginations by exteriorizing them for presentation. Combining this urge to construct and this will to virtuality, we finally – at the end of the 20th century – find ourselves living in a world largely of our own construction.
“How much easier,” he continues, “it would be to explain the human urge towards synthetics in terms of the useful: virtual reality used as a tool for modeling drugs in three dimensions for instance, or space colonization with its dreams of opening a new technological niche and returning new resources to the home planet. But it is the perversity of human beings that really interests us. Real change / mutation comes not from the use of technology, but from abuse. As cyberpunk humorist Mark Leyner says, Ò he sdds, Ò ‘I’m made of media.’ And as a person at a Mondo 2000 hackers’ forum once said,” Sirius concludes, ” ÔI can make copies of my hard drive, but I can’t make copies of myself. I want to solve that problem.’ “
It’s a Brave New World of synthetic pleasures, one that Aldous Huxley never imagined, but that director Lee has captured in all its artificial splendor. “You’re guaranteed of having the experience you’re expecting,” a devotee enthuses, but a bell of warning tolls amidst the euphoria – “One day the electricity goes off and you discover you’re not living in paradise – you’re living in Hell.” One fell stroke and the 21st Century could simply evaporate – better stock up on batteries and bottled water before the panic starts.
VARIED ‘PLEASURES’ – A VIRTUAL MOVIE
From indoor beaches and plastic-snow ski resorts in Japan to corpse-freezing labs and Internet sex servers, the documentary Synthetic Pleasures, opening this month in 10 cities, takes a tour of some of the weirder scenes on the planet, many of them computer generated or enhanced. The first feature from NYU film grad Iara Lee, 30, the movie questions culture’s appetite for artificial transformation. In interviews with the late cyberguru Timothy Leary, Cryonics Institute chief Robert Ettinger, performance artist Orlan (who has had plastic surgeries to more closely resemble the Mona Lisa), and others, Lee explores society’s growing desire to replicate–and control–nature. The film “is critical but not heavy-handed,” says Lee, a Brazilian of South Korean descent. “Technology is an empowering tool, but it can alienate people.”
Lee, who made Pleasures for less than $ 1 million (raised with help from her husband, San Jose Sharks owner George Gund), has incubated a website, a techno soundtrack, even a line of clothing made of synthetics. She hopes the film’s content and eye-searing computer graphics will appeal to both the plugged and unplugged. “I’m not telling people what to think,” Lee says. “A wired person might watch the film and think it’s cool, but a critical person may find it frightening.”
Bored with those interminable trailers for Hackers? Then perhaps it’s time to check out first-time documentarian Iara Lee’s Synthetic Pleasures, whose focus gaily runs the gamut from email to cyberporn, sampling (and synopsizing) every thrill our increasingly computer-oriented world can possibly wring from brain-to-brain contact. Whether showing off the selfcontained tropical paradise of Japan’s OceanDome (complete with motor-generated waves and fake sand) or various multiple-question sex scenes one can upload off the net, Lee is fascinated both by the general human urge to assuage our “itch that can’t be scratched” with technology-to stave off mortality, loneliness, boredom- and how it makes us choose fake over real a good nine times out of 10. A little dry, but definitely fascinating.
Iara Lee’s Synthetic Pleasures is a documentary about virtual reality and other controlled environments, and the way we use them as substitutes for real life experiences.
“People in general love their technology and like the idea of transcending the boundaries of the natural world,” says Lee. With about a third of the project already shot, Lee says the style of the finished film, scored with techno music, will be as cutting edge as some of the activities depicted and will mix 16mm black-and-white and color with some video and computer graphics. Interviews in the can include John Perry Barlow, Douglas Trumball and Michio Kaku (author of Hyperspace), as well as anonymous cyberpunks and hackers, the vigilantes of the information superhighway.
The film begin in Japan with a look at popular indoor ski and beach resorts that accommodate up to 10,000 visitors a day. A tour of Las Vegas moves from a range of fantastic, pre-packaged wedding possibilities to hotel pleasure zones and recreations of natural disasters like erupting volcanoes and sinking ships. Lee also plans to examine the mystique of mall and synthetic milieus like Palm Springs — “the imposition of wealth and abundance on the arid minimalism of the desert.” In New York, she’s shot rave parties and a series of interviews with transvestites at the Limelight, a nightclub housed in a deconsecrated church. “We’re no longer even stuck with our gender,” she points out. Bodyshaping is also features in footage of Orlan, a French performance artist who’s achieved notoriety by using a satellite to beam real-time images of her repeated cosmetic surgeries to viewers all over the world.
Lee, 28, has made three short films, two of which, last year’s Autumn Wind and the 1991 Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, screened at Sundance. Raised in Brazil by Korean parents, she spent five years as chief programmer for the Sao Paolo International Film Festival before moving to the US to study film and philosophy at NYU. Last year she brought a program of ten American independent features to Brazil as part of a no-budget workshop intended to initiate a dialogue between the two country’s shoe-string-film communities. She estimates that the privately financed Synthetic Pleasures will cost about $200,000 to complete and expects to finish it this fall.
Iara Lee’s documentary is an aptly timed examination of artificiality, of the way that mankind alters environment and nature in every possible way to enhance pleasure and comfort. Although it’s possible that the target audience is too busy experimenting with virtual reality or networking on the Internet to bother with an old-fashioned one-dimensional film, this provocatively titled effort should attract those who aren’t on the technological cutting edge but are still curious about it. One slight problem: the technology being discussed is changing so rapidly that “Synthetic Pleasures” may be outdated before people get to see it. The somewhat unfocused docu deals with a multitude of subjects x plastic surgery and cybersex included x revolving around any alteration of the natural world. Although it employs the usual succession of talking heads, the film also features a great deal of futuristic-looking computer animation that could give it a berth on the midnight circuit, where audiences may be inclined to enhance the experience through some synthetic pleasures of their own. The film is particularly good at evoking the various philosophical arguments that inevitably follow technological breakthroughs; the fascinating discussions here are particularly resonant in an era where human contact is increasingly achieved through technological means. The tone of the film is for the most part lighthearted, particularly regarding topics such as cryonics and ”smart” drinks. We meet many interesting characters along the way, their preoccupations labeling them ”cognitive dissident” or ”high-tech nomad.” One of the primary interview subjects is the late Timothy Leary in one of his final appearances; he offers lucid and perceptive opinions about such modern phenomena as the widespread use of Prozac. Although it does not delve deeply into any particular area, ” Synthetic Pleasures’ ‘ offers a fairly comprehensive and breezy look at the latest developments in artificial reality. By the film’s conclusion, the viewer will be able to drop buzzwords such as ”nootropics,” ”transhumanism” and ”nanotechnology” with abandon.
The Pleasure Principle
Synthetic Pleasures, a new film by director Iara Lee, explores the tensions between the limits of the human body and mankind’s endless drive to gain physical control over the world. Life has, in a relatively short amount of time, been overstuffed with a dazzling array of such technological breakthroughs as virtual reality, artificial organs and Prozac – and the movie poses the obvious question, “Have we gone to far?”
Maybe we’re trying too hard to play God with our environment. One case in point is Seagaia, a fake indoor beach in Japan. Thousands of people visit this climatized leisure area every day and Lee says that the consensus from most of these “beach”-goers is that they prefer it to the real thing. Here you have all the comforts of a nice day on the sand without the fishy smell, frigid water and fear of Jaws.
“We’re always making our reality more desirable,” Lee explains. “When I come home from work, I immediately turn on the air conditioning. This act makes the temperature in my apartment closer to what I prefer. It’s the same concept with Seagaia, just on a much greater level.”
And all we want to see is progress.
“Humankind has always had the insatiable desire to gain results. Technology is just the tool for the materialization of our unlimited potential.”
The desire to play God with our environment has also turned inward, focusing on our own bodies. Orlan is a French artist who uses herself as a canvas, as plastic surgery makes her into whatever she wishes to become. As Orlan says, “I have donated my body to art.” But Lee implies that Orlan’s flesh-centered artform digs deeper into the heart of our struggle for control.
“Religion teaches us not to harm our bodies. Orlan is an expression of someone re-making themselves in their own image, not in God’s.” The same could be said for people that engage in piercing, trans-sexuality, mood-altering drugs, and even virtual reality. It has been argued that these transformations are actually different ways of stealing pieces of one’s self back from the technological world that’s engulfing us all.
But even with a growing faith in technologies like cryonics, in which doctors attempt to freeze intrepid after-death voyagers until cures for diseases can be found, there’s one thing that’s inevitable – our own mortality. Even though Lee and her husband have signed up to be put on ice when the time comes, Lee realizes that cheating death is where the real struggle lies.
“There is a real dichotomy between our drive to control our world, our bodies, and our minds,” she says, “and the shattering fact that finally, there are no guarantees.”
SYNTHETIC PLEASURES CUT FROM CITY CINEMAS BEFORE OPENING
NEW YORK– Iara Lee’s directorial debut, SYNTHETIC PLEASURES, was bumped from the playbill at the City Cinemas on 3rd Avenue and 60th Street in Manhattan a few hours before it was scheduled to show on its opening night. The film, which would have premiered commercially in New York at two cinemas this past Friday, instead only opened at Cinema Village.
According to Ms. Lee, who self distributed and promoted SYNTHETIC PLEASURES through her Caipirinha Productions, Nick Gadano and Robert Smerling, the booker and president of City Cinemas respectively, removed her film from their theater for two reasons. She said that she was told that the advertisement she placed in The New York Times was too small, and that another distributor needed the screen space.
Ms. Lee- who also placed ads in Time Out New York, Wired, New York Newsday, The Village Voice, The New York Observer, The Free Press, and the New York Post- was only able to change the ad to reflect that her film would not be at City Cinemas in the second edition of the Friday Times.
“At 3:30pm, they [City Cinemas] call and tell me,” Ms. Lee said via telephone on Friday. “We spent $20,000 on advertising. They only gave me a few hours’ notice. Unethical behavior is becoming the norm in the film biz. Big distributors threaten the theaters, who say ‘who can we screw?’ They screw the little guy. They said ‘who am I gonna screw, you or [a big distibutor]? They have thirty films, you only have one.” When Lee threatened to tell her story to the press, she claims she was told “‘People have short attention spans. They won’t remember this by tomorrow’. Little filmmakers have to swallow abuse, because if they rebel, their films don’t get shown. They’ve done this to other small distributors too. Nothing happens, so they [theater bookers] keep doing it.”
Jon Garrans, the Co-President of Strand Releasing, confirmed that this is a common occurrence for small distributors. “I understand it’s business” he said, “but it makes it more difficult for second-tier distributors like us. We had GRIEF at the Angelika, which was doing well, but it was bumped off for two weaker films not doing so well. They took us off instead of Miramax films that were doing less business than ours.”
City Cinema’s Robert Smerling was out of town when indieWIRE called him for a comment, and Nick Gadano said “I’m not at liberty to say what happened. I have to speak with Mr. Smerling before I can tell you anything.” But an anonymous source at City Cinemas attributed the canceled run of SYNTHETIC PLEASURES to a holdover of films, and said that Ms. Lee was offered a regular run beginning a week later than originally scheduled, with one showing per evening in the meantime, but that she declined. “Who’s a booker gonna mess with” the source said, “someone with fifty big films in distribution or someone with one small one?”
Welcome To The Synthetic Youth Culture Revolution
There is a paradox at the heart of Synthetic Pleasures, a documentary that looks at the massive blurring on the edges of what’s ” natural” and what’s ” man- made. ” The corridor of separation between the two has become increasingly populated in recent years, as Disney re- creates history and CNN manufactures the present.
The paradox is this: the more we manipulate nature, the less natural it becomes. On the other hand, the less natural things get, the more real they seem. This artificial beach here, for example- it’s so clean, it’s so perfect, so real, somehow. This is exactly the kind of visual riddle that makes for stunning cinema.
Synthetic Pleasures is director Iara Lee’s first movie, and she approaches the material lightly and quickly, moving from gender manipulation and plastic surgery to cryonics and smart drugs without narration. Instead, the movie pulses with techno music and computer animations- it feels more like a rave than a documentary. And that’s how she’s marketing it: look out for the fashion line, the multi- volume soundtrack, or maybe even the theme park. Away we go.
How did Synthetic Pleasures come about?
I was studying in Korea when I came up with the concept for the film as a short, on synthetic reality in Japan. Somehow I managed to get cameras and lighting equipment and a crew in which nobody spoke English. At the time I spoke only a bit of Korean and no Japanese. Korean does not help you speak Japanese very well and my native language, Portuguese, was obviously useless.
What made you realize that this film was more than a short?
When I got back to New York and started editing I realized, wow, this stuff is really fascinating. I started thinking about controlled power and the environment, body, and mind. So I ended up doing an interview with Orlan, the plastic surgery artist. We talked about different drugs and technology and Prozac, and it was a very fluid conversation.
What is your definition of synthetic reality?
I think in the end it is all about breaking down the definitions of reality- for example, male or female, i. e. gender manipulation. I think that kind of thing is the root of the process of reinventing nature. Basically, with the term synthetic, we are referring to that which is man- made, but what is no man- made?
So in fact, reality is already synthetic reality.
Exactly. Synthetic reality and nature are just extensions of one another.
Where do you see this whole process of synthetic enlightenment happening most? Japanese culture and its manipulation of reality is a very mainstream concept compared to the rave and cyber scenes which are far more underground.
I do not think one stands out over the other. I think what is interesting is that their goals are very similar, yet they go about it in distinctly different ways. We are all looking for post- humanism.
Is this a revolution?
Yeah, I think it is a revolution. Especially with the amount of research going in now, it is really something else.
Are leaders emerging? Is someone out there the next timothy leary?
In general. the kids. They are the gurus. Even the older people who are doing research on all of this are almost always surrounded by kids. I think it is a real shift in power.
One of the parts of the film i found fascinating deals with mind- altering drugs. That seems to me an uncharted area. Not necessarily lsd or x but prescribed drugs and smart drugs. How does self- medication translate down to the average person?
I think that as we expand the boundaries of nature we also need to be able to expand the boundaries of our own minds. I think it is all part of our inherent desire to expand our horizons and our control over nature. I think we should be allowed to improve our minds to become better than normal. I mean if we are sick it’s OK to try to get back to normal, but if we are normal why can we not be better? Why do we have to be sick to take drugs? That is the new horizon of drug use.
What is your opinion on drug laws?
I am not a heavy user, but I do think that drugs should be legalized. If for nothing more than quality control and more accessibility to information about them.
You’re developing synthetic pleasures related projects now, right?
Yes, I did quite a bit of work on the music. I didn’t want to use just one artist, so I researched a lot of techno, rave and house music. I think it came out very nice and if you play the songs in their entirety they come out to over five hours of music. The first CD, Volume One, has about seven or eight tracks of music and is going to come out on Moonshine Records. The other area that I work with is fashion. We have developed a clothing line that is inspired by the film. It’s all made out of high- tech synthetic materials. It is really light but it really protects well against the weather. It’s not like normal outdoor clothing.
And now you’re working on the Synthetic Pleasures book?
Yes, I’m really excited because it deals with the whole cyber community. Our concept is really young blood. The old timers, the experts, are quoted throughout the book, but is going to be a very fresh approach, you know?
‘Mondo Cane’ Via Internet
What do virtual reality, digital imaging, cosmetic surgery, Las Vegas theme hotels, Prozac, cryogenics, space exploration and intelligence-enhancing drinks have in common? In Iara Lee’s smart, entertaining, occasionally scary documentary film, ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” they are all shown to be expressions of the human struggle for omnipotence and ultimately for immortality.
The difference between human beings and other creatures, observes one talking head, is our basic dissatisfaction. Instead of trying to adapt to our environment, we want our environment to adapt to us. ” Synthetic Pleasures” unfolds as a rambling, optimistic, occasionally ditzy tour of turn-of-the-millennium technological wonders and the fantasies that spin around them. Filled with computerized imagery and spacey music, it suggests a cyber-wise 90’s version of “Mondo Cane.”
Some of the phenomena on display are amusing in the way they show people contentedly consuming safe, highly controlled parodies of experiences in the natural world. At the Ocean Dome, a Japanese pleasure spa, visitors sun themselves on a pristine indoor beach at the side of a tiny fake ocean with mechanically generated surf.
The movie astutely compares these manipulated tourist environments with cosmetic surgery, transsexualism and the vogues for body piercing and tattooing as challenges to nature.
The documentary’s most disturbing example of physical self-transformation is the French performance artist Orlan, whose medium is cosmetic surgery. The artist, who is shown having implants inserted near her temples to simulate bulges in the face of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” grandly proclaims her work to be “a fight against nature and the idea of God” and also a way to prepare the world for widespread genetic engineering.
The movie shows the struggle to transcend mortality being waged on many fronts. It visits a cryonics laboratory where 11 people have been frozen in the hope that medical technology will eventually be able to thaw and resurrect them.
” Synthetic Pleasures” returns again and again to computers, virtual reality and robots. The main obstacle to creating sophisticated robots is the inability of computers to recognize and understand what they see.
Although ” Synthetic Pleasures” largely sidesteps the ethical and religious issues brought up by all these technological dreams, it has its sobering moments. The ultimate extension of virtual reality, it suggests, is the world of the movie “Strange Days,” in which people’s experiences are stored, duplicated and wired into other people’s brains. Suppose technology made it possible to experience perpetual orgasm, speculates one observer. How quickly would it become boring?
If virtual mentality ever does enable us to experience other people’s reality, it may as easily distance us from our own humanity. The Persian Gulf war, it is suggested, was presented on television like a giant video game in which the United States was “zapping” opponents who were little more than blips on a screen.
Technology can certainly tamper with human nature, but can that nature be fundamentally changed for the better? It’s far too soon to hazard a guess.
Written and directed by Iara Lee; directors of photography, Marcus Hahn, Kramer Morgenthau and Toshifumi Furusawa; edited by Andreas Troeger and Stacia Thompson; music by various groups; produced by George Gund; released by Samba Entertainment. Running time: 82 minutes. This film is not rated.
Film Maker’s Silent Partner Is Web
It was 1:30 A.M. on a recent Sunday in the Roxy, a cavernous downtown Manhattan nightclub, as Iara Lee, in red plastic pants, funky tinted sunglasses and a neon-green Lycra shirt, grabbed a handful of chartreuse brochures and vanished into a mass of sweaty, scantily clad bodies undulating to booming techno music.
“I saw this long line in the women’s room, all the men are there, too, and they had nothing to read,” she said cheerily when she reappeared a few minutes later.
Ms. Lee, who not only directed but is also distributing a “cyberdocumentary” titled ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” is not one to miss a promotional opportunity at her own premiere party.
The film, described by a reviewer for The New York Times, Janet Maslin, as “eerily memorable” and “a trippy, provocative tour,” opened Friday at Cinema Village, in Greenwich Village. In the next 10 weeks, the movie is scheduled to open in 30 other cities, and may reach an additional 70 screens in coming months.
At evening performances over the weekend, the 200-seat theater was less than half full, with a diverse audience ranging from teen-age ravers to curious senior citizens.
In a venture illustrating the business vicissitudes and vagaries of the art-movie world, Ms. Lee is spending an estimated $300,000 to make prints of the film and promote and distribute it — on top of the $1 million spent making the documentary.
That would be beyond the means of many documentary film makers. But Ms. Lee’s financial partner is her husband, George Gund 3d, who was on hand for the beginning of the premiere party before flying off to Philadelphia in his Falcon 900 jet to catch the Canada vs. Sweden World Cup hockey match, with a promise to return before dawn to help pack up.
In addition to being the movie’s producer, Mr. Gund owns the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League and a piece of the Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball League with his brother, Gordon. (Much of the family’s wealth came from stock in the Kellogg Company, which their father, George Gund 2d, had swapped for the rights to a decaffeination process that begat the Sanka brand.)
Though a film about cutting-edge technology might seem a stretch for a sports entrepreneur, Mr. Gund also has a long history of involvement in the arts and cinema. He has served as a director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and as chairman of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
And yet this is the first time that Mr. Gund has bankrolled the entire production and distribution of a film.
The couple stress that their distribution plan is much more than the filmic equivalent of vanity book publishing. For in contrast to film makers like Henry Jaglom, who rent theaters to show their films — what the industry refers to as “four-walling” — Ms. Lee made conventional revenue-sharing arrangements with theater owners, which give independent distributors anywhere from 25 to 60 percent of ticket sales.
But even with foreign sales and video rights factored in, the couple’s film company, Caipirinha Productions, will be lucky to recoup its investment in ” Synthetic Pleasures. “
“It’s a learning experience,” Mr. Gund explained. “It’s like venture capital. With independent films if you hit 1 out of 10, it works out.”
Mr. Gund and Ms. Lee met 10 years ago (he was 47, she was 20) at the Berlin Film Festival, which she was attending as scheduler for the Sao Paulo film festival in Brazil.
The idea for ” Synthetic Pleasures” came while the couple were renewing their wedding vows several years ago in Korea. Ms. Lee learned of Seagaia — a giant, surrealistic domed indoor beach on the Japanese island of Kyushu, south of Korea. A visit there inspired the hypnotic, heavily computer-animated documentary, which explores everything from Seagaia and other “artificial environments,” to genetic engineering and the culture of “smart drugs.”
Leaving the answer to the viewer, the film poses the question: Is all this virtual reality good for us?
For Ms. Lee and Mr. Gund, who were technical neophytes, the answer appears to be a tentative yes. Caipirinha has relied heavily on Internet-assisted communication and promotion throughout the film-making process — both to create an advance buzz about the film and to keep costs down. Ms. Lee, for example, was able to reach the musicians who appear on the movie’s soundtrack directly via their Web sites before their managers, agents or record labels could reject the project or negotiate expensive deals.
And when the movie’s New York premiere party had to be switched from the Tunnel nightclub in Manhattan to the Roxy at the last minute, Caipirinha (named after a Brazilian cocktail) dispatched scores of E-mail messages and computer-generated faxes announcing the change.
Ms. Lee had made short films as a New York University undergraduate in the late 1980’s but had never directed a feature-length work. After showing ” Synthetic Pleasures” at several film festivals, including Sundance last January, she shopped the film to distributors. But none offered acceptable terms.
So Mr. Gund suggested do-it-yourself distribution.
“It made the most sense,” he said. “Nobody was willing to put up the money up front and they were taking quite a percentage. We would have been taking all the risk, paying for prints and advertising anyway, so we decided to do all the work.”
The tasks included designing and printing fliers and brochures, getting in touch with theater chains, negotiating for newspaper and magazine advertisements, and planning a promotional campaign that has relied heavily on word of mouth. And it has relied on word of mouse — an Internet campaign linking Caipirinha’s Web site, http://www.syntheticpleasures.com, with those of many other individuals, organizations and publications, including Hot Wired, the Web version of Wired magazine. A key element is the extensive Web site of Landmark Theaters, http://www.movienet.com, the nation’s largest chain of art houses, which plans to show the film in cities outside New York.
In fact, winning over Landmark Theaters was the key to the credibility of Caipirinha’s distribution plan. The Landmark chain, owned by the Samuel Goldwyn Company, accounts for an estimated one-quarter to one-half of box-office receipts for art films in the United States.
It was no doubt helpful to have Mr. Gund’s enormous financial resources to back up any promises to buy ads and to have enough prints of the film, which can cost $2,000 each. But Landmark Theaters’ senior vice president and chief film buyer, Burt Manzarri, said that his decision to take on the film had more to do with Ms. Lee’s enthusiasm for the project and her innovative, carefully planned marketing campaign.
“She had one-sheets, trailers, a distribution plan, a promotional mechanism in place,” Mr. Manzarri said. “Very few come to us in as ready a fashion as they are.”
Landmark and Caipirinha are not alone in using the Internet this way. Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, who successfully self-distributed the 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper,” are relying heavily on their own Web site as they prepare to distribute a second film, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” this fall. The documentary, about Arkansas youths convicted of the satanic ritual slaying of three children, opens Sept. 20 at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village.
“It’s the wave of the future for independents,” Mr. Sinofsky said in a phone call from his San Francisco editing room. “We can’t afford $4,000 or $5,000 in ads in every city.”
But perils remain in self-distribution. On Thursday, the eve of its scheduled opening, ” Synthetic Pleasures” was bumped from Cinema Third Avenue in Manhattan. The theater’s owner, City Cinemas, opted instead to book the Samuel Goldwyn Company’s new film, “American Buffalo,” starring Dustin Hoffman.
The next big challenge, Ms. Lee said, will be getting theater owners to turn over her share of the proceeds. She will not have the leverage of larger distributors, who can insure timely payment by threatening to withhold other films they have in the pipeline.
“People are always reminding me,” Ms. Lee said, ” ‘Don’t think it’s such a triumph now just because you’ve got 35 cities booked; you still have to collect the money.’ “
GRAPHIC: Photo: Iara Lee is distributing her movie ” Synthetic Pleasures” with her husband, George Gund 3d, who is the producer and financial backer. The couple said they would be lucky to break even on the project. (Courtesy of Caipirinha Productions)
1/2 SYNTHETIC PLEASURES
Overview of the edge: Director Iara Lee’s documentary survey of virtual reality, artificial environments, cryonics, and posthumanism may not be slick, but it may be the most important movie of the year. 1:23 (adult content, language). At Cinema Village, 12th Street near University Place, and City Cinema, Third Avenue at 60th Street, both in Manhattan. NEAR THE BEGINNING of Iara Lee’s fascinating, disturbing and quasi-hallucinogenic ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” a disembodied but nonetheless sanctimonious voice defines civilization as “adapting the environment to us rather than us adapting to the environment.” Well, I always thought civilization was simply our way of not killing each other. But let’s accept the movie’s proposition.
What Lee is exploring – from 24-hour indoor “Golfdomes” in Japan, to drive-up weddings in Las Vegas, to the wide, wide world of sex on the Internet – is not people playing God, but becoming God. In the major industrialized nations, which is what her movie is about, nature has been rendered virtually irrelevant (occasional hurricane damage aside). And having overcome the biggest problem posed by a Supreme Being, we have now entered a stage where we are creating the problems as well as the solutions. And thus have become our own Supreme Being.
The ethical, philosophical and theological dilemmas posed by becoming your world’s own Creator is not lost on Lee, although she is far more concerned with charting the tangible. We see indoor beaches (complete with surfing) in Japan, “smart drink” bars in American cities (where alcohol is “a sin” and technology has birthed a New Puritanism), and body-piercing “mutants” whose ability (and need) to re-create themselves bestows its own kind of divinity.
A performance artist named Orlan uses plastic surgery as her medium, constantly reshaping her face until it’s become something of a horrific mess. (If you’re reading this, Orlan, I’m sorry.) The equally artificial mess that is Las Vegas becomes even more surreal with the appearance of video weddings, which despite the coming together of two people serves to separate the individual from society. As does computer sex, which arrives late in the film but comes on with a bang.
Lee has jammed a lot in here, and it doesn’t always fit. Her talking heads – who range from Dr. Timothy Leary (in one of his last appearances) to former Doobie Brother and musical techno-wizard Jeff Baxter – don’t always make the most profound statements. Her visuals, which employ animation, film outtakes and footage off the Internet, are transporting, if not transforming. But hers is a vitally important film, no matter who you are: The future-illiterate will be amazed and disturbed. The technologically advanced will be happy and, we hope, just and merciful. God, however, may be heading for the coast.
Joyriding: Where are the women in Cyberspace?
Web Sites Of The Month: There’s so many lousy web sites, full of fluff and marketing PR, nice but ultimately superfluous graphics that test your patience on a 28.8 bps line, that I’m amazed when I see one that’s interesting and deep. A New York filmmaker has put together a film called Synthetic Pleasures, and is on a quest to make environments that suit us, including virtual reality, cybersex, body mutilation and genetic manipulation. This web page is stocked with must-see data on cyberpunk culture. Check it out at http://web.emedia.net../ – it is, by far, one of the best sites I’ve encountered yet, and it has very good links.
Dazed and confused during the Fall Shows from the endless mill of Conservative Chic conceits we collapse into our seats at the Jussara Lee Show only to receive an unexpected treat: a 40 second opening clip of an electronic road movie titled Synthetic Pleasures. Directed by Iara Lee and produced by George Gund, the film is a timely documentary investigating cutting edge technologies and their impact on our late twentieth century society. Travelling through four meticulously constructed themes: synthetic environments, synthetic bodies, synthetic identities (cooool!), and synthetic perspectives, the rapid edit effect of the film’s cuts renders the whole project on-point. Interviews include discussions with everyone from Jaron Lanier (VR’s founding father), R.U. Sirius (Mondo 2000’s editor-in-chief), to plastic surgery artist Orlan as they ponder all the big questions of the moment like: Is technology an extension of the human spirit, or are machines devouring our very souls. The advance tape of the film has become a much coveted cult item among the tribe of ravers and futurists currently gallivanting through the New York club scene and several segments of Synthetic Pleasures are already on the Net. Says Lee of the whole cyber culture, “I think whats happening now in the Cyber-world is akin to the development of Ford’s Model T. It’s all so primitive”. Spoken like a true metaculturalist.
Had it up to here with technology? Synthetic Pleasures is a new documentary that explores that problem. The film features segments on psychopharmacology, biotechnology, indoor beach and ski resorts in Japan, and a French performance artist who’s transformed her body into a piece of art through extensive plastic surgery. “I think we’re in a situation where we can only get over technology through technology,” says director Iara Lee. I don’t see the distinction between machine and human; artificial intelligence and natural intelligence. Reality is an opinion, right?”
Techno documentarian Iara Lee
Get your mind out of the gutter. Synthetic Pleasures, director Iara Lee’s debut film, is not a docu-drama about the sordid life of an inflatable love doll. “When we were asking for visuals,” giggles Lee, “I would receive e-mail saying, ‘Are you sure this is not a porno movie? The title is so provocative.'”
Synthetic Pleasures is about seduction, but of a different sort: the allure of technology that allows us to transfigure every facet of our existence. The documentary is divided into four sections: Synthetic Environments, Synthetic Bodies, Synthetic Identities and Synthetic Perspectives. Intercut with computer animation and vintage clips are interviews with the like of Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, French plastic-surgery performance artist Orlan, former Future Sex editor Lisa Palac and Cryonics Institute President Robert Ettinger.
The fluid, fast-paced film (currently on the festival circuit), feeds a dizzying amount of information to the viewer. “Some journalists will come to me and say, ‘You’ve got to take a stand: Is technology good or bad?’ It’s not that way – you can’t separate humans from machines, or natural from synthetic,” says Lee. “I want to give the audience the freedom to make its own judgements. A lot of people come out of the film and say ‘That was so creepy and sad,’ and some people say ‘Cool, I wanna go to the indoor beach!'”
Appropriately, Lee initially had no interest in technology. While studying in Korea, she read about the indoor ski resorts and beaches that were popular in Japan, and set out to make a short film on controlled environments. “When I came back to the U.S., I thought, ‘Wow, it’s interesting how we adapt nature to us instead of adapting ourselves to the environment.’ We not only do that with the environment, but with the body and mind, because technology gives us all this power. And that brings up all these ethical and moral questions.
“I think everything (in the film) is fascinating and unnerving. It depends on what you do with it. It’s a cliche, but technology is a tool, and it’s how you use it. The Internet has this incredible research potential, but everybody uses it to see naked pictures, talk about sex and play video games.”
Synthetic Pleasures has also spawned an array of related items. Lee’s sister, Jussara, designed a line of sportswear that has been shipped to major department stores. A line of merchandise, including mouse pads, bags and T-shirts, with slogans like “Cryonics” and “I (Heart) Porn” is being marketed via techno shops and a direct mailing to over 10,000 ravers. The goods are also available via the Synthetic Pleasures Web site (http://www.caipirinha.com). A related soundtrack album and book are pending.
“It’ll be a good introduction for people who are technophobic,” says Lee. “I used to use the computer as a typewriter, and now it’s very much a part of my life. It’s been a long process for me, because I was an outsider, and now I’m part of this.”
A INTERNET ESTA NO AR!
Na proxima vez que consultar os tijolinhos procurando o programa adequado para o fim-de-semana, preste atencao se esbarrar com o filme “Prazeres Sinteticos”, de Iara Lee, exibido na Mostra Nacio- nal de Cinema ocorrido no mes passado. O documentario e o primeiro longa-metragem de Lee, uma brasileira descendentes de coreanos que se formou em cinema e filosofia na Universidade de Nova York e decidiu retratar todas as ondas que estao quebrando nessa nova era tecnologica.
O filme mescla depoimentos de “cybergurus” como John Perry Barlow (criador da Eletronic Frontier Foundation), Howard Rheingold (autor de “Comunidades virtuais”) e Tomothy Leary com imagens produzidas por computacao grafica numa viagem em alta velocidade, enquanto discute o poder transformador da tecnologia. O mais interessante, no entanto, e o trabalho de pesquisa empreendido pela Caipirinha Productions.
Lee retrata situacoes limite como a praia artificial dos japoneses- que nao queremter contato com a natureza proque ela lhes foge ao controle-; los adeptos da criogenia, que se congelam para alongar se tempo de vida, os extropianos e os pos-humanos, que usam smart-drugs e tecnicas de computacao para ampliar o poder da mente.
No mais, muito sexo-virtual, piercing, body transformation, Internet, inteligencia artificial, nanotecnologia e transhumanismo esquetan- do o caldeirao digital que esta transbordando sobre o mundo. Reco- medado para aqueles que ainda consideram que o ultimo grande a- contecimento do seculo foi o fim da Uniao Sovietica.
O VIRTUAL E REAL
Na edicao de outubro da PC WORLD, indicamos o filme Prazeres Sinteticos, da brasileira Iara Lee, como programa obrigatorio para aqueles que querem saber mais sobre a cultura cyber. Agora, Lee explica – via Email – porque as regras vigentes no mundo real nao valem para o virtual. PC WORLD – O que te levou a fazer um documentario sobre a organizacao da sociedade digital? De onde surgiu essa ideia?
IARA LEE – A ideia surgiu do Japao. Lendo sobre as praias e pistas de esqui ” artificiais ” , achei surreal o nivel de sofisticacao tecnologica dos japo- neses na ” reconstrucao ” da natureza. Inicialmente minha ideia era fazer um curta sobre estes ambientes controlados mas o roteiro acabou se trans- formando num filme complexo. Ele lida com conceitos ligados ao poder de transformacao e manipulacao atraves da tecnologia, nao so do ambiente mas tambem do corpo e da mente.
PC WORLD – Quais sao as bases dessa nova sociedade? Quais sao os segmen- tos que a forman? Esses grupos tem regras, dogmas? Os seus valores, por exemplo, espelham a moral vigente?
LEE – Os conceitos pre-estabelecidos nao se sustentam mais. Este e um dos temas dos filme. Hoje reinventamos o ambiente, o corpo e a mente de acordo com nossos desejos. Temos poder tecnologico para fazer isso. A questao e ate onde devemos exercer e desenvolver este poder de transformacao?
PC WORLD – Voce acha que e possivel atraves da tecnologia – o homem ter absolutamente tudo sob o seu controle? Quais seriam as vantagens e des- vantagens disso?
LEE – Acredito na insaciabilidade humana, nunca paramos de tentar expan- dir os limites e nunca chegamos ao controle absoluto. Ha sempre mais a descobrir. Isto e, para mim, un traco marcante da humanidade. Chegaremos a muitos resultados com o tempo mas sempre teremos um alem para ir. A questao e saber se estamos preparados a ter tanto poder e conhecimento. A historia nos mostra que cometemos muitos erros. De certa maneira, temos mais poder do que capacidade para lidar com ele.
PC WORLD – No seu entender, os extropianos, os adeptos da criogenia, os pra- ticantes da realidade virtual, os usuarios de nootropicos, os transhumanistas sao outsiders ou visionarios?
LEE – Ao mesmo tempo outsiders e visionarios. Especulam sobre o futuro, onde nao ha garantias. Neste momento, muitas destas tecnologias estao num nivel experimental de pesquisa e desenvolvimento. Nao existem certezas e isso apavora as pessoas, que sempre procuram estabilidade e verdades absolutas. Mas isso nao significa que vamos desistir. Continuaremos tentando aperfeicoar nossa condicao humana atraves da tecnologia e da ciencia. O que parece longe pode estar mais perto do que imaginamos.
PC WORLD – Quem sao os novo gurus? O que eles pregam?
LEE – As criancas. Ate um tempo atras, meus gurus eram pessoas mais madu- ras, eles eram meus professores. Hoje meu aprendizado vem de criancas. E impressionante o quanto aprendo com os adolescentes, eles sao os que domi- nam a acelerada tecnologia e nao se intimidam com as maquinas. Associam a essa tecnologia o espirito livre, a exploracao do mundo e a aventura da cria- cao.
PC WORLD – Na sua opiniao – depois de ter pesquisado e documentado esse universo – o que e real e o que e virtual, hoje?
LEE – No sentido amplo, a distincao entre realidade e realidade virtual nao existe. Nao podemos separar as categorias e defini-las tao claramente como gostariamos. Ler e realidade virtual, pensar e realidade virtual e realidade e percepcao. Isso para mim e muito interessante: quebramos as dicotomias, as distincoes ficticias entre natural e sintetico, humanidade e maquina… so- mos todos extensoes um do outro e nao seguimos categorias definitivas. Brin- co com conceitos de sintetico e organico. Gosto da contradicao da vida.
PC WORLD – Voce fez um filme nos EUA, falando de realidades como robos domesticos, sexo com maquinas e pessoas que se congelam para tentar viver mais. Aqui, se discute trabalho escravo, o conflito dos sem-terra e a violencia causada pela injustica social. Na sua opiniao, para onde vai o Brasil? Como essas realidades um dia se cruzarao?
LEE – E verdade que os temas abordados no filme sao problemas de socieda- des de excesso, alta tecnologia, sociedades que ultrapassaram os seus pro- blemas basicos. Existe uma disparidade de agendas entre os EUA e Brasil. Mas por outro lado, mesmo aqui nos Estados Unidos, existe, de certa forma, o elitismo em torno da tecnologia. O accesso a toda essa informacao e possibilidades esta limitado as pe- ssoas de poder aquisitivo elevado. A questao da democracia em relacao a tecnologia ainda tem que ser abor- dada. No Brasil, a disparidade e ainda maior entre os que tem e os que nao tem. Ainda precisamos ultrapassar os problemas basicos de formacao so- cial e valorizacao da vida. Ha questoes prioritarias como a reducao de mor- tes de criancas e a criacao de uma sociedade mais justa e menos violenta. Estes problemas sao mais importantes do que a preservacao da vida atraves de criogenia ou experimentos com vida artificial. Como podemos discutir sobre a vida no espaco, se a vida aqui na terra e ainda um grande problema? Sempre enfrentaremos questoes como estas.
FILM & TELEVISION
Conceived as an electronic road movie, Synthetic Pleasures investigates cutting edge technologies and their influence on our culture as we approach the 21st century. Taking off from the idea that mankind’s effort to tap ;the power of nature has been so successful that a new world is suddenly emerging, an artificial reality, Synthetic Pleasures, shot on location in Yokohama, Tokyo, Miyazaki, New York, Boston, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, San Jose, Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Detroit raises questions which emphasize the philosophical implications of having access to so much manipulative power.
– What is our experience of the real world now that we are able to create convincing simulated realities at will?
– Are we dreaming up a technology which will finally return a “flawless” version of Nature to us? As the interfaces between humans and technology become more and more intimate, we have to reconceptualize the once distinct categories of the human and the machine; and find out if machines are extensions of us, or if we are becoming extensions of machines. The reality of the matter is that cutting-edge technologies promise seemingly unlimited powers to transform our bodies, and our selves. This film presents the implications of having access to such power as we all scramble to inhabit our latest science fictions.
Broken down into three- part schema structures, Synthetic Pleasures investigations of often inter- connected, cutting- edge technologies deal with our ability to transform our surroundings ( virtual reality, controlled environments ranging from shopping malls to space stations), our bodies ( genetic engineering, plastic surgery) and, finally our identities ( smart drugs, mood-altering drugs, virtual identities).
Touring some of the world’s more extreme synthetic environments: the indoor beaches, indoor ski slopes, and robotic golf courses of Japan and the artificial nature of Las Vegas, proves to us the laws and limitations of Nature no longer apply.
And exploration of recent technologies to transform and transcend the human body focus on mankind’s desire for physical manipulation, and the control of our genetic codes enables us to look forward to a future where mankind, through the advancement of nanotechnology will gain control over the very structure of matter.
Interviews explore the way computers are transforming human consciousness, both by augmenting our intelligence and by creating new modes of interaction and behaviour. Ravers explore the popular use of both smart-drugs and psychedelics to expand consciousness and increase productivity. As digital technology provides new way of socializing without leaving the home, traditional nations of community are rapidly mutating.
In Synthetic Pleasures, the shock of the new is balanced with a questioning of the new, an emphasis on the philosophical implications of having access to so much transformative power.
– What is our experience of the real now that we are able to create convincing, simulated realities at will?
– As the interfaces between humans and technology become more and more intimate, how should we reconceptualize the once distinctive categories of man and machine?
– Will our ability to reinvent ourselves bring unprecedented freedom to individuals or increased control?
Iara Lee… director of korean descent she was born and raised in Brazil, where for many years she worked as a programmer of the Sao Paulo International filmfest. In 1989 , she relocated to New York City, graduated with degree in film and philosophy from NYU and directed three short films: ” Prufrock” ( an adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s poem, narrated by Matt Dillon), ” Neighbors” ( based on a story by Raymond Carver) and ” An Autumn Wind” ( an experimental film with Haikus written by Basho and Allen Ginsberg, shot in Kyoto). Synthetic Pleasures is her first full- length film in addition to her filmmaking, Iara produces cultural exchange events with the U. S., Korea, and Brazil. George Gund III… producer a native of Cleveland, he divides his time between San Francisco, New York and wherever his involvements in the world of Hockey, basketball and independent film take him. An enthusiastic patron of the arts and professional and amateur sports, his interest include producing and distributing international films, scouting the Eastern and Northern hemispheres for emerging hockey talent, and collecting Asian and Native American art. George has imported and distributed Eastern European films since the early 1970’s and has been involved with independent film production both in the U. S. and abroad. He is also extremely active on the international film festival circuit. He has been a jury member at the Moscow and Istanbul international fests and, for the last thirty years, chairman of the Board at the San Francisco international film fest. Currently, he is on the Board of Trustees of the Sundance Institute and a member of the Film Committee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As majority owner of the San Jose Sharks, George introduced hockey to the internet, making them the first NHL team with a Web site. Characterized by his bottomless curiosity and his tireless pursuits around the world, George has more stories up his sleeve than any bio can convey.
SELECTED FEATURE INTERVIEWS:
John Perry Barlow- A retired cattle rancher, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and co- founder and executive chair of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization concerned with democracy in the electronic community.
Orlan- A French performance artist whose most recent work is herself. Entitled The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan, she has since May 1990 undergone a series of plastic surgical operations to transform herself into a new being, modeled on Venus, Diana, Europe, Psyche and Mona Lisa. She has been featured on CBS’s Eye to Eye, written about in Art in America, exhibited worldwide and supported by the French Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Lisa Palac- Host of the talk radio show ” Generation Sex”. She is currently working on a book about her adventures into pop sex bodies. The cryonic suspension involves the use of low temperatures to half metabolic decay. A person who is cryonically suspended can not be revived by current medical technology. The freezing process does too much damage, what is accomplished is that once frozen the person’s biological state does not change. The reason for performing a cryonic suspension is the belief that science, technology, and society will advance to the point where revival of the person is both possible and desirable.
Extropy- Forces opposing entropy. It represents boundless expansion, self- transformation, dynamic, optimism, intelligent technology, and spontaneous order.
Nanotechnology: ( from nanometer: a billionth of a meter). The manipulation of matter at the atomic level. This new technology will handle individual atoms and molecules with control and precision. Posthumanism/ Transhumanism: philosophies of life ( such as extropian) that seek the continuation and acceleration of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of Science and technology, guided by life- promoting principles and values.
Synthetic Pleasures has screened at The Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance , and Berlin International Film Festival. A full line of merchandise is available ( designer jackets made with 100% synthetic materials to mouse pads), as is a compact disc featuring selected ambient/ techno music from the film on Moonshine Music, and a forthcoming book. You can also visit their website, which has been voted top 5% of all Web Sites, for detailed information at http://web.emedia.ne/sp
The films production company can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In Japan, you catch a wave at Oceandome, a synthetic indoor beach that pushes the Wave Pool concept into the realm of B-grade science fiction. You golf at Golfdome. Ski at Skidome. Yes, with the aid of technology, Heaven is, as Belinda Carlisle promised, a place on Earth. Or is it ?
As one observer observes in the Oceandome sequence, “The electricity goes off and you discover you’re not living in paradise; you’re living in Hell.” Directed by Iara Lee, ” Synthetic Pleasures” pulls the covers back on a virtual world where nature is there for the taking and science, not some uncontrollable dog, is man’s best friend. It’s a documentary tying cyber-weddings, Vegas, internet sex, cryonics, cyborgs, cosmetic surgery and, of course, the Golfdome all together as examples of our thirst to adapt the environment to us, rather than doing the natural thing and adapting to the environment.
As John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains, “The thing that sets human beings apart from other creatures is a built-in dissatisfaction. There’s an itch we have that can’t be scratched.” Scott Frazier takes it one step further. “Technology means power,” he says. “You become a god.” So what do you think a god would do for a living? Computer animation, babe – the latest word in divinity.
Because it allows the interview subjects, from Timothy Leary to Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, to tie their own ropes without editorial input from Lee, the film is only as frightening as you want it to be. In fact, there’s a chance the techno generation will think it’s really cool. After all, who wouldn’t rally around a reality like, “My world is packaged for me; I just have to consume it?”
Iara Lee’s first feature-length documentary takes on a huge topic: the effects of emerging technologies on our present, everyday lives. It’s sort of like starting a Ph. D. dissertation on Western literature, an overwhelming subject. But Lee ( who is married to the film’s producer George Gund III ) solves the dilemma by offering an impressionistic overview of the technology revolution. She and her crew go around the world, shooting the Brave New World in action and interviewing experts and participants in the technoculture, from the ubiquitous Timothy Leary, who is preparing for what he considers life’s greatest adventure, death, to Orlan, a French artist whose work- in- progress is her own body which she is mutating through plastic surgery . The tour takes in Japan’s Beach Dome, where people frolic in artificial sunshine and sand, catch machine- made waves and run from computer- generated storms; a cryogenics business, where people are frozen at the point of death to await future cures for their maladies; virtual reality game rooms and pleasure islands. Lee surveys it with an open mind and an uncritical attitude: Welcome to the future, the movie says, the future is now. RECOMMENDED
GUND-BACKED FILM GETS PERSONAL PUSH
It’s hard to stand out at the jampacked Sundance Film Festival, the independent movie market where noncomformity is so widespread it’s the standard. But last January Iara Lee and George Gund III made a good run at it.
Before every screening of their film, ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” the documentary that Lee directed and Gund produced, they stood in the lobby handing out tchotchkes. They gave out bags and booklets in Day-Glo colors labeled ” Synthetic Pleasures” from Lee, keyrings labeled “San Jose Sharks” from
Gund, who owns the NHL team – in addition to an interest in the Cleveland Cavaliers and in his family’s wide-ranging businesses.
At Sundance, Lee and Gund also arranged an on-line chat with the late Timothy Leary, who appears in the film and acts as a kind of guru to its quest to uncover the latest in mind-blowing technology – from cyberspace to cryonics, virtual reality to artificial environments, plastic surgery to Prozac.
The couple was a presence everywhere, at parties and in the snow, always armed with information about their film.
Now they are distributing the film themselves, and following it across the country as it opens in theaters. Tonight, Lee and Gund will be on hand at the Cedar Lee Theater to answer questions after the 7:30 showing of ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” and to introduce the 9:30 showing.
The feature-length documentary actually started out to be a short, Gund said over breakfast during a brief stop in Cleveland earlier this week. He and Lee, who met 10 years ago at the Berlin Film Festival, were in Korea for a traditional wedding ceremony three years ago. Lee is Korean but was born and raised in Brazil, and with their families so scattered, “We get married every year,” Gund said.
While they were there, Lee read a magazine story about the Ocean Dome, a gigantic artificial beach in Japan. They went to film it, intending a 15-minute piece on the dome itself. But after they returned to their home in New York (they also have homes in San Francisco, Nevada and Cleveland), Gund said Lee kept discovering new technologies she wanted to explore. “She saw the possibilities of doing so much more,” he said.
At the time, neither Lee nor Gund was using those technological possibilities themselves. “I started a little with the Sharks,” Gund said. “I sent and received e-mail, and we had a database on about 13,000 hockey players all over the world that our scouts used.”
Now, Lee and Gund’s production company, Caipirinha, is at the cutting edge of using the Internet to distribute and promote independent films. They have a Web site (http://www.syntheticpleasures.com) and Lee carries her laptop everywhere.
It helps, given the couple’s peripatetic lives. Gund travels almost daily on his personal jet, largely for the Sharks, and said he comes to Cleveland, his hometown, at least three to four times a month for meetings and business with the family’s George Gund Foundation.
And their promotional methods for their self-distributed film includes personal attention: This weekend alone, Gund said, they were planning to discuss ” Synthetic Pleasures” in Boston and Philadelphia as well as Cleveland.
Audiences have been generally receptive, although Gund said a few people have wanted the film to take a stand, for or against, the technological issues it explores.
“It’s a broad overview, it’s not definitive,” he said. “I think it’s better that people can see both sides and make up their own minds, because that’s how it will be in the future when all this technology is widely available. Technology can be very beneficial, or it can be dangerous or harmful. It all depends on who controls it.”
This documentary is an expansive look at the drive to shape our surroundings into a suitable form detached from reality. The film offers much to ponder and a feast of image and animation for the eye. Although visually interesting, it is no action-packed adventure; it is a useful piece of cultural criticism. While it is also not perfect, it is well worth seeing for anyone who cares about the topic, and should be required viewing for those helping to build the alternate realities of the future.
Lee forged this documentary from interviews, computer animation, and footage of highly engineered environments. The interviewees are thinkers like cyberpundit R.U. Sirius, Extropian leader Max More, and the late Timothy Leary, as well as some who relate amusing drug anecdotes but don’t seem to do much thinking, at least on camera. The film is divided into fairly flowing sections discussing the synthesis of environments, bodies, and identities, as well as a concluding segment with broader musings from the interviewees.
Synthetic Pleasures combines a solid focus on currents of thought with quick cuts of engineered spaces, bodies, and realities. The result is a well-paced automated journey through the not-so-small world into which we are shaping our current world.
Many of the pictured synthetic pleasures are brought about by computing or digital technology. But seeing performance artist Orlan surgically modified so that her forehead resembles that of the Mona Lisa is a visceral demonstration that the procession away from reality is not just occurring because of processors. Our architecture finds ways to create nature anew as well, as the film indicates with glances of a giant aquarium and a visual litany of Japanese environments: Golf Dome (which imitates an outdoor environment that is already highly engineered), Ski Dome, and Ocean Dome. Perhaps the most tenuous connection the film makes is to the world of drugs. Drugs, whether mood- controlling or psychedelic, do not offer shared experiences of alternate realities – not to mention repeatable or even fully describable experiences – making it impossible, of course, for the synthetic pleasures they bring about to be depicted in the film with great visual force.
One of the few films that has attempted something remotely similar was Alien Dreamtime, a lugubrious display consisting of rave video art and Terence McKenna’s endlessly talking head. Synthetic Pleasures far exceeds that film in coherently examining ideas. A better comparison might be found in a different medium: Mark Dery’s book Escape Velocity has an even broader set of topics but takes a similar approach, and makes a good companion for those seeking different perspective on artificial realities. Escape Velocity looks at cyberculture through the eyes of prominent pontificators as well, and Dery has compiled interesting profiles and perspectives in it. He does sacrifice some clarity by attempting to be all-inclusive and racking up a high footnote count, but even the film’s tighter focus doesn’t make for a perfectly clear examination of these emerging phenomena. Those who want a more official companion book should look for Synthetic Pleasures, the book, to appear; the intoduction by R.U. Sirius can now be found on the film’s official Web site.
“What I do think we need is adventures that last centuries,” computer musician Jaron Lanier prophesies in voice-over near the end of the film. Of course, we have these adventures, and they are provided by the alternate realities of mythology, religion, even literature and music. In embracing the film’s technological examples of artificial reality as totally new, Lee makes the common mistake of missing out on the useful context of “adventures” in existing media. People have long constructed textual, musical, and architectural environments with less advanced technologies but with the same goals in mind. Synthetic Pleasures connects us to the future, but by missing the reference to these earlier hyperrealities, doesn’t manage to make the connection to the past.
Still, the film has an important accomplishment. The true challenge for us, both now and in the future, is how to give structure to the pastiche of highly engineered, hyperreal environments in which we are increasingly being immersed, environments were are seeing form around us and which we are helping to build. We must do was Lee has done in this film – assemble these fictive snippets that no longer reference anything real into some sort of coherence, into a narrative that structures these artifacts and thereby provides new meaning. This narrative will almost certainly not offer a single, simple answer, just as good literature does not. But it should, like Synthetic Pleasures, ask an interesting and provocative question.
It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, in the heat of summer, and Miss Thing Languidly rolls out of bed, contemplating possible events for the day. The TV weatherman announces a coming typhoon, but this meteorological impediment does not cramp our heroine’s style. Miss Thing ruminates: “Hummm… What should I do today? Do I sun myself on the calm warm sands of the indoor beach or do I go snowboarding on the slopes of the year-round winter mountain many choices…”
Boys and girls of Pro X, these are the possibilities that now tax our jaded minds. Iara Lee’s documentary, Synthetic Pleasures, explores these possibilities of artificial realities that are technologically available to us, and focuses on “the human drive to control nature and to overcome the limitations it imposes upon us. “Yes, with the technological revolution comes the ability to transform reality into exactly what we want it to be. This could definitely be a good thing….
But why stop at transforming our environment into artificial indoor beaches and ski slopes that are featured in this documentary? Synthetic Pleasures also talks about the technological ability to alter our bodies. Clips of drag queens at Limelight stress the importance of the availability of gender changes for transsexuals as a method of recreating oneself at will. After all, if you don’t like what nature gave you, just change it! Some people do go mad with this power of self transformation, like the performance artist Orlan, who has had over 20 plastic surgical operations to simultaneously achieve the look of Botticelli’s “Venus” and Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” . Also, somewhere in the world is a woman who has had plastic surgery to make herself look exactly like a Barbie Doll.
The last section of the film is about synthetic identities, and the power we have to alter our minds. This part is probably starting to sound very familiar to some of you. Interviews with the ubiquitous cyber-babbler Timothy Leary bring up obvious ways of synthetically altering mental reality, and kids star and alleged It- girl Chloe Sevigny has a cameo discussing the synthetic pleasures of, among other things, “sugar and hair dye”.
If there were a video companion to your “global guide to tomorrow’s scene” , this would be it. The soundtrack of ambient music’s greatest hits and the virtual reality visual clips are crazy cool. It’s summed up at the end of the film with a little help from Burger King: “Have it your way.”
Old joke: Why do dogs lick their balls?
Punchline: Because they can.
Human beings, as Jaron Lanier, pioneer in the world of virtual reality observes in opening sequences of filmmaker Iara Lee’s new docu-film Synthetic Pleasures, are not dogs — though their obsession with technology has as much in common with the canine fascination of its own genitalia. “Human beings have a built in dissatisfaction, an itch that can’t be scratched. Our efforts to scratch it have created civilization which is essentially the practice of trying to adapt the environment to us rather than adapting ourselves to the environment.”
With the new millennium on the horizon, it’s easy to get scared and excited all at the same time about what “reality” might mean in a few years. The terrain of cyberspace and its manifestations are provocative because it is essentially unexplored. What was once considered “virtual” simply simulated an experience, now the digital domain aspires to be “real.” Hence the point Synthetic Pleasures raises: Should we all be afraid?
“The thing about virtual reality is that people are so afraid that it is becoming a life of substitutes,” says Lee, “that people cannot handle the natural things of the world. I think, you do what you want to do. the whole thing is fantasy. I don’t see why people are so worried. It’s almost clich, but it’s a double edged sword – it’s what you do with it.” Lee proposes that technology is simply the information, what we do with it is up to us.
Synthetic Pleasures, Lee’s first feature-length documentary, began as an “electronic road movie”, traveling the world and looking at the landmarks of cutting edge technology. The directors’ camera sweeps across many subcultures, dealing with everything from the manipulation of artificial organisms to the control of nature (cryonics, plastic surgery, etc.) As theorists from every possible crevice in the electronic frontier give testimony, robots, fantasy buildings and CAD images scatter by in visual bursts, providing conclusive evidence about this new age.
Technology means power in the 21st Century. Not simply power over natural resources or money but the ability to transcend nature by creating foolproof, guaranteed experiences at will. Among Iara Lee’s wild examples is the Japanese fascination with indoor natural wonders. Ski slopes and beaches with computerized temperatures and wave machines allow the Japanese, a culture notorious for their work ethic and endless technological resources, the ability to enjoy the pure experience of nature without the nature.
Man is a product of nature and technology is a product of man – but it’s becoming difficult to separate artificial and real, to find the line where man ends and machine begins. “I really do believe the distinction is blurry”, says Lee. “We now say that machines are extensions of humans but we could say that we are extensions of machines. I think human beings think they are special, and I have my doubts. I don’t think we are more special than plants or robots or machines. We talk about biological life but now we can also talk about non-carbon life or silicon life.
To Lee’s credit, her film surfs the many channels of technological profundity but also allows the common folk who backs up her theory of a randomless, controlled experience through technology to slip through. Not-so-common folk, as well, emerge from the depths of New York’s club scene to discuss body manipulation (piercing, tattooing), mood altering drugs and the idea of gender confusion. “I think what people really want is more thrills, more fun to really fantasize,” says Lee. “Instability is something that we always had. With technology, we just have this fantasy that we can control.”
In the 21st Century even drugs can be considered information, chemical control of the brain. Chemistry as a cruder form of technology. “(Timothy) Leary always tells me that LSD was for the Sixties what computers are for the Nineties,” says Lee. They are basically mind expanders, you can go beyond your consciousness. We are like hippies with beepers. We are always looking to expand our minds.”
With Synthetic Pleasures, Iara Lee tries to dispel the myth of an effortless society solely run by computers. “I think we should use technology to do more,” she says. “It’s a total illusion to think that with technology we don’t need to work so hard. I think it’s just the opposite – we’ll have to work even harder.” Technology is neither good nor evil in and of itself. Technology is simple data that can fall equally into the hands of the imagination, the power to create, as the hands of mass consumption, the power to exploit and destroy. Either way, as Jaron Lanier admits in the closing sequences, “There’s no such thing as standing still.”
Various Artists – Synthetic Pleasures Cd
It’s good somebody finally figured out that the best musical soundtrack for a technologically-oriented and inspired film happens to be the same music that is inspired by and created through technology, namely electronic music. Synthetic Pleasures, a new documentary by director Iara Lee which explores man’s relationship to his ever expanding technological universe, has done just that – making the grand leap with strong musical donations by one-person wunderkind like Young American Primitive, Tranquility Bass, Single Cell Orchestra and Banco de Gaia. Opening with a booming thanks to God himself, Y.A.P.’s “Over and Out” sets a rather monumental tone for the entire course of the record, then heads off into deep space sonar echoes and a frolicking acid line. Dangling the ear candy of an upbeat piano line, Tranquility Bass’ “Cantamilla” leads down a lightly frosted cobblestone lane of violin strings and light happy vocals. While Single Cell Orchestra’s “Transmit Liberation” encapsulates wandering melodic synth with some rough and tumble percussion. From start to loving finish, Synthetic Pleasures lets you know that, yes indeed, you are on an excursion – one that is most definitely worth taking.
Movie Review (two stars)
SYNTHETIC PLEASURES: Directed by Iara Lee. Photographed by Marcus Hahn, Kramer Morgenthau, and Toshifumi Furusawa. Edited by Andreas Troeger and Stacia Thompson. 83 minutes. Unrated. In Japanese and English, with English subtitles. At City Cinema and Cinema Village in Manhattan.
If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, my father used to say, then Mohammed has to go to the mountain.
He died too soon, my father. Nowadays the mountain, the Pyramids, the South Sea Islands, the Moon, anything, could come to him, and to you. Virtually. Just push a button.
If you doubt this, I suggest a visit to” Synthetic Pleasures, “a documentary by Iara Lee opening today at the Cinema Village and the City Cinema in Manhattan. Forget”Brave New World”; welcome to brave new hell.
Skiing bore you? Tire you? Scare you? Ski without skiing at the press of a button. What about sex? Internet shows the way, virtually.
It”is safe sex in every way. No HIV positive,”the film says.
Into this icy manifesto, filmmaker Lee, a product of Korea, Brazil, and NYU Film School, lets slip one or two fugitive notes of humanity.”I want to be in a nice physical space with nice people around,”says one person in what looks like a Greenwich Village coffee house.”A kiss is the most fundamental building block of sex,” says another.”How can you simulate that and why would you want to?” The visuals in ” Synthetic Pleasures” are pretty chilling. And the voodoo animation makes anything look like anything.
Meet Orlan,”the French performance artist whose work is her body,”and who has had the face on that body improved in nine operations. But you might not want to look when the camera closes in on a scalpel digging around an ear and jawbone in the latest of those surgical procedures.
Meet Mike the Beagle, resurrected dog. Frozen and then resurrected, that is.
Maybe the true measure of the virtuality collected in these clinical 83 minutes is that grizzled and dying Timothy Leary looks and sounds like the most human thing in the film.
Yes, and a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. What wonders man will come to regret, as time goes by.
Synthetic Pleasures, a new documentary by Iara Lee to be released this fall, explores the often disturbing extent technology is being (mis)used to enhance the human experience – from artificial environments and virtual reality, to wetware and cosmetic surgery. Synthetic Pleasures, well received at the recent Toronto film festival, also boasts an impressive soundtrack: Hardfloor, Pete Namlook, Tranquility Bass, Human Mesh Dance and Young American Primitive. To get a loosie on the Web, point yourself to http://web.emedia.net/sp . How widely Synthetic Pleasures will be distributed is still unknown, but even if you miss this techno cult classic, we’ll send a full size Synthetic Pleasures movie poster to the first two letters we receive that describe, in 100 words or MORE, your most memorable “synthetic pleasure”. Mail your entry to: Resonance Magazine Synthetic Contest, PO Box 95628, Seattle WA 98145-2628.
Aaack! to the future: One man’s pleasure is another man’s junk
A few years ago, Bill McKibben wrote a disturbing book called “The End of Nature.” Among the points he argued: that the natural world — any environment unaffected by human technology — no longer exists.
To McKibben, the notion was a lamentation. To most of those interviewed in ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” an ambitious documentary by Iara Lee, it’s an exciting first step in humanity’s inevitable advance, then final leap, into permanent existence in a cyberspace universe.
Talk about evolution: Not even Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould, who first promoted the concept of punctuated equilibrium (evolution occurring in rapid, almost quantum advances), foresaw that a species, even human, could change this fast.
Using computer animation, workmanlike footage and very old-fashioned talking heads, ” Synthetic Pleasures” takes philosopher Thomas Hobbes one step beyond. People, having banded together in societies to protect themselves from a terrifying natural world in which life is “nasty, brutish and short,” have now conquered nature altogether. But the need to alter our environment persists — “a built-in dissatisfaction, an itch that can’t be scratched,” as one interviewee puts it. “Technology, having destroyed nature, now seeks to re-create it in a perfect, nonthreatening form.”
We’ve already begun to fabricate harmless faux realities such as Las Vegas, where you can see the world (sort of) without ever having to leave U.S. soil, and the Ocean Dome in Japan, a space where the waves, the temperature and even the rain are all under human control. The Earth is being packaged, ready (and safe) for human consumption.
The next step, of course, is virtual reality — skiing in a VR setup, for example, without ever going near the slopes; people can gain the experience without mastering the technique. Eventually, we’ll download our personalities into computers, thus gaining immortality. (One of the heads talking on this subject is science writer James Trefil, who explained the concept much more thoroughly, and much more entertainingly, in his book “The Great Mambo Chicken and the Trans-Human Condition.”)
In the meantime, ” Synthetic Pleasures” offers up transitional forms: a French performance artist who submits to whimsical plastic surgery to change her face into bizarre shapes; body-piercers with short attention spans, who find it necessary to alter their appearance every day; transsexuals who “resent being typed in a body”; ecstasy-droppers who perceive drugs as information. The mind itself, we are told, is becoming a controlled environment.
In a way, one sort of pities these individuals. Like so many neo-Moseses leading the way out of the material world, they can envision their Virtual Promised Land. Yet they know they won’t live long enough actually to set foot in it — or in this case, transfer an electronic impulse into its microcircuitry.
To those of us content with corporeal existence, should this particular future never come about, so much the better: It’s a Timid New World, in which everyone beats a final, irrevocable retreat into one’s self. This is the way the world ends — with humans evolving into billions of electronic navel-gazers? Without navels, even?
Ironically, the film cumulatively argues against such an eventuality. An hour and a half of high-powered, futuristic meanderings through ersatz reality, however entertaining and thought-provoking, turns out to be quite enough. And to be there for eternity? Forget it. After viewing ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” it’s a very real — a very real — delight to exit the theater and walk out into our wonderfully imperfect world.
A Caipirinha Productions release. Director: Iara Lee.
MOVIE REVIEW Pleasures
Unrated. Opens today: Ken in Kensington
2 1/2 stars
“A World Made To Order – Festival Film’s Subjects Tinker With Nature, Body And Mind”
From Japanese indoor beaches to the latest in flash-frozen pets, body-altering performance artists and smart drugs, director Iara Lee keeps viewers on the cutting edge of their seats with Synthetic Pleasures, a film that opens tonight as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
The film explores how man has succeeded so well in striving to control nature that wholly new artificial realities are emerging. It also questions the scientific, physiological and environmental transformations evolving from the impulse to mold the natural world.
Lee, who is Brazilian-born but of Korean descent, was in Seoul three years ago to study the language when she first heard about giant indoor beaches and ski domes in Japan. She quickly organized a team of Japanese filmmakers and traveled to Japan with her husband, George Gund III, to film the pristine artificial beach in Miyazaki and the hazard-free slopes at the ski dome in Yokohama. Gund also is the film’s producer and just happens to be head of the San Francisco film festival’s board.
“These domes turned out to be the most surreal visual of our much larger film,” Lee said by phone from her New York studio. “We showed a typhoon taking shape outside while these people in the beach dome inside were totally oblivious to the storm.”
After Lee returned to New York and started editing, she expanded her concept to develop a concept that is part documentary, part high-tech funhouse ride. “I realized that, wow, this was just part of what could be a fascinating project about synthetic technologies of all kinds,” she said.
The 30-year-old Lee said she’d been married to the 58-year-old Gund “about three to four years.” She can’t remember the exact length of time, she said, “because every year we try renew our vows every year in some crazy place.”
Such places have included New York, Korea and Las Vegas. In fact, a faxed marriage certificate from one such ceremony in Las Vegas appears in the film.
Lee and Gund say the project required determination, since they had to convince many of it’s subjects that the film, which cost less than $1 million, was serious. “We’re both Tauruses. That means we’re stubborn,” Gund said by phone while on breaks from meetings in the San Juan Islands. Lee lives in New York most of the year, while Gund splits his time between New York and San Francisco.
Both Lee and Gund say the film was worth the effort, if only because it expanded their window on the high-tech world.
“Iara was kind of a computer-nerd wannabe, and before this film the only thing I used the computer for was e-mail and a database that tracks 13,000 hockey players worldwide,” said Gund, who also owns the San Jose Sharks.
Lee agreed that she’d “never been much of a cybergirl” before making the film. But as she began to think about new technologies, she realized that “we’re restructuring all our ideas and beliefs about life in general – about what is gender, what is reality, what is virtual reality and what it is to be human or machine.”
Lee explores all those questions by taking a fast-paced, dizzying tour through virtual cityscapes and roller-coaster rides, body-altering plastic surgery and mind altering drugs. A list of the film’s narrators lists as a who’s-who of digerati. It includes Gund’s friend John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.
Fascinated with the idea that new technologies stem from a desire to tame and transcend the natural world, Lee divides her massive subject into three parts. “Synthetic Environments” shows the domed beaches, ski slopes and golf courses. With such environments, New York University professor Robert Gurland says in the film, humans re-create nature “precisely as we want it: pleasant, positive, danger free.”
“Synthetic Bodies” explores how people try to recast their corporal selves. We see footage of teens with pierced noses and tongues at a rave at the Limelight club in New York; we see a “resurrected” dog that was brought back to life after being flash-frozen at the Cryonics Institute; we even see French performance artist Orlan undergoing plastic surgery to make her forehead look more like the Mona Lisa’s.
In “Synthetic Identities”, Timothy Leary talks about how we modify our personalities through mood-altering drugs such as Prozac.
Lee’s intent “is not to give the answers to the dilemmas these new technologies pose,” she said, “but t make people think about them
In the film, Lanier says, “Our generation is writing the constitution for the rest of history.” Lee added, “I think we should all participate in drafting it, and not leave it to the experts.”
Garden of Unearthly Delights: Documentary explores how humans try to improve on nature
“Synthetic Pleasures,” opening today, is an enthralling yet disturbing documentary on the proliferation of a synthesized cyberworld and the human quest to beat the forces of nature by reinventing it.
This futuristic film covers an astonishing array of technological jiggery-pokery — controlled environments that replicate the outdoors, designer drugs that change moods and thinking, virtual realities that alter experiences, plastic surgeries that defy aging and genetic engineering that makes a grab for immortality.
On the whole, “Synthetic Pleasures” is a sci-fi adventure that keeps the mind and imagination hopping. But it is also a troubling investigation into technology’s undeniable allure and gloomy moral questions about who will control the future by controlling the technology.
Still, the film, which screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, is entirely engaging. Director Iara Lee calls it a “sci-fi documentary.” It has a hip, futuristic feel, although for some the production may be a bit too cool.
A kind of dance-club video feeling is underscored by commentary from technology pioneers, some of whom come across like hip preachers. They include electronic frontierist John Perry Barlow, ex-Doobie Brother Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter, Cryonics Institute President Robert Ettinger, hyperspace expert Michio Kaku, virtual reality “father” Jaron Lanier, technology theorist Howard Rheingold and even the late Timothy Leary, identified as a “cyberguru.”
The documentary, shot at locations around the world (including the Bay Area) is Lee’s first feature-length project and was produced by San Jose Sharks owner George Gund III, who is Lee’s husband.
The basic premise is that humans are driven in an increasing frenzy to beat nature with technology. A host of large-scale virtual environments has sprung up, from glitter palace resorts in Las Vegas to indoor recreation areas that imitate the great outdoors.
At a domed beach in Japan, for example, sunbathers languish under a sunlamp sky and frolic in the crystalline waters where machines make waves big enough for surfing. The environment is run from a control booth, where a worker occasionally pushes a button to break up the humdrum of paradise by unleashing a typhoon. Just as they would at a real beach, the bathers run for cover.
In a similar vein, Japanese skiers schuss down the slopes of a domed, artificial winter resort that could be a snapshot of almost any Sierra skiing hot spot.
ALTERING THE BODY
These examples come off like goofy fun compared with the film’s glimpses of biotechnology, plastic surgery, mood- altering drugs and digital wizardry — all of which, Lee muses, will transform the next century. Viewers may want to cover their eyes during a graphic scene of a face-lift. A French performance artist named Orlan, whose reinventions of herself through plastic surgery are her “artwork,” talks about her latest body.
The examples of “synthetic identities” are the film’s most provocative moments. People are increasingly able to buy or sell looks and experiences (virtual sex, for example) or to modify themselves mentally through drugs.
One expert argues that technology opens new opportunities for human understanding, while another worries that the human love affair with technology inevitably will create digital or biotechnical dictatorships. Still others contend that humans are only continuing the quest of the ancients — to transcend the physical world.
Synthetic Pleasures Film Examines Technology Wave
Synthetic Pleasures was screened last month at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and Director Iara Lee is making plans to show the film at the Cartagena Film Festival in Colombia next month.
Other film festivals that will screen Lee’s sci-fi documentary include the Berlin Film Festival this month; the Avignon Festival in New York City in April; the St Petersburg Film Festival in Russia, the Avignon Festival in France, and the Munich Festival in Germany, all in June; and the Jerusalem Film Festival in July.
The screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall led to the invitation to the Sundance Film Festival, Lee said.
What started out in the summer of 1993 as a short film about the controlled, artificial environments such as indoor beaches and indoor ski resorts in Japan ended up as a full-length film.
“I started in Japan shooting the synthetic environments, and I was just going to cut a short film. But then I was thinking that technology really gives us this creative power of transformation, and I decided to extend it and make it into a full-length film,” she said.
The film, through images of technology and computer-generated images, centers on “how we use technology to transform our environments, bodies and minds because now we can basically recreate nature or reality with all of this technology, or at least have the dream of that,” Lee said.
According to Lee, the final section of the film deals with the perspective of the human relationship with technology, where the relationship is going and implications for the future. Interviews with industry leaders provide technical information and emphasize the influence of technology on human experiences, she said.
Although Lee’s Caipirinha Productions didn’t use Silicon Graphics workstations to produce the film, SGI equipment plays a heavy role in the documentary both on screen and behind the scenes.
“We just couldn’t afford making original animations for our film, but we used a lot of material from contributors and computer animators. Obviously, a lot of them use Silicon Graphics equipment,” she said.
Synthetic Pleasures includes images compiled from D2 sources, Beta cameras, video, Hi-8 film, old 3-D games, CD-ROMs and material downloaded from the Internet, Lee said.
Coordination of all these sources was the biggest challenge in making the film, she said.
“This film is not like when you have a story with a controlled situation with actors,” she said. “It’s a compilation of a lot of people’s efforts. “The big challenge was to coordinate this massive amount of material, interviews and research.”
Lee is actively searching for a distributor to release the film to theaters in the United States.
“I would like to have it in theaters by this summer,” she said. “From what I hear, once (an independent film) gets picked up, it stays on the shelf for at least a year because it has other films in front of it. Hopefully, because the subject is so timely, hip and trendy now, the film will be picked up sooner than that.”
Computer technology is taking film making into a new era, Lee said.
“You can recreate personas and characters from scratch with ‘virtual actors,'” she said. “And basically we are defining the concept of nature and reality because in the end, everything can be created from scratch. I think that’s the biggest impact: You can’t believe anymore in what you see or what you hear. Everything can be manipulated. Even sound. It’s fascinating how you get a little bit of sound, and you can transform that sound into something totally different.”
Lee hopes the future brings lower costs and more accessibility to technology for film makers.
“It’s just so expensive. People can have a vision, but if they don’t have the money, they don’t get anywhere,” she said. “If the digital editing systems become as available as like having a PhotoShop, it will make film making really democratic. But then you really have to know how to use the technology. People say machines will do the work for you. Well, I don’t know about that. Sometimes it makes you work even faster. The machines are so efficient, but you have to give instructions to the machine to be efficient, and that’s very time consuming.”
Synthetic Pleasures is a didactic exploration into the artifice of cyberculture. With a combination of 3- D animation, documentary footage, ranting technologists and an Incredibly refreshing soundtrack, this film will no doubt become a cult classic.
The focus is all things synthetic, ranging from synthetic people to synthetic ski and water resorts. Plastic beauty, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, nootropics, artificial nature, cryonics, and biotechnology are explored within this celluloid homage of ” all things to come. ” Virtual Reality is also touched upon, perhaps a bit too often, but it being the only mainstream technology cited, one can understand the reasoning for repeated references.
Most interesting are the discussions and analysis spewed out, almost preacher like, by such noted extropians as Timothy Leary, R. U. Sirius, Jaron Lanier, Max More, Howard Rheingold and the contrary opinions of anti-extropian post modernists such as Scott Bukatman and Michio Kaku.
The film feels like a well-researched term paper. Director Iara Lee, a virtually synthetic burst of energy herself, separates technology into several test tubes, puts them in a centrifuge, but ultimately pours it all back into a giant cocktail for the viewer. This being her feature-debut, Lee has touched upon timely subjects in her search for what is happening today that will create the potential tomorrow.
Exploring the absurdity of a society that communicates both physically and mentally through peripherals and teledildonics leaves one with the impression that perhaps Walt Disney is the grandfather of all things synthetic–or at least synthetic environments. After all, technology was created as a tool to be used by people, not vice versa. Synthetic Pleasures certainly raises questions as to the direction of society on a global scale. A true extropian, however, knows that progress will take its own unbounded course and that humans will adapt accordingly.
(Moonshine) Iara Lee’s Synthetic Pleasures documentary has become an ongoing project. The film, a look at artificial realities within society, has played to such prestigious film festivals as Sundance, Toronto, and Berlin and has spawned a clothing line, a web site, and now a series of compilations showcasing the soundtrack. Synthetic Pleasures Volume One is a bit of a time capsule, highlighting some wonderful tracks from the past couple of years. The driving sounds of techno and the quality of good ambient music perfectly complement the otherworldly quality that the film takes on.
It begins with Young American Primitive, whom we haven’t heard from much in the past two years but are reminded why we were interested in the first place. “Over and Out” is creative, a little bit funky, and a little bit crazy with its random vocal sample of a poetry reading of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Brings back traumatic memories if you had to memorize it in the fourth grade…
From there, it’s a trip into some serious recent classics, like Single Cell Orchestra’s phenomenal journey in “Transmit Liberation,” the gentle lunar ambience of Terre Thaemlitz’s “Hovering Glows,” and “Cantamilla” by Tranquility Bass, soulful, funky, emotive and one of my personal favorites of all time. Round it out with contributions from Human Mesh Dance, John Cameron (the only “soundtracky” sounding track), Hardfloor, Banco de Gaia, Tylervision, and Jaydee, and you’ve got an all killer, no filler soundtrack.
Though recent films of late have begun to employ this kind of music in soundtracks, Synthetic Pleasures avoids the wack Mortal Combat-type techno from artists like Traci Lords and Moby and instead digs deeper into less familiar, more underground territory to find some real gems.
ALL THE RAVE: ESCAPE TO THE FAKE
Perhaps the only thing missing from Saturday night’s Synthetic Pleasures party at the Roxy was a caveat for the squeamish–the plastic-surgery scenes in the cautionary cyberdoc are vivid enough to make you postpone that tummy tuck forever. The fete for director Iara Lee s feature-length debut brought out the requisite X-ers, netizens, and drag queens, all of whom fit the film’s more obvious demo-graphic. But though the Caipirinha production explores artificial escape via Virtual Fellatio, designer narcotics, and corporeal reconstruction, Lee hopes it will find an audience beyond the usual techno-savvy crowd.
The globetrotting and irrepressibly perky director (done up in poly-poly ravewear and Sophia Lorencirca- 73 shades) confessed that she began work on the film as a complete nano-novice. Before, Lee said, my computer was nothing but my typewriter. Now technology is my life. But, she stressed, S.P. is not about gadgets–it s about philosophical, moral, and ethical issues. Indeed, Lee trots out various better-living-through-chemistry spokespeople–Timothy Leary and erotic online producer Lisa Palac among them–but also questions the ease with which we earthlings can morph our bodies and adapt the environment to suit every whim.
As retooled versions of Blondie and Gloria Gaynor pounded in the background, Lee explained her healthy caution toward both technology and the growing popularity of what she calls guaranteed pleasures. All the life-prolonging compounds and virtual ski slopes she captured on film, Lee said, kind of bother me a little, because it makes you ask, Why do they want everything to be so predictable?
The answer seems obvious to one of the doc s more colorful characters, a clubhopping member of U.F.O. (United Freaks Organization), who confesses onscreen, the first time I took ecstasy I saw people…as all good. And, like, everybody else was on ecstasy too, so they were all good. The closest Lee s party guests got to encapsulated pleasure were promotional medicine tablets, each filled with 83 mgs of Cryonics, 45 mgs of Indoor Surfing, and 9.6 mgs of Information Overload. While the S.P. poppers didn t exactly make the walls melt, they were the most creatively packaged Good n Plenties the crowd had ever tasted.
TO BE HYPERREAL
The technofuture is becoming a fixture on the small screen, millennial anxiety and new media hype combining to make venues like CNN or The Learning Channel devote hours of regularly scheduled programming to the stuff. Since most of their offerings are coming attractions for the consumer electronics industry, a theatrically released documentary like Synthetic Pleasures comes across like a big gust of freshly conditioned air. This neat and often loopy film, with its slick production values and big-picture questions about sex, drugs, and tech, certainly talks the now familiar alt.media talk about noxious combinations of electronic commodity and control. But to its credit, it also gets a buzz off the fumes.
Synthetic Pleasures is first of all a pretty smart piece of editing, its sound bites so well chosen and concise you almost worry about political-style manipulations. The bleeding-edge trends that are its subjects–ranging from VR to transsexuality to nanotechnology to indoor beaches in Japan–develop sociological gravitas when discussed by various pundits and participants, this even when the corny maladroitness of some of the vocabulary ( trans-humans, or extropans ) suggests a geek factor so high you can t imagine them having many partners at the big millennial dance. John Perry Barlow and R.U. Sirius talk compellingly of new technologies expanding the repertoire of human communication (they imagine e-mail like a hug ), while Timothy Leary takes some legitimate credit for the consciousness-hacking of club kids, melatonin junkies, and potheads.
The basic thrust of Synthetic Pleasures is that reality is steadily being replaced by the hyperreal of virtual environments and body/mind modification. You could raise objections to the talking heads on a number of issues (the master-race vibe that undercuts some of the ostensibly liberating uses of technology, for starters), but this zippy, fast-forward documentary doesn t give you much time for gloom even when it s trying to be cautionary. On the contrary, the widely disparate fixations of everyone from pierced future primitives to quickie Las Vegas marrieds become premonitions of a universal human future just by virtue of the participants infectious enthusiasms.
The film s most sustained attention to pros and cons is in its endless free-associative slide of images and sounds. Except for the interviews and some fill-in location footage, almost all of Pleasures is essentially found archival material that first-time director Iara Lee and her editors have assembled with a boundary-crossing zeal that s often inspired. Sometimes the images are purely illustrative, as in shots of ski theme parks located in Logan s Runlike domes in Japan. Other times, the visual track offers jokey counterpoint, as when an NYU philosophy prof worries that the next stage after indoor skiing is an abandonment of the physical altogether. A quick cut to a consumer electronics show with its VR ski games tells the viewer his worst nightmare is in many ways already here. In between all of this, the pulse is alternately slowed and quickened by arbitrary samples– 50s science fiction, mirror-surfaced digital animations (curiously lifted from the goofy New Age videos of Dr. Fiorella Tiorenzi), and old hygiene films–that feed in and out of the mix as seamlessly as the techno-ambient audiotrack. That the visuals can be so perfectly timed while also basically meaningless is Synthentic Pleasures s greatest comment about what the future might look like–as well as its most cogent warning.
‘Synthetic’: The Future Is Now
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
If the future is anything like the brave new world envisioned in Iara Lee’s scary documentary ” Synthetic Pleasures, ” you may want to schedule an appointment with Dr. Kevorkian now. On the other hand, if the prospect of 24-hour indoor golf, year-round skiing and sex without touching appeals to you, step right up to the cryonic chamber and preserve yourself for the 21st century.
Actually, there’s no need to wait for any of that stuff. As the movie points out, the future is now, at least in Japan, where duffers and schussers have long been able to indulge their pastimes in pristine, indoor environments. There, too, surfers can ride the artificial waves of the Seagaia Oceandome, a gigantic covered beach with fake sand and perfectly blue water; and where else could urban anglers pay to fish from a depressing looking tank that is restocked every 15 minutes?. (The only thing missing, of course, is the sky.) Furthermore, as any traveler on the infobahn knows, there is no shortage of digital lovers (as long as you’re willing to believe that every 16-year-old on-line blonde is really who she types she is).
Less a forecast of where we are heading than a sobering snapshot of where we are, ” Synthetic Pleasures” mixes documentary footage from some of today’s more bizarre outposts on the frontier of science with voice-over sound bites and talking heads spouting predictions on where it will all lead. Over a techno-ambient sound track, and sprinkled liberally with (mostly gratuitous) computer animations, Lee’s film records, but does not judge, the cutting-edge technology that has already begun to transform our lives. With plastic surgery, sex change operations, virtual reality, biotechnology, psychotropic drugs and the ubiquitous computer, we have begun the process of creating a world in which we can become whoever we believe ourselves to be. We can manipulate nature to guarantee the experiences we have come to demand. Soon there will be no more pimples, no more flies at the picnic, no wild mood swings. However, in its unflinching look at man’s efforts to eradicate life’s warts, ” Synthetic Pleasures” may make you nostalgic for such imperfections.
Although the film has its share of techno-wonks with greasy hair and unfashionable eye wear expounding the virtues of untrammeled scientific advancement, not all of its interview subjects are so blithely accepting of that version of progress. One whose work betrays a healthy sense of irony is the French performance artist Orlan, who — in an ongoing series of operations — is slowly having her face reconstructed so that she will resemble famous works of art (e.g., receiving implants that make her eyebrows look like those on the “Mona Lisa”). In a stomach-turning sequence, Lee shows us the video of “Orlan Operation #9,” in which a surgical implement is seen entering an incision in the artist’s cheek and then squirming grotesquely as it separates the skin from the underlying tissue.
This is not a movie for the squeamish, the old-fashioned or the puritanical. The late Timothy Leary’s embrace of pharmaceuticals, the incoherent philosophy of a couple of overpierced “extropians” (don’t ask), and former Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s trashing of religious belief may be scandalous to some, but their views are thankfully not the only ones presented. However, the film’s scrupulous evenhandedness may be its one flaw: It never really addresses the underlying malaise in our society that makes us want to escape from the so-called imperfection of our bodies and nature.
Lisa Palac, founder of Future Sex magazine, echoes Sam in “Casablanca” when she says near the film’s conclusion: “How could we possibly simulate a kiss with technology? And why would we even want to?” ” Synthetic Pleasures” asks some challenging questions but never really answers why so many of us want to fix what ain’t really broke.
Synthetic Pleasures, at the Key, is not rated but contains brief cyber-nudity and discussion of on-line sex. Netizens seeking more information can journey to: http://www.syntheticpleasures.com
Iara Lee’s film debut is an eyeful. In Synthetic Pleasures, she combines dance-club video graphics and documentary techniques. Her premise? The drive to control nature has incubated virtual environments – showplaces in Las Vegas, indoor beaches and ski ranches in Japan – and moved us to question similar transformations of scientific, physiological, and sexual realities, using (surprise!) computers and digital technology.
Fast moving images balance out the candid cyberchat. Howard Rheingold, John Perry Barlow, Timothy Leary and Lisa Palac spout their views on our pending “progress”, waxing prophetic about nanotechnology, piercing, psychopharmaceuticals, and the Net. Retinal candy and edge surfing discussion will keep you staring at your screen – forgetting, occasionally, to blink.
Synthetic Pleasures asks: Do our transformational desires reflect itches we can’t scratch? Can we, as the film’s Jaron Lanier wonders aloud on screen, “transcend human condition through these shiny black boxes”? The filmmaker doesn’t offer a final position: she simply encourages us to passionately dream – and worry – about our future.
Film Reviews – Synthetic Pleasures
If MTV and the discovery channel joined forces to produce a documentary, it would probably look and sound a lot like Synthetic Pleasures.
Iara Lee’s debut feature is a frenetic and facile montage intended as an overview of the various ways individuals are using technological and pharmaceutical innovations to enhance and alter their lives. Unfortunately, Lee’s reach far exceeds her grasp, and her pic, by turns intriguing and annoying, offers too little about too many things.
Everything from nanotechnology to virtual reality is grist for Lee’s warp-speed mill. Pic begins with glimpses of attempts to create artificial environments – Ocean Dome in Japan, Treasure Island in Las Vegas – that are “improvements” over what nature has to offer. Second third, arguably the pic’s strongest section, deals with genetic engineering, plastic surgery and other techniques employed to enhance human bodies. The most bizarre of the talking heads interview subjects: Orlan, a French performance artist who adjusts her body with plastic surgery every few months as some sort of aesthetic statement.
Final third of Synthetic Pleasures covers, among other things, mood altering drugs (particularly Prozac), so-called smart drinks and cybersex. Former LSD guru Timothy Leary is trotted out to pontificate about the joys of self-prescribed drug therapy. Other interviewees babble in banal generalities. (We’re just beginning to understand the human brain.” Oh, really?) Bulk of this segment is devoted to ways people can find companionship – and satisfy lust – through CD-ROMs and the Internet.
Synthetic Pleasures covers a great deal of well-trodden ground and doesn’t stay long enough in any one place to uncover much that is new. Even when Lee does present something that arouses genuine interest, she is too eager to hop off to something else before she has fully covered her topic. With its nonstop barrage of information and imagery, pic plays like a long and ultimately unsatisfying session of channel surfing.