I felt we were on the level of rhetoric where anything at all could be said. Perhaps the inmost you is a banana. Or tolerance. Or hatred. Or a banana.

–Edmund White

The Congress

The Congress

The Congress offers an honest portrait of the weirdness of modern life. It is metafictional, hyper-referential and combines both photographic and animated images. The resulting story has a nostalgic, cyberpunk vibe but takes seriously the problems of identity and of anonymity that emerge in a digital world where no one can hide but, paradoxically, no one can be found either.

I expected the film to be broadly critical of digital spaces, but it isn’t. To take only one example, the virtual world discovered by the protagonist, an actor eponymously named Robin, juxtaposes exposure and invisibility in a frenetic, overwhelming space. But her situation is not unrelated to the perpetual exposure and riskiness of the private home she seeks to build for her family by the runway of the airport in the early scenes of the film. Privacy and anonymity are not synonymous, and so there are differences between these two situations, yet the resonance between them suggests that a history of the distinction between personal and social identities in digital spaces can be devised, and that, if it were, it might allow us to make some sense of virtual spaces. The alternative captured by the film would be to mistake isolation for integrity.

The film’s story is at root about the difficulty of aging and the inevitability of growing old. Viewed against this narrative, the social difficulties of the constantly changing digital world emerge as a problem of subjective temporalities. Robin confronts digital change, what we might call “the new,” heavy with memory, and she has difficulty, I think, imagining herself as both old and alive in a world that is not the past. (In this Robin is emblematic of our culture: we have great difficulty representing age as something other than the time of the not-yet-dead, of the past-but-not-gone. It’s not incidental that this impossibility of aging is figured in Robin’s capture while young by an indexical sign, the photograph.) The alienation Robin feels casts the digital as a generational concern and suggests our discourse around the digital is, perhaps fundamentally, the stage we currently use to perform “youth” and “age” as part of our ongoing struggle to live in time.

The film is far from perfect and I disliked the position the autistic child seemed to hold in the story. I’m also abstracting quite a bit from the details in the story. But I think that the film is interesting and provocative enough to support the reading. A happy find.