The Simone Controversy:
The End of Reality?
It can be argued that Watergate and "Monica-gate"
marked moments when the power of the press surpassed that of the
Presidency. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were exposed in many
senses, and in ways which the hidden affairs of their predecessors
such as FDR and JFK were not.
Will 2002, the year of Simone, Andrew Niccol's feature film,
come to be seen as another pivotal moment - the moment that the
power of illusion surpassed that of reality? Will that year of
the first "real-or-fake?" feature movie actor be seen
as a symbolic bookmark locating the era when we could no longer
tell, nor care if we could tell, what is authentic?
Critics did not agree about Simone. Reviews ranged from raves
to pans, with many critics in the "mixed" camp. However,
intelligent commentary seemed in agreement that it was the premise
of Simone , which delivered its potential promise. That premise
is that an entirely fake actress, digitally created by a desperate
movie director (Al Pacino), could woo an unknowing audience and
become a phenomenal star.
But there's more. Just as Simone, the centerpiece "character"
of Niccol's film, turned out to be a fake, the actual actress
who portrays Simone, turned out to be real. Although Niccol, Pacino,
and even the film's credits claim that "Simone", the
digital character, played "herself", members of the
press have revealed that Simone was in fact enacted by Canadian
supermodel Rachel Roberts.
In the feature film Al Pacino plays Victor Taransky, a creative
but fading director who has inherited a sophisticated software
program which can synthesize the features of taped personalities
from Lauren Bacall to John Kennedy. By mixing gestures, voices,
and physical features, Taransky can create and totally manipulate
digital characters, from the nuance of their accents to the size
of their tears. After his lead actress, Nicola Anders (Winona
Ryder) has walked out on him, Taransky creates a CGI surrogate
leading lady named Simone. The word Simone is also a double entendre,
which plays upon the software acronym "S1m One" or "Simulation
One", but only Taransky knows this secret.
Simone, like all that she symbolizes, provides a world of advantages
over her human counterparts. Relative to other leading actors,
"she" is inexpensive. She never argues, tires, or negotiates
contracts. She can be programmed to say or do anything; and she
is eternally young, malleable, and available. Moreover, audiences
fawn over Simone and she soon sells out holographic rock concerts,
adorns prominent magazine covers, and, according to her official
website, writes books.
What seems significant when watching the film is that we the
audience become conscious of questioning whether we actually can
know truth via the media. After all, what if "Rachel Roberts"
is also a hoax, or is only the stage name of quite another person?
What if the "Simone" we are seeing is a composite -
sometimes Rachel, sometimes her body double, and at other times
Niccol's digitized images? Which of these is "Simone"?
Moreover, even when a "real" actress is billed as authentic,
at what point does a person who may have dyed hair, silicone implants,
a tummy tuck, liposuc- tion, surgically removed ribs, a face lift,
e-tanned skin, elaborate cosmetic enhancement, digital beauty
marks, and acting lessons qualify as "real?" Is anyone
authentic? In Simone, "Simone" says " I'm no more
artificial than anyone else in Hollywood."
Of course it was argued in 2001 that the feature CG film Final
Fantasy: The Spirit Within (2001), which consisted of totally
computer generated sets and actors, would be the first real artificial
film, or the first artificial real film. But with Final Fantasy
there is no confusion about what is simulated and what is human
- all characters are digital, and although Fantasy is more realistic
than predecessor animation, it still seems to be part of the almost
human cinema. As with predecessor technology such as rotoscoping
(tracing the outlines of projected moving characters and then
animating them), optical printing, and pixillation of mannequins,
it is the next-of-kin status of Final Fantasy images which engages
audiences. We note both how the shadows, the textures, and the
colors resemble but do not precisely duplicate human beings and
However, when watching Simone, as when watching a good magician,
we are never certain which image is an illusion, and which image
records the image of a live actress. And since the film is reflexive,
that is, it calls attention to the character generation process
in both senses of the word character, we are constantly invited
to think about the line of demarcation between reality and verisimilitude.
Final Fantasy may have become the first verisimilar computer
generated commercial feature, but Simone was the first to consciously
confuse us about whether we can truly be fooled. Consequently,
Simone marked the beginning of what might be called the age of
cyber-cinema, an age in which we can no longer distinguish scenes
with e-humans from those employing paid actors. It is also the
age in which we finally stop
objecting to surrogate realities since the virtual world is nigh
When cinema was introduced, after seeing his first close-up shot,
the famous playwright Bernard Shaw said "they'll never pay
to see just part of an actor." Those who now say "they'll
never pay to see a facsimile actor" may soon seem as short-sighted
as Shaw. Such objections fade quickly.
One question which arises between the frames of Simone is "Where
will we draw the line?" As a society we have accepted astroturf
as a substitute for grass despite the injuries caused to athletes.
We think nothing of eating and drinking artificial sweeteners,
colors, and chemicals. We hardly expect the politicians we meet
via the media to act the same when they are off camera. Our standards
about authenticity have eroded so much that Andrew Niccol can
tease us for two hours about it -- and the satire stings.
To be sure in the age of cloning, virtual reality, public relations
and artificial intelligence, a wave of books and films -- Algeny
(1983), AI (2001), Being There (1979), Bicentennial Man (1999),
Primary Colors (1998) , Virtuosity (1995), et al -have already
raised questions about what is authentic. Long before this century
philosophers have struggled with questions as deep as whether
truth exists and, if so, is it knowable? Subjective? Sensory?
And contemporary thinkers - Barthes, Baudriard, Jameson, among
others - are at home with developing this line of thought. By
the 1960's McLuhan was already calling movies "dreams that
money can buy". The concept of "moving pictures"
is an oxymoron in any event. So there is nothing new about questioning
the authenticity or mediated "reality".
However, as an evocative satire, Simone added a new, if digitally
enhanced, wrinkle to this eternal editorial. Niccol suggested
that we are now apathetically conditioned to accepting illusion
as both socially preferable to and indistinguishable from reality.
In an age when the "new" genre of "reality TV"
means just another scripted, edited, dramatized artifice, how
do we know what is programmed, manipulated, or synthesized any
and does it matter?
Indeed our greatest addiction as a society may not be to drugs,
alcohol, or nicotine. Rather it is more likely an addiction to
these dreams that money can buy, to eight hours per day of television
per U.S. household, and to the mega-fantasy world of computer
games, DVD, VCR, satellite, 100+ channels, wide screen, and websites.
The websites associated with Simone are a case in point. Anyone
happening across the realistic websites about Victor Taransky,
Amalgamated Films, and Simone's
"movies" will not know that these characters and entities
are fabrications. So, in an age when fake is fashionable, how
do audiences know which websites, characters, actors, politicians,
images and sounds are genuine? Indeed one implication of the film-within-a-film
is that we no longer are as concerned with "is this true?"
as "does this satisfy?" And if we are satisfied, we
will permit all manner of pseudo-reality and surrogacy.
The issues raised by Simone point toward a mountain of ethical
questions. Everyone from amateur actors to mainstream unions is
concerned about replacing flesh and blood actors with digital
facsimiles not only in entertainment, but also in news, advertising,
and beyond. The issues of fraud and deception also loom large.
We do expect magicians, cosmeticians, make-up artists, and film
directors to deceive us in some ways. But what is the ethical
if not the legal limit? In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Space
Jam (1996), Babe (1995), and Cool World (1992) it is obvious which
characters are human and which are manufactured. And in Final
Fantasy (2001) and its budding genre it is obvious that all characters
are man-made. But such is not the case with Simone (2002), nor
was it in such controversial media hoaxes as Orson Welles' famed
radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1938).
In theater, we can become engaged when Pirandello has scripted
one of his characters to be an "audience member" or
when Genet forces us to think about theatrical illusion. However,
according to Niccol, thinking is exactly what we mass audiences
do not want. Even empty pseudo-entertainment has replaced classical
entertainment such that we pay to see a string of product placements
and faux actors (Britney Spears, Howard Stern, Mariah Carey, Jesse
Ventura) in recycled plots with digital pets and backgrounds while
we drink "the real thing" in cloned multiplex cubicles.
In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) Neil Postman points
to an important distinction separating the science fiction classics
1984 (1948) by George Orwell and Brave New World (1931) by Aldous
Huxley. In 1984 non-conforming individuals are controlled by being
punished in "room 101" where their greatest fear, such
as of spiders, heights, or rats, awaits them. However, in Huxley's
Brave New World of test tube castes, individuals are controlled
through pleasure, not pain. Huxley's characters use an all purpose
drug soma and enjoy the feelies, a multi-sensory arousing version
of the talkies, to avoid and numb their pain or discomfort, whether
emotional or physical.
The extreme use of modern "somas" to suppress and conceal
our personal and social problems can create a dangerous state.
The red light gauges beneath our auto speedometers, which alert
us to nearly empty gas tanks and to pending engine failure, are
important signs. Human physical pain and emotional disturbances
can also be key signals which tell us to slow down, to see a doctor
or counselor, to work out a relationship, to sleep, to change
our diet, to take personal inventory, or to do whatever is necessary
to restore health.
In the Simone society, Niccol sardonically implies that we prefer
to worship the soma of Simone than to pay attention to the lit-up
gauges beneath our odometers. We prefer a comfortable synthesized
reality to the complexity of what is back of an endangered global
economy, politic, and environment. The cultic response of Simone's
audience (if not Eminem's, Pam Anderson's, or Jerry Springer's)
to their sexual Fuhrer asks if we have not abandoned thinking
Like much satire, Simone pushes toward extremes to force feed
its message. But to the author's credit such broadsides stimulate
rather than homogenize audience thinking. Questions which might
occur to some audience members are "Are we asleep at the
switch and, if so, how does one call the front desk to request
a national wake-up call?" and "To what extent are we
concerned about the state of the planet and of ourselves
or would we rather consume another Simona (Simone + soma)?"
It seems high time to give serious thought to whether we are
devolving into the children's game of "Simone says."
"Simone says 'BUY _______'", and millions
rush to purchase a new product with no awareness about whether
there has been testing of the product's possible long-term effects.
"Simone says 'SEE ___________' and millions buy tickets to
screen __________ because it features the latest rap star or surgically
and yet _________ has nothing to say and
it quickly resembles last year's model.
In WHAT IS CALLED THINKING (1976) the great twentieth century
philosopher Martin Heidegger described thinking as "that
which is slipping away." If original thinking is indeed receding
into a mirage of illusion, it is valuable to have an illusion
like Simone to provoke fresh thought. Often one does not feel
a transitional "moment" until, like the paper cut, it
has already broken flesh. If Simone is another of the "Burma
Shave" signs along life's highway which lets us know that
now is such a prime moment of transition, should we not pay attention?
Further forward motion into the mass obsession with, if not addiction
to, bottomless mindless illusion has untold consequences for thinking,
for our future, and for the real world.