The Simone Controversy:
The End of Reality?

- Thomas Cooper, Ph.D., Emerson College (bio)

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 their environments.

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 ubiquitous.

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? Universal?

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 more … 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 for somnambulism.

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 enhanced Playmate…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.


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