Reviews

William Gibson: No Maps For These Territories (2003)

Scott Thill

William Gibson is a visionary in his own right, and painting him into the reductive sci-fi corner is akin to missing the point of his work.


William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories

Director: Mark Neale
Cast: William Gibson, Bono, The Edge, Bruce Sterling, Jack Womack
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: New Video Group
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-11-25

William Gibson, famously, has a way with words; sometimes, his words have a way with him. In William Gibson: No Maps For These Territories, they issue forth, often in disassociated or irrupted strings, as if he's not sure how to say them.

Still, his dense and allusive language lends weight to his opinions, as documentary director Mark Neale asks about everything from religion and catastrophe to technoculture and accelerated neural networking. It's heady philosophical monologue, a series of fascinating spiels by a mild-mannered dude from Vancouver who is, he says, interested in "being there... present in the moment," rather than unendingly enduring theoretical and hypothetical visions of the future.

All of which is another way of saying that, if you appreciate William Gibson's ingenious talkie documentaries, then No Maps For These Territories, made in 2000 and recently released on DVD, is right up your alley. If the terms "Ballardian," "Chandlerian," and "posthuman" have no place in your lexicon, then you might just end up, like my wife, asleep on the couch when the show is over.

With No Maps, Neale becomes cyberpunk's Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker who likes his subjects to do the talking while he, armed with a low budget and high aspirations, attempts to make the concepts visual. Like Morris, he's not afraid to tackle Big Ideas, although Gibson's opinions on his own work and its serious impact are a far cry from Stephen Hawking's theorizations of wormholes and the shape of the known universe. And Neale is not afraid to get creative with his cinema; in a clever technocultural conceit, almost all of the film restricts Gibson to the backseat of a car bound from Los Angeles to Vancouver, his only means of communication with the outside world a cell phone or laptop computer, while Neale rewinds, jump-cuts, superimposes, and slices and dices his frames like an expert DJ.

The technique works well with Gibson's stream-of-consciousness monologues, often, like his books, an amalgam of hardboiled narrative and scientific treatise. The documentary's introduction offers a lightning-quick mélange of cities, cars, computers, and phone lines in reshuffling shots set to Tomandandy's frenetic techno soundtrack, under Gibson's observation that technological society is spinning wildly "out of control."

U2' s Bono and The Edge show up in televised form -- true to Gibson's vision, Neale's "real" environments have been supplanted by virtual ones -- to lend a sort of contemporary legitimization to the proceedings. It is an interesting move, considering that although U2 are old-school Gibsonites, their Zoo TV nonsense (captured on DVD by Mark Pellington, one of No Maps' executive producers) and legal clashes with notorious culture jammers Negativeland (who grokked Gibson way ahead of the Irish rock legends) put them squarely on the cyberpunk shit list in the early '90s.

But if memories are short, technological progress is not; it accelerates faster than the human heart rate when viewing Internet porn (a subject that perks up Gibson and the proceedings around No Maps' middle). In fact, the cyberpunk hardliners that can spot every single Gibsonian rip-off, uh -- I mean riff -- in the Wachowski Brothers' now-canonical Matrix might blanch when Neale introduces the seminal Neuromancer with the oddly unhelpful description: "It's "Gibson's first book."

In fact, that book changed the world, his career, conventional fiction, and technological innovation in one fell swoop. But Gibson himself has no problems with the explanation, because he views Neuromancer as his "garage rock" novel, written by an "angry" and "confused" young man thrown mercilessly into an unforgiving and alien city. Indeed, Gibson goes so far to eschew the cyberpunk label, even though it anticipated -- and some would argue helped conceptualize -- the Internet that Gibson believes is as monumental a cultural moment as the "creation of cities."

But Gibson, Neale's documentary points out, is so much more than the father of the concept of "cyberspace." He's a visionary in his own right, and painting him into the reductive sci-fi corner is akin to missing the point of his work. Even though Neale brings writers Jack Womack and Bruce Sterling on board Gibson's virtual vehicle (whose windows function as television screens) to explain how the discovery of Neuromancer was an epoch-changing moment, Gibson admits that his conceptions of the future we now call the present was, like Orwell's equally canonical 1984, merely his way of parsing the trends and events happening around him. Whether it was growing up under the 1950s' shadow of atomic holocaust, video games so compelling that kids tried to break through the screens to crawl into the Tron-like space beyond, or the supreme invention of the Sony Walkman, the world, not Gibson alone, has watched cyberspace brilliantly unfold. That is, like most revered science fiction authors thought to have a Bat Phone to the future, Gibson was only, by his estimation, attuned to the cultural shifts of his period and extrapolated outward as far as he could go.

No Maps For These Territories might be a postmodernist wank fest that name-drops J.G. Ballard, Fredric Jameson, William Burroughs (who had a much greater impact on the cyberpunks than he did on the Beats), Raymond Chandler, extended nervous systems, posthuman environments, and virtual reality, but that's only because the rest of the world still hasn't, amazingly, caught up to Gibson. Even though his terminology has infected everything from technological invention to popular culture (where do you think the term, "The Matrix," came from?), he's still a relative unknown to kids who bump sound collage cats like DJ Shadow and DJ Spooky on their iPods, punch IMs into their picture phones, and ogle Paris Hilton porns on the Internet. Their reality is closer to Gibson's fiction that they'll ever know. And if the refreshingly humble Gibson has a say in it, they won't bother calling him and thanking him. As he says near the end of No Maps, "I was just doing my job."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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