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Sep 9, 2007

Wild Palms (1993)

Remember the early 1990s? Virtual Reality was hot shit, cognitive enhancers (smart drugs) were the chemicals-de-jour, everyone was reading William Gibson and nobody knew who Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez were. Golden days indeed.

Wild Palms, the five part mini-series that appeared in 1993 had its finger on the pulse of the 90s zeitgeist. Written by Bruce Wagner (whose book Force Majeure is in some ways the ultimate Hollywood noir novel).

Set in the far off future of 2007, it features James Belushi as Harry Wyckoff, a lawyer who meets Senator Anton Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), a former science fiction writer who creates a religion -- The Church of Synthiotics. Kreutzer has a television network, Channel 3 which he links with mimecom, a new holographic television system and mimezine, a drug which convinces the user that the holograms are real. Kreutzer is also the leader of The Fathers, an authoritarian secret organisation which has been kidnapping the children of its' political enemies since the 1960s. Fighting The Fathers are The Brothers, a group of libertarians. Their leader, Eli Levitt (David Warner) is in a State Perceptory (i.e. mental hospital)... Wild Palms is a hybrid of soap opera, conspiracy theories, science fiction and political horror story. The dialogue is witty and quotable and the five episode names "Everything Must Go", "The Floating World", "Rising Sons", "Hungry Ghosts" and "Hello, I Must Be Going" are woven with multiple meanings in the narrative. Character names are wonderful, too. Paige Katz -- the femme fatale played by Kim Catrall, Josie Ito (Angie Dickenson) -- the ultimate dragon lady, Chap Starfall (Robert Morse) the creepy Synthiotics zealot lounge singer, Chickie Levitt (Brad Dourif)-- the crippled genius hacker and Tully Wowoide (Nick Mancuso) the tragic artist whose eyes Josie plucks out of his head. Meaning is layered in this series. One scene is an hommage to The Bad Seed, using the same dialogue in a similar context. Conversations are peppered with observations like this:

"A small case of mood poisoning -- must be something I hate"
"We will storm the memory palace"
"I like to listen to the radio -- it's safer than the damned television"
"We're the shock troops of reality".

In some ways Wild Palms is eerily prophetic. In its' world, a nuclear explosion in Boca Raton and a deep financial recession in the late 1990s precipitate a crack down on civil liberties and a return to conservative values. This is reflected in the male fashion for high Edwardian collars and suits, a trope which slides the viewer into the fictional universe very easily, as does the use of retro cars and poodle-skirted female fashion, some of which wouldn't be out of place in Funny Face.

Wild Palms is about a war for control of reality itself. Synthiotics has a buzz-phrase "New Reality". Given the utterances from the Bush junta on the "reality-based community" Wild Palms begins to take on a scary context.

This series has been compared to Twin Peaks. It does have a Lynchean use of old songs in new contexts: everything from Hello, I Must Be Going by Groucho Marx to Wedding-Bell Blues, On The Street of Dreams, All of You and a version of Brian Wilson's In My Room which foreshadows the kind of World that The Brothers are planning for humanity.

WP is out on DVD in Australia at the moment. While it isn't perfect (Belushi is miscast) it is an interesting piece of science fiction which is refreshing compared to the modern CGI-fests that act on the producers' belief that SF is all about eye-candy and action sequences. Buy it or borrow it but definitely watch it.

(Originally posted Wednesday, December 29, 2004)


Anonymous said...

I think that Belushi was pretty good in his role.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous: Belushi was OK