What a disappointment. That's
my main thought after suffering through William Gibson: No Maps for These
Territories. The premise is certainly appealing: hearing from the author of
Neuromancer, the novel that launched the "cyberpunk" movement
in science fiction and opened up a fresh new vein of material, on a variety of
topics ranging from his own writing to his views on the future. Unfortunately,
this documentary is a prime example of style triumphing over substance... much
to the viewer's disadvantage.
The film gets off on a bad note
right from the beginning, with a lengthy introductory sequence riffing on the
phrase "no maps for these territories" (a line taken from one of
Gibson's poems, incidentally) in a style that is reminiscent of MTV music
videos... except that MTV is more coherent. After this epileptic-fit-inducing
montage, we get to the documentary proper, and meet William Gibson himself.
In another example of
"avant-garde for its own sake," the filmmakers decided to have the
entire interview take place in a moving car, with Gibson in the back seat. Ooh,
how postmodern: talking about cultural change and technology while seated in an
automobile watching the scenery flash by. Sorry, folks: it's just a gimmick,
and like any other gimmick, it wears thin after about five minutes.
Not that the filmmakers are
ready to give up on their gimmicky presentation. The shots of Gibson in the car
alternate with image sequences that often have nothing whatsoever to do with
what Gibson is saying; they're just surreal images, or at best are scenes that
are thematically related in some loose way to what he's talking about. And when
the camera returns to the "boring" shots of Gibson, the filmmakers
often "liven things up" with random filmic tricks, like superimposing
frames to give Gibson an extra arm. Very meaningful, I'm sure.
Structurally as well as
stylistically, No Maps for These Territories is a mess. Granted,
Gibson's musings are often prompted by questions from an unseen interviewer,
but these questions lead the interview all over the map, with no particular
focus or organization. His comments touch on politics, science fiction,
philosophy, writing, his life experiences, and various social topics, without
any connecting thread.
Yes, Gibson does talk about science
fiction... all too briefly. It really seems like the filmmakers were more
interested in his random musings on life than on any insights into his work,
which is a shame. I'm not a huge fan of Gibson's writing, but I am an avid
reader of science fiction and I'm aware of the enormous impact that Neuromancer
had on the genre. I suppose if you're enough of a Gibson fan, it might be worth
suffering through the whole 90 minutes to get a few words from the horse's
mouth about his work, but I certainly didn't think the payoff was remotely
worthwhile. And if you're not a science fiction fan, why on earth would you be
interested in this fellow's thoughts on miscellaneous topics? No Maps for
These Territories is a self-indulgent piece of film that misjudges its audience
(or its audience's tolerance for nonsense) and ends up creating a product that
will likely please no one.
No Maps for These
Territories is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1;
unfortunately, it's not anamorphically enhanced. The image is unappealing, with
a generally grainy and appearance and a grayish tinge to many of the scenes.
Granted, this is to a great extent attributable to the constraints of filming
most of the footage inside the moving car, and to the fact that the film is
deliberately trying to mess around with the image... but when push comes to
shove, it still just looks unattractive.
The same comments hold true for
the audio quality as for the video quality. The sound is tinny and flat; the Dolby
2.0 track captures Gibson's voice intelligibly but doesn't give any life to it.
For a documentary that's just one long interview, it's disappointing to get
such a lackluster sound experience; if the filmmakers were aiming for some
"effect" it doesn't fly.
The bonus content for No
Maps for These Territories is fairly substantial, if not particularly
interesting. It's organized into three sections: Readings, Fragments, and
section consists of five audio-only excerpts from Gibson's novel All
Tomorrow's Parties, all read by William Gibson except for one that's read
by Jack Womack. The excerpts are "Cardboard City" (Chapter 1),
"Formal Absences of Precious Things" (Chapter 2), "Mariachi
Static" (Chapter 5), "The Hole" (Chapter 8), and "The
Absolute at Lange" (Chapter 68). Gibson doesn't have the best reading
voice I've ever heard, and the sound is as tinny as in the main documentary, so
the readings are not particularly impressive.
"Fragments" is a
collection of eight deleted scenes, running a total of about 36 minutes.
They're just as random in topic as the rest of the documentary, and it's
unclear why some of these were left out and others included. Of most interest
is a five-minute scene in which Gibson discusses Neuromancer.
Lastly, "Origins" is
collection of the pieces of a making-of documentary. I describe it that way
because the six sections, labeled Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why, are
presented as individual short featurettes rather than knitted together into one
coherent featurette. (Do we sense a trend here?) No, there's no "Play
all" feature, either: I guess we're supposed to feel more immersed in the
experience by having to select each one individually. In total, we get 27
minutes of conversation with the director, filmed in very grungy-looking black
and white with poor sound.
I do find it ironic that
"interactive menus" are listed as a special feature, because I found
the menus for No Maps for These Territories to be clunky and difficult
I was on the verge of giving
this DVD a highly generous "rent it" rating, on the premise that
people who are total fans of William Gibson might find it worth seeing. But on
second thought... no. Save the money for the rental and buy one of his books instead;
it will be a more satisfying experience than this pretentious documentary film.