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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories
William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories
Docurama // Unrated // November 25, 2003
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted December 8, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

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.

The DVD

Video

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.

Audio

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.

Extras

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 Origins.

The "Readings" 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 to navigate.

Final thoughts

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. Skip it.

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