e353e7ec-992a-4aa7-b3f5-40fd9f1967b9.png Thursday March 12th, 2020

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This is a long read from our new book 1995: The Year the Internet Broke, published in conjunction with our film series of the same name.

The most important thing to remember about Johnny Mnemonic is that it’s a good movie. Good movie, full stop. Even if it failed to meet the ambitions of its impressive braintrust, it remains a coherent, visionary, exciting piece of popular entertainment, as good or better than any other pre-millennium studio sci-fi outing. Twenty-five years of bad vibes and misguided memes would have us all think it’s a risible money pit of shopworn conceits and stiff line readings. (More about the latter in a minute.) “A disaster in every way,” chortled the New York Times, while the Chicago Tribune compared it negatively to its video game tie-in. You’ve probably seen tweets or posts snarkily quoting the “Room Service” monologue with no regard for the ironic core of William Gibson’s script. But it’s really actually good, no nostalgia goggles required.

Keanu Reeves plays the title character, a “mnemonic courier” who’s able to join the middle class world of high thread counts by lending his brain’s storage space to organizations in need of ultra-secure data transmission. His mind plays Uber to corporate/criminal secrets, and he’s happy with the arrangement, except for the small inconvenience that the space required for his storage implant was previously occupied by childhood memories. The tangle of data he calls a personal history has been cleared to make room for corporate fodder so secure even he has no access to it.

Reclaiming his memories can be done for the right price, which is why Johnny takes the proverbial “last job” from Udo Kier’s fixer. He’s so desperate to reconnect with his past he declines to tell a client seeking 320gb of storage that his brain maxes out at 160gb. By overclocking his storage capacity he risks “synaptic seepage” from the storage implant into his brain, providing the movie with that ever-faithful urgency engine, the countdown. In this case Johnny has 24 hours to transfer the data before mind splits into data shards.

“But that’s ludicrous,” shouted an army of plothole aficionados for the next two decades. “In what way is a brain more secure than disk storage or encrypted internet transfer? Even in 1995 that was stoooopid.” Congratulations you clever boys, your reward is in hell. Until then, your podcasting career awaits.

The Yakuza ambush Johnny and his clients moments after he receives the payload in his head. He survives the massacre but is forced on the run and into the arms of the Lo-Teks, an insurrectionary band of guerrilla pranksters hoping to cure an epidemic of NAS (Nerve Attenuation Syndrome) and take down the corporatocracy. The illness, also known as the black shakes, results from too much exposure to personal electronic devices. Led by Ice-T and a cyborg dolphin named Jones, the Lo-Teks, as their name suggests, think we’d be better off with less screen time. Johnny fell in with the right people, because it turns out that the bomb in his brain contains the cure for NAS, which Big Pharma’s assassins hope to keep under wraps.

Johnny Mnemonic was the sole directorial effort of visual artist Robert Longo, perhaps best known for his massive charcoal drawings of sharply dressed yuppies convulsing against white backgrounds in the 1980s. Longo was thus the ideal choice (though Cronenberg comes to mind for obvious reasons) to interpret Gibson’s landscape of fried nervous systems twitching against a second-by-second tidal wave of stimuli. But to be sure, there is some stiffness in the way he directs actors delivering Gibson’s sardonic dialogue. His assembled cast prominently features Personalities for whom naturalistic acting is secondary in both skill and appeal, including Reeves, Kier, Dolph Lungren, Ice-T, Henry Rollins and Takeshi Kitano. The collaboration of a first-time director with a crew of nonactors produced its share of awkwardness. Which brings us to The Monologue:

You see that city over there? THAT'S where I'm supposed to be. Not down here with the dogs, and the garbage, and the fucking last month's newspapers blowing back and forth. I've had it with them, I've had it with you, I've had it with all this! I want room service! I want the club sandwich! I want the cold Mexican beer! I want a $10,000-a-night hooker! I want my shirts laundered... like they do... at the Imperial Hotel... in Tokyo.”

Reeves delivers the cri de cœur in his parabolic near-monotone, a stirring but narrow bandwidth of expression that’s all mouth and no eyes. But his limited range perfectly suits the moment in which Johnny crawls out of post-industrial capitalism’s anaesthetic bath to see if his legs still work. As Gibson put it in an interview, Johnny “manages to become human” by forsaking on-demand cold Mexican beer and the like. Of course he still wants room service, the infantilizing treat tourists afford themselves when putting on pants and paying reasonable prices for food present too large a challenge. It’s as though Neo jammed all four fingers down his throat to purge the red pill after it had already dissolved. Johnny mourns his estrangement from the comforts for which he sacrificed his mind and articulates his desires as a list of commands a computer could understand. What’s left is a spiritual reclamation project divorced from commodity fetishism. Simply put, it’s time he fought The Man. In its crude legibility, the speech recalls the critique of ideology in They Live and the recited catalog of advertisement jargon in Bresson’s The Devil, Probably.

We’re now one year out from the film’s 2021 setting, and like most great science fiction, Johnny Mnemonic has proved insufficiently pessimistic about the future’s propensity for dehumanization. Withholding a cure is a far quainter scheme than gauging prices or flooding the market with drugs designed for abuse. The physical symptoms of NAS would be far easier to treat than the diffuse emotional and mental trauma of the compulsively online. But more crucially, corporate messaging occupies a far more extensive tract of our humanity than Johnny’s implant. For enough money, a surgeon could snip out the pieces of not-Johnny like a tumor, and for a few more dollars an engineer could provide a “full restoration” of his memories. Our own entanglements with the corporate technocracy are not so easily severed.

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Johnny Mnemonic
Robert Longo 1995 96 min
Bye Bye Kipling
Nam June Paik 1986 31 min
Video Home System
Sharlene Bamboat 2018 19 min
Felipe Elgueta and Ananké Pereira 2018 20 min
The Island of Perpetual Tickling (III)
Vika Kirchenbauer 2018 13 min
Naya Pascual 2018 16 min
Breakfast On Pluto
Neil Jordan 2005 128 min 35mm
Seduction of a Cyborg
Lynn Hershman Leeson 1994 6 min
Ghost in the Shell
Mamoru Oshii 1995 83 min
Sergio Giral 1979 84 min
Mati Diop 2019 105 min DCP
* Intro by writer Maya Binyam
Corneliu Porumboiu 2019 97 min DCP
12:30pm 2:30pm 4:30pm 7:00pm 9:10pm
Diao Yinan 2019 113 min DCP
12:30pm 2:40pm 4:55pm 7:15pm 9:30pm
Ken Loach 2019 100 min DCP
12:30pm 2:30pm 4:50pm 7:00pm 9:10pm
Andre De Toth 1944 90 min. min 35mm
12:30pm 8:00pm
Alfred Hitchcock 1930 92 min. min 35mm
Alfred Hitchcock 1941 99 min DCP
4:10pm 9:10pm
Maurice Elvey 1931 74 min 35mm
Robert Siodmak 1945 80 min 35mm
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles 2019 130 min
* Q&A with Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
12:45pm 3:30pm 6:15pm* 9:30pm
Corneliu Porumboiu 2019 97 min
1:00pm 3:00pm 5:00pm 7:00pm
Maïmouna Doucouré 2020 95 min
New York Premiere
Rebecca Zlotowski 2019 92 min
North American Premiere
Mounia Meddour 2019 106 min
New York Premiere
Bong Joon-ho 2019 131 min
Cédric Kahn 2019 101 min
New York Premiere
Hirokazu Kore-eda 1998 118 min DCP
Hirokazu Kore-eda 1995 110 min 35mm
Fruit Chan 1997 108 min DCP
New 4K Restoration
12:30pm 3:00pm 5:30pm 8:00pm
Hayao Miyazaki 1997 135 min DCP
Dino Risi 1962 108 min DCP
Jean Epstein 1932 73 min DCP
Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet 1968 94 min DCP
John Waters 1990 85 min DCP
Tyler Perry 2006 107 mins. min 35mm
Edwin S. Porter 1904
Ashley Miller 1912
Edwin S. Porter 1905
Dell Henderson 1913
Chirsty Cabanne 1913
Travers Vale 1914 min
Travers Vale 1915
Niels Arden Oplev 2009 152 min DCP
1974 76 min DCP
With film scholar Omar Berrada in conversation with curator David Schwartz
John Skoog 2019 71 min
Blake Williams 2019 12 min
* Both are U.S. premieres. Both filmmakers in person.
Marco Porsia 2019 121 min DCP
Following the film, Norman Westberg (Swans) and JG Thirlwell (Foetus) with join director Marco Porsia for a discussion moderated by journalist Jordan Mamone.
Jan Komasa 2019 116 minutes min DCP
12:00pm 2:20pm 4:45pm 7:15pm 9:40pm
Levan Akin 2019 113 min DCP
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D.W. Young 2019 99 min DCP
* Q&A with Erik DuRon and Jess Kuronen of West Village’s Left Bank Books
12:15pm 2:30pm 4:45pm 7:00pm* 9:20pm
Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne 2019 84 min DCP
Horace Jenkins 1982 90 min DCP
Bruno Barreto 1976 118 min DCP
Andre Farwagi 1970 82 min Digital Video
Helma Sanders-Brahms 1975 99 min Digital Video
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