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March 9 – March 19, 2018

Caught in the Net.
The Early Internet in the Paranoid Imagination

On January 13th, 2018, Hawaii received an Emergency Alert via television, radio, cell phone: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”  My friend was jolted awake by the notification; another friend, running a full café in Hawaii with tourists waiting for tables lining the walls, reported that crying employees immediately left to meet their families at home. Half of the customers also ran out the door, leaving their food paid for, uneaten. The rest of the tourists, un-pushed by their push notification, stayed put, biting into French toast and Eggs Benedict, sipping locally sourced coffee poured by the owner and her husband.

If this scene feels like a droll mash-up of Dr. Strangelove and Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, it also feels like a scene from WarGames—and felt even more so when it was revealed that the alert was sent by an oft-disturbed employee who mistook a drill for a legitimate disaster. What existed as a private military blunder in the (fictional) film WarGames became, in 2018, an instantaneous viral panic, spreading through cyberspace as fast as a crashing missile.

But let’s be real: Who can’t relate to Hawaii’s disturbed alert-sending employee? Who isn’t ready for incipient disaster, one shocking tweet, one iPhone buzz away? Caught in the Net. The Early Internet in the Paranoid Imagination was initially crafted during the fall of 2016, during a semester violently bisected by an infamous presidential election. Stunned media commentators began to seriously consider—in the wake of Wikileaks email releases, Russian interference and fake news, Twitter trolling and algorithmically predestined social media bubbles—how the Internet, often tied to utopian narratives of “openness” and “connectedness,” may be seriously harming democratic structures.

Needless to say, Internet-derived national insecurity has not dissipated.

In the midst of that 2016 chaos, I wondered: was there an “origin story” for the anxiety and paranoia that felt so unprecedented? It took little research to learn that the Internet has been a long-lodged structure in the paranoid imagination. This series therefore charts both the consistency of Internet-related fears and the ways that these fears have shifted over time, from the Military Industrial Complex to Edward Snowden. The result of this excavation is a series charged with an arresting push-pull dynamic: on the one hand, almost all of the featured films are intoxicatingly entertaining; many of them pulse with the ruthless energy of a street preacher shrieking Revelation. On the other hand, they carry the seeds of the all-too-real hysteria released in the Hawaiian café. Watching these films can feel like revisiting early footage of a developing problem that has only seemed to worsen.

Foucault wrote in The Archaeology of Knowledge: “Beyond any apparent beginning, there is always a secret origin—so secret and fundamental that it can never be quite grasped within itself.” While the origins of our Internet-oriented anxieties may not be simply grasped, these films help us feel around the edges of these fears, locating them in armored police helicopters, green-tinted video games, battles over web addresses, deranged digital abstraction, tortured cybernetic bodies, pleasured cybernetic bodies, present-yet-absent ghosts, and—most significantly—governments and corporations, sources of incalculable power, hell-bent on reducing humanity for petty benefit.

It is a standard cultural studies mindset to see film as a symptom of cultural conditions. Yet through this program, we witness something slightly, yet startlingly, different: Films as symptoms of fears that seem prescient, even prophetic. As we witness our current society living out fears of the past—rendered both more insidious and more banal than our cinematic nightmares—we inevitably wonder how to deny fears of the present, for the sake of the future. The Harvard Film Archive is proud to partner with the Institute of Contemporary Art, currently displaying the significant retrospective Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today, as well as a variety of local artistic institutions, to tackle these insistent questions together. – Nathan Roberts, Series curator, PhD Student, Film and Visual Studies, Harvard University

Friday March 9 at 7pm

Ghost in the Shell
(Kokaku Kidotai)

Directed by Mamoru Oshii. With Atsuko Tanaka, Iemasa Kayumi, Akio Otsuka
Japan/UK 1995, DCP, color, 83 min. Japanese with English subtitles

If Ghost in the Shell has had a long afterlife—sequels and a TV series and a recent live-action remake staring Scarlett Johansson—it may be because the original film is so packed with ideas and complex world-building that subsequent stories might as well be ripples caused by the massive stone dropped by the original film in the cross-cultural ocean. Unlike the many American films that still treat basic cybernetic enhancement as a hard conceptual pill to swallow, Ghost in the Shell jumps into the complexities of a society in which it is utterly normal for embodied individuals to braid—or merge entirely?—with information flows. These knotty cybernetic ideas are encased in the arresting shell of a now-iconic anime noirscape, propelled onward by an exuberantly experimental cyberpunk soundtrack. DCP courtesy Swank Motion Pictures.

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Friday March 9 at 9pm

Pulse (Kairo)

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. With Haruhiko Kato, Kumiko Aso, Koyuki
Japan 2001, 35mm, color, 119 min. Japanese with English subtitless

If one were to claim, following Walter Benjamin, that the continual bombardment of Internet data strips the world of its ambient aura, one could perhaps find no better audiovisual counterargument than Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo, released as Pulse in the United States. A dreadful, otherworldly atmosphere simmers in this relentless grey film as ghosts cry for help on computer monitors and telephones, begging for company. Its living characters are compelled to “live into” ghostly circuits (Kairo is literally translated as “circuit”) by eliminating their all-too-corporeal bodies. Before Facebook and Skype became a brash means for warding off loneliness, Kairo presented a world in which disembodied anomie cried out to embodied anomie, begging for company in its never-endingly networked purgatory. What could be more horrifying—or relatable—than that? Print courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

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Saturday March 10 at 7pm

Southland Tales

Directed by Richard Kelly. With Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar
France/Germany/US 2007, 35mm, color, 145 min

The War on Terror has entered Syria. Police are authorized to shoot anyone even suspected of terrorism. The Patriot Act has expanded so far that all Internet action is monitored by a government spy facility. Much of it is censored. Fingerprints are needed to access computers. Electoral politics have been reduced to television advertising. Not only does so much of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales seem eerily prescient, but his film, critics such as J. Hoberman and Steven Shaviro argue, exudes an Internet-inspired aesthetic. It’s comprised of a wild mash-up of allusions and appropriations; technological windows within windows in a computer-screen-esque aesthetic; its characters function as embodied avatars; the narrative is nonlinear and almost incoherent, even as events interpenetrate and feed back on each other, constantly connected. Southland Tales suggests that we are now no longer merely paranoid about the Internet—we can only feel paranoid by means of the aesthetic and temporal characteristics of the Internet itself. Years before an egregiously dishonest Twitter troll was elected President of the United States, Richard Kelly suggested: There is no longer an “outside.” We’re caught in the Net, and we’re not getting out. Print courtesy Swank Motion Pictures.

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Sunday March 11 at 4:30pm

Blue Thunder

Directed by John Badham. With Roy Scheider, Warren Oates, Candy Clark
US 1983, 35mm, color, 109 min

In Blue Thunder, paranoia of the 1970s meets the macho action film of the 1980s and anxieties that have only grown more pronounced since the film was made. Roy Scheider is a LAPD air-support division officer and a PTSD-inflicted Vietnam vet, charged with piloting a military-style combat helicopter. Equipped with infrared scanners, microphones, cameras, mobile telephone, VCR, and a local network-attached computer and modem, the helicopter was designed for enhanced municipal surveillance, due to fears of terrorist activity and civic disobedience during the 1984 Olympic games. In classic 1970s paranoid style, the government has more than everyday surveillance on its mind—and the true pleasure of Blue Thunder lies not only in its early anxieties regarding drone-style violence, but in its extensive areal action sequences. In these, Los Angeles becomes a spatially embodied version of the world in which we live; the film presents a state power that flies above and intrudes upon the networks through which we circulate, using technological control and datafication to turn us into its supplicants. Print courtesy Swank Motion Pictures.

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Sunday March 11 at 7pm

Johnny Mnemonic

Directed by Robert Longo. With Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, Dina Meyer
Canada/US 1995, 35mm, color, 98 min

Written by William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk fiction, and the only film directed by “Pictures Generation” artist Robert Longo, Johnny Mnemonic is a ballsy, nearly indescribable fantasia—as smart and speculative as it is a wild, barely comprehensible mess. Keanu Reeves plays a cybernetically altered courier tasked with transporting sensitive information in his brain because computer networks are heavily surveilled by megacorporations. When Johnny overloads on information and his mission goes awry, he relies on the help of antitechnology outcasts and a heroin-addicted, cybernetically enhanced dolphin to get the information out of his head before the quantity of information overwhelms his brain—or before he is killed by Big Pharma, who knows that he is carrying the cure for a nerve-related disease caused by sensory overstimulation. Johnny Mnemonic participates in the overstimulation that it critiques; Longo directs with visual exuberance, maximizing the possibilities of digital abstraction while incorporating references to artists like Nam June Paik. (And a robotic, very white, super-killer Jesus.) As Katherine Hayles has written, Gibson uses “contrast between the body’s limitations and cyberspace’s power to highlight the advantages of pattern over presence”—while demonstrating how a world defined by digital pattern is terrible for the body. Print courtesy Swank Motion Pictures.

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Saturday March 10 at 3pm (without short)
Monday March 12 at 7pm


Directed by John Badham. With Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood
US 1983, DCP, color, 114 min

Before the utopianism and consumerism of Silicon Valley, there were fears of the Military Industrial Complex and the Cold War, memorably documented in WarGames, in which the very openness of the Internet causes near nuclear annihilation. Simulation and reality precipitously meet when a very young Matthew Broderick hacks into a “game” called “Global Thermonuclear War” and decides to play as the Soviet Union—triggering NORAD officials to believe that genuine Soviet missiles are inbound, therefore perpetuating an unstoppable supercomputer program to “win the game” against the Soviets with real missiles. As a creative synthesis of the John Hughes-style 1980s teen film and an international thriller, WarGames moves at a pleasurably propulsive clip. Yet in the age of a president who baits North Korea by Tweet, and coming off a push notification by a worker at Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency who confused a drill with a genuinely impending missile-bound disaster, the mix of the virtual and the all-too-real found in WarGames has yet to lose its sober relevance. Print courtesy Park Circus.

Preceded by

From yu to me

Directed by Aleksandra Domanović
UK/Germany/US 2013-14, digital video, color, 34 min. Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles

Myths surrounding the creation of the Internet are now relatively stable: its creation out of the East-vs.-West technological escalation during the Cold War, its glorious openness and universality. While these stories are cemented by canonical early Internet films like WarGames, Yugoslav-born and Berlin-based artist Aleksandra Domanović throws a complicating wrench into the mythmaking machine. Domanović’s short, penetrating and understated documentary combines archival materials with in-depth interviews to chart the local instantiation, and eventual dissolution, of the .yu domain name in a country located between “East” and the “West” (Yugoslavia became the first socialist country to join the Internet) during the tumultuous Yugoslav Wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Domanović’s film demonstrates how the developing Internet was far from universal and inevitable, and closely tied to the precarious state of local politics—a fact that Americans, faced with the potential dissolution of Net Neutrality, would do well to remember.

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Friday March 16 at 7pm


Directed by David Cronenberg. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm
Canada/UK/France 1999, 35mm, color, 97 min

It’s a great cinephile in-joke, the name of the anti-virtual reality vigilantes in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ: they’re “Realists,” and they’ve placed a fatwa on the designer of a VR game that must be inserted into the “bio-ports” on its players’ spines. Cronenberg’s films are, of course, exuberant acts against realism—while functioning, simultaneously, as bio-philosophical explorations that might as well have been goaded on by Spinoza’s observation that “no one has yet determined all the things the body can do.” eXistenZ stands out from its late-90s digital anxiety peers—it was released a few weeks after The Matrix—because its blurred lines between the real and the virtual are so strikingly embodied­­.Cronenberg is less interested in a world of flesh-becoming-digital than digital-becoming-flesh, rendering the nonbiological biological and functionally indistinguishable. One almost goes so far as to suggest that through his gooey, haptic imagination, Cronenberg presaged the “Internet of things” far before the term even existed. Print courtesy Park Circus.

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Friday March 16 at 9pm


Directed by Olivier Assayas. With Connie Nielsen, Gina Gershon, Chloë Sevigny
France 2002, 35mm, color, 129 min. English, French and Japanese with English subtitles

demonlover deals in two bizarrely interconnected obsessions. On one hand: the sleek, vapid, liminal spaces of high-end corporate-run Late Capitalism, a la Christian Petzold. On the other hand: a dystopic Internet sphere filled to the brim with sadomasochistic erotica. Yet in Assayas’ world—just like our own—the lines between waning affect and ultaviolent affect are far from strange bedfellows: Characters move in non-place networks just like the digital smut they sell, and the film’s strangely banal catfights picture a world in which Internet-driven affect has already reached the point of satiated intensities—leaving its characters, and its viewers, stuck in an uncomfortable nightmare space of simultaneous excess and numbness.

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Saturday March 17 at 7pm

Strange Days

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. With Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis
US 1995, 35mm, color, 145 min

Kathryn Bigelow, perhaps the most successful filmmaker with a master’s degree in film theory, once remarked that a double bill of Mean Streets and The Wild Bunch “took all my semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation and torqued it.” As film theorists such as Steven Shaviro have noted, Strange Days takes Laura Mulvey-derived apparatus theory and “torques” it via virtual reality, providing the sort of jaw-dropping, ethically conscious sequences of self-referential brutality that define Bigelow’s work—by means of an intersectional protagonist who, according to Bigelow, was conceived to connect “female victimization and racial oppression.” By wearily imagining the potentially sinister identifications possible via virtual reality, Bigelow (and writer James Cameron, in a moment before the naïve anti-colonialist fantasy mythmaking of Avatar) matches the voyeuristic potential of the cinema with the type of mobile, private, multimedia consumption of viral violence we now know all too well. Print courtesy 20th Century Fox.

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Sunday March 18 at 5pm

Electric Dreams

Directed by Steve Barron. With Lenny von Dohlen, Virginia Madsen, Maxwell Caulfield
US 1984, 35mm, color, 95 min

“I don’t know anything about computers,” our schlubby, emasculated protagonist whines to an electronics store worker. “Nobody does!” she replies. But thirty years before Spike Jonze explored the same humbling premise in Her,computers knew us in Electric Dreams. When a new computer is dropped and later doused in champagne, it names itself Edward and composes music, impersonates a dog, designs an earthquake-resistant brick. Years before the onslaught of “Big Data,” anxieties that human intelligence will be slow and outdated in the computer age rest at the heart of Electric Dreams—anxieties further underlined by the vapidity of the film’s central romance. Directed with delightfully kinetic visual panache by Steve Barron (of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and A-ha’s “Take On Me” music videos), Electric Dreams is truly a romance between camera and computer, machine and machine, as the balletic, show-off kino eye stares with wonder and fear at its digital companion. Print courtesy Park Circus.

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Sunday March 18 at 7pm

Level Five

Directed by Chris Marker. With Catherine Belkhodja, Kenji Tokitsu, Nagisa Oshima
France 1997, digital video, color, 110 min. French, English, Japanese with English subtitles

A computer programmer named Laura has a Skype-like call with a phantom incarnation of Chris Marker about her attempt to make a videogame about the Battle of Okinawa. This is the premise of Marker’s moving docufiction Level Five,a film that locates this battle as an origin of the nuclear paranoia that has shifted into both human and digital memory—and forgetting. Marker’s film rests at the uneasy and fascinating juncture between phenomenological, cultural-memory-driven essay film and speculative technofiction. Not unlike David Foster Wallace’s mid-90s novel Infinite Jest, Marker intuits the possibility of storytelling-via-hyperlink, drawing disparate fragments into a meditative web. For Marker, human bodies and Internet-connected machines rest less in inherent opposition than as different forms of networked and complexly overlapping epistemes; while they constitute flashes and fragments of insight, they are always prone to disappearing, like Laura herself, into the void of nonbeing.

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Monday March 19 at 7pm

Personal Shopper

Directed by Olivier Assayas. With Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouazizr
France 2016, DCP, color, 105 min

Personal Shopper plunges this series into the contemporary with a subtle-yet-clever play on the term “medium.” Kristen Stewart plays the personal shopper for a celebrity—a medium between the woman and her media-made image—as well as a Medium who can communicate with the dead. However, she is challenged by another medium: the iPhone, which begins to send her anonymous messages that may be sent by her deceased brother, with whom she cannot otherwise communicate. The film reaches dramatic sublimity with a prolonged, wordless sequence in which Stewart texts back and forth with the mysterious being—a sequence proving not only that modern media communications can make for compelling cinematic sequences, but that traditional media-driven anxieties regarding presence and absence, life and death, embodiment and disembodiment, communication and miscommunication, have only become more pressing as we place the Internet in our pockets. DCP courtesy IFC.

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