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Cinematic Simony
Crystal Downing

IN 1941, FAMED DETECTIVE FICTION NOVELIST DOROTHY L. Sayers published a quirky little book presenting her theory of creativity. Called The Mind of the Maker, the book is still quoted today—not by art theorists but by theologians. This is because Sayers based her idea on an ancient theological paradigm, the imago Dei, suggested by Genesis 1:26: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'" Just as the author of Genesis embedded the imago Dei in the creation account, Sayers embedded the imago Dei in human creativity, arguing that we are most like the Creator God when we exercise creativity. Furthermore, the plural construction of "our image" in the Genesis account resonated with Sayers's Anglo-Catholic assumption that God is plural: a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Acts of creativity are there­fore Trinitarian as well, confirmed by Sayers's own experi­ences as novelist and playwright. For her, the material form of a creative work is the "Energy" or "Activity" that proceeds from the "Idea" of the Creator-Author, gener­ating "Power" through the response of the beholder-reader. On the simplest level, Idea corresponds to a "Book-as-Thought," Energy to a "Book-as-Written," and Power to the "Book-as-Read." However, elsewhere in The Mind of the Maker Sayers establishes that Idea, Energy, and Power are dialogically interdependent—like the persons of the Godhead—rather than chronologically linear: "The Idea, that is, cannot be said to precede the Energy in time, because (so far as that act of creation is concerned) it is the Energy that creates the time-process.... The writer cannot even be conscious of his Idea except by the working of the Energy which formulates it to himself." In other words, the Energy of a written work is begotten, not made.

Sayers experienced begotten Energy with her most famous creation, the hero of her detective fiction, Lord Peter Wimsey. When, in 1936, she published for her fans "How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter," Sayers described him as an autonomous individual rather than a literary invention: "My impression is that I was thinking about writing a detective story, and that he walked in, complete with spats, and applied in an airy don't-care-if-I-get-it way for the job of hero." The author's relation to her creation therefore echoes the paradox of free will and determinism: "the complete independence of the creature, combined with its willing cooperation in his purpose in conformity with the law of its nature." Sayers thus provides a theological riff on what many successful novelists have reported: that fictive characters start acting in ways that their creators had not anticipated—even as they are being written—and that their effect on readers sometimes gives them a Power independent of the author's creative Idea.

The Power of an audience to participate in the creative act is easily demonstrated in the movie industry. Within a decade after its release, for example, audiences had made The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) into a cult film, their addition of rites and rituals during midnight showings turning the film's Energy into a new kind of Power. And in the 1990s, The Wizard of Oz (1939) was still receiving Power from theater audiences who attended viewings dressed up as their favorite characters.

The complex interrelationship of maker, movie, and moviegoer—Idea, Energy, and Power—has been explored by screenwriter Andrew Niccol, whose The Truman Show (1998), under the direction of Peter Weir, garnered signifi­cant attention. Almost unseen, however, is a similar film that Niccol not only wrote but also directed and produced: Simone (2002). Both films, though cleverly written and stunningly executed, were dismissed by many critics— perhaps because the intelligent scripts made fun of them: members of the viewing audience. Nevertheless, these films deserve to be seen, not only to shine light on Sayers's Trinitarian aesthetic, but also to get viewers to reflect on their own complicity with Hollywood creations. Since much more ink has been spilled on The Truman Show and its theological implications—especially the relationship between free will and determinism—I will focus my atten­tion on the largely overlooked Simone.

Like the truman show, simone is about the relationship between a director and a fictive creation that starts to take on a life of its own, aided and abetted by the viewing audience. When we first see the director in Simone, played with debonair desperation by Al Pacino, he is madly fishing out red candies from a bowl of "Mike & Ikes." We soon figure out why when we see the star of his current production throw a hissy fit over the size of her trailer. Played with shrewish abandon by Winona Ryder, this prima donna, who not only demands "Mike & Ikes" with no red candies but also seven packs of cigarettes in her dressing room every morning—three of them already opened—walks out of the film before it is finished, and Viktor, the director, is therefore fired by the studio head, his former wife Elaine. At this low point of his career, perhaps of his life, Viktor is accosted by a one-eyed man, Hank, who has developed a computer program that can digitally insert an actor, controlled by the computer programmer, into film stock. When Hank dies, Viktor inherits his program for a gorgeous digitized blonde, and he proceeds to insert the image into his unfinished film, calling the image Simone, a contraction for "Simulation One."

The name is telling. Not only is Simone Viktor's first digitized simulation, she is also One with him. She has no being apart from him, for he controls her movements through computer codes and her language by speaking her lines, programming his voice to sound female when the words come from her mouth. Niccol, in fact, provides a mirror motif to reinforce their relationship. After Simone's digitally-inserted image turns Viktor's art film into a hit, we see Viktor speaking lines for Simone while looking at her projected image on a huge mirror-like screen. Reflecting Viktor's movements and words, Simone says, simultaneously with Viktor, "We both know I was nothing without you." And, of course, this is true for them both: Simone has no existence apart from Viktor, but he was "nothing"—a washed up director—before her creation.

Viktor's Idea, then, takes Energy as Simone appears on the movie screen, and viewers give her Power by regarding her as a flesh and blood celebrity. As Simone "tells" Viktor from her place on his computer monitor, "A Star is Digitized": an ironic allusion to the famous film A Star is Born (1937) and its simulations (1954, 1976)—an allusion foreshadowed when the phrase "9 months later" appears on our screen immediately after Viktor inherits the computer code. Simone's star status, of course, creates a problem for Viktor, who must invent tales about why she refuses to meet her adoring fans. At one point he sets up a ruse that Simone has checked into a hotel; he cuts hairs from a blonde wig into the sink, drapes intimate apparel on chairs, ruffles the bed, and parades a Barbie doll in front of a light to make it appear as though Simone is walking back and forth in front of the closed curtains: a simulation of a simulation.

With the oohs and ahhs of Simone's fans watching from outside the hotel, Niccol's film comments on the Power of audiences to turn Barbie-doll actors into substan­tive personalities. As Viktor "tells" Simone, "What's real anymore? Most actors these days have digital work done to them." Celebrities, often as plastic as the surgery that molds their faces, gain their status not by their own abilities but by the scripts and camera angles that writers and directors give them. As a result, the creativity of auteur directors like Viktor gets lost in the simulations performed by their stars. Losing sight of creativity, the Hollywood celebrity system therefore becomes more and more about money. As Elaine tells Viktor before she fires him, "It is about investment and returns." This, in fact, is what keeps Viktor committed to the Simone illusion, for without throwing hissy fits or demanding unreasonable perks, she successfully ventrilo­quizes Viktor's artistic belief that "the real truth is the work." In off-site television interviews that Viktor controls, Simone states "Let the work speak for itself." It's as though Viktor read Sayers's The Mind of the Maker, which repeatedly appeals to "the integrity of the work."

However, because "the work" is Trinitarian, Viktor does not have complete control over the Energy of Simone due to the Power of her fans. Soon after Viktor tells a reporter that "Simone only appears when I want her to appear," Elaine, the studio head, argues the reverse: "This woman controls your destiny." Simone no longer mirrors Viktor alone, implied when we are repeatedly given images of two worshipful fans mirrored in a polished table when­ever they talk about her: she becomes as much a mirror of their creativity as of Viktor's, reinforced when they publish an article about her childhood.

as viktor loses control of simone, he becomes all the more emphatic about his power over her, making Simone "tell" him, "You did create me," despite the fact that he got her computer program from someone else. He even tells Elaine that Simone is a computer code in order to establish his own God-like status: "I have done the impossible: I have recreated the infinite nuances of a human being, a human soul; I have taken nothing and made it something. I have breathed life into a machine. I made a miracle." Thus, like the director in The Truman Show (significantly named "Christof "), Viktor desires victory over both "his creation" and the audience's response to it. As he tells Simone, "[My] films are speaking to the human condition; people need to believe you are real." He therefore sets up an "appearance" by Simone at a sports stadium, projecting a hologram onto a smoky stage—literalizing her status as the result of smoke and mirrors. As thousands of fans scream in adoration, Viktor assumes that he finally has control over them, mumbling at his computer controls, "It's easier to make one hundred thousand to believe than just one." Significantly, at her stadium performance the hologram of Simone sings—both to Viktor and to her fans—Carole King's popular song "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," ending the performance stating, "Never stop believing."

In Hollywood, however, the Power of fan belief often renders creative Idea and Energy defunct, displacing a Trinitarian aesthetic with star cults. Simone's significance is in the eye of the beholder, a point Niccol reinforces with an explicit eye motif. Early in the film, while Viktor talks to Hank, the one-eyed computer programmer, a huge painted eye floats from left to right over Hank's shoulder in the distant background of the studio lot—presumably a prop carried by unseen stage hands. It's as though Hank's lost eye is being transferred elsewhere; indeed, he tells Viktor, "You have something that I don't have—an eye for performance ... You're the only director with the artistic ability to realize my vision." Significantly, after Viktor realizes Hank's vision by completing Simone's first film, we see him standing in front of the screen before the test audience, Simone's eye hovering over his shoulder in the exact same place we saw an eye appear over Hank's shoulder. Then, after the success of this film, Viktor repeatedly employs images of vision as he explains to Simone, "This is a classic case of technology in search of an artist: someone with integrity, someone with vision, someone who can see beyond this irrational allegiance to flesh and blood, someone who can see that with the rise in the price of a real actor and the fall in price of a fake that the scales have tipped naturally in favor of the fake; someone who can see that if a performance is genuine it doesn't matter if the actor is real or not."

Victor's vision, his "eye for performance," cannot control the eyes of others, however. Niccol signals this problem by giving a key role to Jay Nohr, an actor known for the way his eyes quiver in their sockets. As Max, an editor for a celebrity magazine, Nohr stalks the elusive Simone, entering the hotel room where Viktor has created the illusion of her presence. Max proceeds to roll in the sheets, tenderly finger the toilet seat, and lovingly kiss a toothbrush (accidentally dropped by Viktor in the toilet), treating all as totems of Simone's presence. The shifting eyes of Max, the paradigmatic worshipful fan (who palms his hands in prayer at Simone's concert), symbolize the shifting back and forth from the director's Idea to the viewer's Power in the creation of Simone—until, finally, the "vision" is no longer Viktor's. He thus ends up mirroring the one-eyed Hank—literalized when we see Viktor at Hank's grave site, his image reflected in the shiny surface of Hank's granite tombstone. Just as the creation of Simone killed Hank—through computer-generated eye cancer—so the creation of Simone killed Viktor's victory. The film makes the mirroring explicit when Viktor speaks to the epitaph: "She killed you; now she's killing me. She's taken on a life of her own."

Viktor even becomes displaced by Simone in his rela­tionships. A stand-in actress responds to his embrace by panting "Call me Simone," causing him to pull away in dismay, saying, "You're with me so you can be closer to her?!" And when Viktor later tries to kiss Elaine, she draws back assuming he and Simone are lovers, saying "I can't betray Simone!" As Viktor's daughter recognizes, "It used to be all about the work, but now it's all about her... She's taken advantage of you."

Viktor therefore decides he must destroy Simone. He produces a horrible film, I Am Pig, under the illusion that Simone directed it, but audiences love it because it is hers. He makes her disheveled, burping image express offensive and inane opinions during a television interview, but fans are instead impressed with her honesty: "she speaks her mind." Simone's star-status seems to cover a multitude of sins. The problem, of course, is not with Simone but with her fans; as Viktor tells her before he destroys her image with a computer virus, "You are more authentic than all these people worshipping you." And he realizes that she, "the work," is more authentic even than he: "You're looking at the real fraud," he continues. "I told myself this was all about the work, but if that were the truth it wouldn't matter to me that you get all the attention. And it does.... Here I was trying to convince the whole world you existed, but what I was really trying to do was convince them I exist. It's not that you aren't human; it's that I am." Those words reveal the limits of the imago Dei: unlike Simone, it is constituted in "flesh and blood."

Ironically, Viktor gets charged with murder after the disappearance (quite literally) of Simone, as though she were flesh and blood. Significantly, Viktor's lawyer tells him "You killed an icon." An "icon" in Hollywood-speak, of course, refers to a film star whose Power has been gener­ated by worshipful fans. Indeed, Niccol repeatedly places iconic images of past cinematic stars into the mise-en-scene. We see Viktor consulting photographs of Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Meryl Streep, and the like, to help him determine what features to give Simone. And on the wall behind his desk appear black and white blow-ups of classic Hollywood "icons."

In computer-speak, however, an "icon" refers to an image on a computer screen: like those used, we presume, to bring Energy to the Idea of Simone. Niccol, in fact, puns with computer-speak throughout his film. When Viktor sets up a script-reading for his next "Simone film," actors introduce themselves to the "reclusive" icon on a speaker-phone, their names all related to the computer industry: Lotus, Claris, Mac, Corel, Hewlett, Dell, and Hal (referring, I assume, to the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey). When Simone is nominated for an Oscar, her fellow nominees are named "Claris Apple" and "Lisa Packard." Then, at the end of the film, when Viktor resur­rects his incarnation by returning Simone to the screen, he has her explain on camera that she was absent giving birth to their son "Chip."

BUT NICCOL IS UP TO SOMETHING MORE. HlS REFERENCE to "an icon" alludes, I would suggest, to the original meaning of "icon": a sacred image painted on wood. Significantly, Niccol gives Viktor the surname Taransky, reminding us of the famous Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986), whose most well-respected film Andrei Rublev (1966) focuses upon a fifteenth-century creator of icons.

Of course, within Andrei Rublev's Russian Orthodox tradition, icons deserve veneration because they partici­pate in the truth to which they refer. In The Church of the Eastern Christians, a book highly valued by Dorothy Sayers, the Russian Orthodox Nicolas Zernov compares the power of an icon to the energy an artist gives to inert materials:

A piece of rough marble and the statue made from it, though materially identical, are not the same thing; the creative genius of man makes the stone into the vehicle of a new spiritual power capable of profoundly influ­encing other persons. If so much can be done by an artist, the prayer of the Church, the action of divine grace, the response of a Saint, can affect the matter even more profoundly and transform an ikon into a source of help and inspiration for those Christians who come into contact with it; this is how miracles are performed.

Zernov's analogy reminds us of Viktor Taransky, who artistically transforms a computer icon into the vehicle of spiritual power capable of profoundly influencing other persons. "She's a miracle!" effuses Viktor's daughter after seeing Simone on film. Not long after, Simone has become such a source of help and inspiration that even the prima donna played by Winona Ryder is chastened, telling Viktor that Simone "inspired me" to change. Finally, fascination with Simone becomes the medium of recon­ciliation between Elaine and Viktor—to their daughter's obvious joy.

As this type of icon, then, Simone manifests the perfect balance of Idea, Energy, and Power. However, as Sayers makes clear in The Mind of the Maker, perfect balance is hard to maintain. Between the controlling megalomania of authors/directors and the fanatical idolatry of readers/viewers, the Energy of the image is often corrupted. Niccol's film, with repeated references to the eye, implies that the integrity of art is dependent upon the interdependent perception of both creator and receiver. As Dorothy Sayers puts it at the end of The Mind of the Maker, "That the eyes of all workers should behold the integrity of the work is the sole means to make that work good in itself and so good for mankind."

Crystal Downing's book on Dorothy Sayers, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers, was published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan.

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