Synthetic Pleasures
An interesting look at our virtual worlds
Synthetic Pleasures
Caipirinha Productions
Directed by Iara Lee
USA, 1996
It's a good thing Synthetic Pleasures is billed as an "electronic road movie", because it would be pretty hard to categorize otherwise.

The label is appropriate. Through Synthetic Pleasures, director Iara Lee takes us on a journey. One that doesn't plot a clear path from point A to point B geographically, but rather, bounces around the globe, travelling from one idea to the next.

The movie doesn't delve into much that hasn't been explored already. Virtual reality (VR), cryogenics, piercing, the Internet, smart drinks, gender identity--these have all been covered in other publications and videos, and Synthetic Pleasures seems to borrow stylistically from these. The difference is in the presentation. Rather than start from the "technology is cool" angle and then look at how the latest and greatest gadgets can empower/oppress/stimulate/alienate us, it begins with a fairly simply premise: man's basic relationship with nature is one of adapting our surroundings to suit us. This quirk has historically manifested itself in our attempts to harness or shield ourselves from nature, and, these days, can be found in our desire to build kitschy theme parks with carefully controlled environments. Lee illustrates this proposition through footage of Las Vegas resorts and mind-boggling Japanese recreation areas juxtaposed with similarly-themed computer animation. There is no one narrator; all of the voiceovers are provided by various pundits and people who live the experiences described.

Once Lee is sure we're in sync, the trip gets under way, constantly using this mix of the real and the unreal. The first stop is man's desire to control and shape his body (plastic surgery, piercing, cryogenics); from there to man's toying with his own mind and sensory perceptions (smart and not-so-smart drugs, VR); sharing this sensory stimuli (virtual sex); and, suddenly, we find ourselves back in the real world, reminded of the fact that there are some things a computer can't do--the example given is kissing--and if they could, would we want them to?

The structure is quite clever. All of these topics are presented as expressions of aspects of humanity that have always existed, and will always exist so long as we're human. The computer, then, can be seen as a natural extension of ourselves, which we can use both to break down and highlight the very things that make us human.

Unfortunately, while the premise and structure are well thought out, Synthetic Pleasures pretty much comes across as an abbreviated Wired or Mondo 2000, complete with icons from both publications (Jaron Lanier, Timothy Leary, and John Perry Barlow are in here, to name a few). If you've ever skimmed through these magazines or their spiritual siblings, you experience Synthetic Pleasures with a strong sense of déjà vu. Worse still, the movie assumes you're familiar with the people interviewed, giving people like Howard Rheingold the most cursory of descriptions, which does a disservice to those who are new to this. While Synthetic Pleasures is interesting to look at, it's really just a starting point: you'll have to go to your bookstore (or, appropriately, your Web browser) for more depth.

Originally printed in the Montreal Mirror (March 13, 1997)
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