PRINT Summer 1995


Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic

FOR A WHILE ROBERT LONGO’S work has struggled against the perception that it emblematizes (in somehow the wrong way) the excesses of the evil ’80s. A more congenial take—borne out by his newly released feature film Johnny Mnemonic—would make his oeuvre one of the first and strongest expressions of the cyberpunk genre in the realm of static art.

It’s been the talk of the town for a while now, all these art stars rushing out to make movies: Larry Clark, Matthew Barney, David Salle, Julian Schnabel (in preproduction on Build a Fort, Set It on Fire, about Jean-Michel Basquiat), and, coming soon, Cindy Sherman. Of all these projects, Johnny may have the best box-office legs. For a first-time director, the credits roll like a list of coups: in a screenplay by the seminal cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, and based on Gibson’s own first short story, an engagingly geeky Keanu Reeves embarks on a hellish quest to recover childhood memories he “dumped” to free up space in his Net-wired brain. (He’s smuggling data in computer storage surgically implanted in his skull.) Along the way, aided by a supporting cast including Ice T, Henry Rollins, and Barbara Sukowa (Longo’s wife) as a virtual ghost, Johnny fends off scene-chewing villainy from Dolph Lundgren, Berlin Alexanderplatz’s Udo Kier, and the Japanese auteur Takeshi. (The casting comments on the phenomenon of European art actors enjoying a second life as villains in American popular films, possibly because to Hollywood they already represent the Enemy.) The plot follows Keanu’s 48-hour odyssey into the grunge of the near-future Free City of Newark, as imagined by Longo and production designer Nilo Rodis Jamero. Like Dorothy, Johnny just wants to go home.

The film has the sharp shiny edges of Japanese comic books and the frantic action-comedy tone of Jackie Chan, and I loved it. Of course I saw it under ideal conditions that made it sound like it was recorded by Nine Inch Nails, and anyway I’m someone who’d already watched the current Hong Kong flick Naked Killer five times on bootleg laserdisc before it was even released in the U.S. but who hasn’t gotten around to, say, The Madness of King George. Staggering home from the latest Jean-Claude Van Damme, I sometimes recite something Robert Smithson wrote in Artforum in 1966: “The movies give a ritual pattern to the lives of many artists. . . . The ‘blood and guts’ of horror movies provides for their ‘organic needs,’ while the ‘cold steel’ of sci-fi movies provides for their ‘inorganic needs.’ Serious movies are too heavy on ‘values,’ and so are dismissed by the most perceptive artists.” Even discounting my own biases, though, I feel Longo deserves four subcutaneous ’trodes out of four.

For one thing, if one of the primary targets for a first-time director is look versus budget-like beating the point spread in basketball—Johnny is a $26 million movie that looks like a $60 million movie. It’s also one of the few recent English-language movies to succeed in capturing the over-the-top tenor of Japanese animation and the Hong Kong action film, something near-misses like Hard Target and Tank Girl have proven is harder than people think. The first of Gibson’s stories to be brought to the screen (beating out three other projects), Johnny faithfully represents the atmosphere of his fiction, partly by borrowing extensively from his later novel Neuromancer.

When Longo first met Gibson, in 1989, he was struck by the interests they shared—economics, pharmaceuticals, the repressive side of technology. Although Gibson is probably the favorite writer of many young artists, he says Longo is the first important contemporary artist he’s spent much time with. “Actually,” Gibson adds, “at one point I did want to be that kind of artist and I went to art school for a little while in the late ’60s. But I couldn’t really get over the art-school vibe.”

Longo feels, and I would agree, that his decision to make an entertaining action movie instead of an art-house film has a certain integrity. “It’s part of my investigation,” Longo said the day after I’d caught the screening. He was slumping over a table in a studio-rented hotel suite, on one of those film-opening press-junket things where the publicity people keep running out for more room-temperature glass-bottled Evian. “It’s the snakebite principle—you have to become it to criticize it effectively.” I asked whether he meant he was going to do some less mainstream movie in the future, or whether doing Johnny would change his art. “I don’t know about other movies yet,” he replied, “but doing this one’s already affected the art.”

After a tremendous art-world career through much of the ’80s, Longo ran into trouble at the end of the decade and somewhat bitterly moved to Paris. “I kind of decided something partly courtesy of [New York Times critic] Roberta Smith,” he recalled. “She said my art was too pop for the art world and too smart for the real world.” In the early ’90s Longo directed some pop-music videos, designed sets for operas, made the short film Arena Brains and even directed an episode of Tales from the Crypt. And he kept nurturing the Gibson project. In Germany he met Staffan Ahrenberg, an art collector who ended up executive-producing Johnny. In the meantime his art grew darker and more austere. “So, if anything, the art will probably have a more limited audience than before,” he says.

Longo’s work is often called grandiose, but in some ways it’s quite self-effacing. From the early “Falling Men” series, crafted from photographs by a professional illustrator, to his mega-installations with their long movielike lists of credits press-typed on the walls, Longo has always been concerned not to show too much of his own hand in his work. Some images in Johnny do recall Longo’s art: Keanu’s dark “Falling Man” suit and tie, for instance, which deteriorate as the movie progresses. But there are also visual solutions from other people’s work—a porpoise in a tank recalls Damien Hirst’s shark, a tower of TV monitors looks like a messy Nam Jun Paik—as well as samplings of films like Touch of Evil, Blade Runner, Total Recall, and 2001. To me, none of these seem gratuitous. Like the detritus in Gibson’s shantytowns, things are recycled when they’re appropriate, and no single look overpowers the others. Even the three computer-graphics scenes don’t separate from the body of the film the way animated sequences often do; when I asked him about them, Longo said he had a different company do each one so there wouldn’t be any definite style.

I mentioned to Longo that his distributor, Columbia Tri-Star, must be happy with Johnny Mnemonic, since they were planning a wide release on the critical Memorial Day weekend. He said they were, but added that with all the zeros involved he’d also had to compromise to deliver the kind of film they wanted. “If I’d been all on my own,” he said, “it wouldn’t have been so potentially popular. The producers and I did have to meet each other in the middle to find the film.”

I asked Longo whether he’d seen Matthew Barney’s movie, or David Salle’s.

“I loved Matthew Barney’s video,” he said. “I actually haven’t been able to see David’s movie yet. I did have dinner with him last week, for the first time in ten years. It was trippy. One thing David said—it was kind of moving, actually—was that he can’t even get paint to dry exactly the way he wants. And it’s true, everything’s a compromise.” He leaned back. “But you know who’ll really do a great movie? Cindy [Sherman]. Cindy’s horror flick’ll put us all to shame.”

Brian D’Amato’s novel Beauty is currently in development at Touchstone Pictures. His first virtual-reality installation debuted in 1992.