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The 1990 “Cyberpunk” Documentary #cyberpunk

In 1990, as a real-world “cyberculture” continued to cohere into something that felt like a bonafied cultural movement, a documentary called (wait for it) Cyberpunk began making the rounds at midnight showings and screening at cyberpunky events and hacker cons. The film was directed by Marianne Trench for a new age-y documentary studio, Mystic Fire Video.

I first saw Cyberpunk as an opener for Brett Leonard’s Lawnmower Man, in 1992. The documentary, looking like a fossil from the digital Jurassic by today’s standards, includes interviews with America’s favorite acid-soaked psychologist, Timothy Leary (now hawking cyberspace as the latest hip trip), fiction author William Gibson, pioneering video game designer, Brenda Laurel, musician Vernon Reid, virtual reality developer, Jaron Lanier, and some very swollen-headed hackers.

The docu also features some industrial music (Skinny Puppy, Front 242, Manufacture, Severed Heads, Hilt) and includes lots of breathless pronouncements about brain machines and smart drugs, the coming wonders of VR, and fighting the power with 1990s computer hardware.

Cyberpunk was muscle-pulling-levels of cringe-worthy back then. Even the nostalgic forgiveness of time hasn’t improved things all that much, at least not for this aging cyberpunk.

If nothing else, the film does touch on most of what was going on in this emerging subculture at the time and features a number of its important players. It’s also interesting to see how a documentary filmmaker of the time was trying to come to grips with and present this strange new cultural approach to technology where “the street finds its own uses for things” and the machine is both embraced and used as a weapon against itself.

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