Brainy: My Newfound Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hated Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.

I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.

Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence in Sunshine. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.

Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.
Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.

Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.

On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):

… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)

I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.

Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.
Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.

In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.

In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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To Each Her Own Cinephilia; Or How I Failed to Connect to Silver Screen Fiend

Cover Image of Silver Screen FiendI finished reading Patton Oswalt’s second memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, days ago but I’ve been struggling to find something to say about it ever since. That’s when it hit me: my not having much to say is indicative of how I feel about this book. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s mostly just underwhelming. As a film fanatic myself, I was very excited to read the newly released Fiend, whose subtitle is Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. I thought it would offer me insights into how I might balance my career ambitions (whatever those are) with my chronic hunger to watch and analyze films and TV shows. Instead, Oswalt leaves it until the last chapter to bestow wisdom on this topic: “Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life” (161, emphasis in original). I already knew all that. Thanks, Patton. What’s worse, he comes to the realization that the Movies have taken over his life only once The Phantom Menace profoundly disappoints him, and you know how I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas. At least I have never seen a film so terrible that it shook the very foundation upon which my cinephilia is built: I will never stop consuming films, because I want to better understand what effects they have on our lives, on our cultures.

Silver Screen Fiend briefly recounts the four years between 1995 and 1999 when he obsessively attended film screenings at the New Beverly Cinema and other repertory theaters playing classic films, in the hopes that feeding his addiction as much as possible would make him a (great) film director someday. At the same time, he also became a member of the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles, and he wrote for MADtv for a short spell before the producers finally realized that his lackluster skits just weren’t cutting it. I’m not being harsh. Here is Oswalt himself on the subject of his being fired: “It also didn’t help that my writing at the time was so fashionably half-assed. I hadn’t even developed my distaste for typos, which made all the sketches I turned in look like I’d written them while being chased by Turkish assassins on a drifting steamboat” (133-4). There are amusing if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny scenes sprinkled throughout, such as his experience shooting Down Periscope (his debut film role, which also earned him a SAG card) and the legal trouble he and his friends faced when they tried to stage a table reading of Jerry Lewis’s controversial, never-publicly-shown Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried. What they wound up performing turned out to be a creative collaborative success: a series of sketches about their not being able to perform the screenplay itself due to a producer’s issuance of a cease-and-desist letter.

Although I could relate to his experience as a cinephile—and in particular, a desire to see films in the theater as part of an audience—I couldn’t connect with him in the way that I wanted to (that is, to learn about life through an addiction to film). The book itself starts in an off-putting way: he writes as if he is in conversation with the reader, who is either a friend or an acquaintance, outside the New Beverly, someone he “bulldoze[s] right over… and keep[s] gabbing” away about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. I get it; his mind runs sixty miles an hour when you get him started on a film about which he feels really passionate. The problem is that throughout most of the book, he mainly just mentions film titles, ones that appear in the handwritten and poorly duplicated calendar that begins most chapters. Occasionally, he reminds the reader that he uses five film encyclopedias to keep track of what classics he should see, and he marks each entry with a note in the margin describing how and when he saw a particular film. An appendix at the back of the book lists all of the films he saw between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999. It’s 33 pages long and quite impressive, but ultimately not very useful. What am I supposed to get out of it? In addition to a decades-old film stub collection, I’ve kept a film journal for almost ten years as well as an alphabetical index of its contents. I can’t imagine that anyone else would ever want to look at such a document or the information it contains. (I started journaling and indexing as a way to keep tabs on what I’ve not only seen but written about as well.) So scanning the wide assortment of titles listed in his appendix, all I could think was, for example, “Ooh! I wonder what he thought of Trainspotting.”

Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.
Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt’s film addiction and comedy scene shenanigans are probably given equal “screen time” in the slim volume, but his stories about the latter were more exuberant, filled with more personalities. I think I know why this is, and it’s not because he’s a lazy writer. (If anything, he may be too energetic, especially when it comes to philosophizing about Vincent van Gogh’s creative genius, from which Oswalt draws great and sometimes confusing inspiration.) It is because, as he implies throughout, it is sometimes difficult for a rabid film fanatic to translate her enthusiasm for a film in a way that someone not as interested in it will understand and appreciate. In the chapter “You Can, Unfortunately, Go Home Again,” he writes about meeting a high school friend for a movie while they were both home for Thanksgiving in 1996. Sitting down to the Bruce Willis western Last Man Standing, he geeks out about how the “movie is based on [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest, but it got there by way of [A] Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo” (120). This fun fact lodges itself in his companion’s brain so deeply that Oswalt ruins the experience of watching Last Man Standing for the man, because he thinks he’s seen a version of a samurai film. Although I don’t condone binge drinking, this may be the best description Oswalt offers to illuminate the divide between people like us and people like his friend:

Movies, to him [meaning his old high school buddy] and the majority of the planet, are an enhancement to a life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I’m the other way around. I’m the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I’m about to drink. (122)

Owing to my gigantic sweet tooth, allow me to paraphrase this treatise using a dessert analogy instead. Some people I know don’t eat dessert or only do so on rare occasions, whereas I always eat dinner in order to have dessert. Since I’m in a confessional mood, I will also admit that sometimes I forgo dinner altogether and dash straight to dessert.

Early on in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt defines the film subculture he belongs to as one consisting of “sprocket fiends,” those who dwell in the “subterranean dimension” of repertory theaters, who travel through space and time at the will of a director and his/her vision (7-8). I learned on my first or second day in the Cinema Studies department at NYU that the rest of the Tisch School of the Arts referred to us as moles, because once we burrowed in the ground we were content to stay in the dark. Like Oswalt, I love the sound of celluloid passing through a projector. It makes me feel alive. That’s why the “First Epilogue,” written as a tribute to the owner and manager of the New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan (to whom the book is also dedicated), is the best part. In it, Oswalt shows off his classic film knowledge in a highly imaginative and dexterous manner: he curates a 30-day festival of films that were never made but will hopefully entertain Sherman in the great beyond. If only Hal Ashby could have wrangled John Belushi and Richard Pryor for an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I especially love the quick mention that a young Frances McDormand, one of my favorites, costars as Myrna Minkoff and is, in a word, “Sublime” (172).

Quick Edit: What is There to Learn From A Price Above Rubies?

Viewed September 8, 2012

I love movies about women who defy societal expectations, who refuse to conform to the gender role they’re supposed to play without question, and who fight for their own political and financial autonomy. I’ve noticed that an inordinate number of my personal favorites in this subgenre is set in the past and therefore retroactively feminist, including Dangerous Beauty (Marshall Herskovitz, 1998) and Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998). And so I went into Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies, also from 1998, with pretty high hopes that it would emotionally and intellectually satisfy me just as well. I had wanted to see this film for years, long believing it wasn’t available on DVD (until I recently discovered this isn’t the case), and when I randomly caught on cable a pivotal scene in which the heroine pushes back against her devout husband and a religious leader, I knew two things: first, I must DVR this picture when it airs again, and that if this scene is anything to go by, the rest of A Price Above Rubies has got to be awesome.

The truth is, I wish this were actually the case. The sophomore effort from Yakin, who made a critical splash with his ghetto-based crime debut, Fresh (1994), and has since moved on to write and/or direct action movies such as this year’s Safe (yes, really), A Price Above Rubies is rough around the edges, strange and slightly confusing. More crucially, however, though Renée Zellweger as Sonia is easy to root for, it’s her situation that is poorly developed. Spoilers to follow.

Sonia Horowitz, the daughter of a prominent ultra-Orthodox Jewish jeweler does her parents proud, having married a rising scholar at the Yeshiva named Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald). When we meet her as an adult, she gives birth to a son, whom Mendel insists they name after the rebbe (the leader of their Hasidic community) rather than her deceased brother Yossi. Following the infant’s emotionally traumatic bris (for Sonia, that is), the young family moves into a Hasidic community in Brooklyn to be nearer Mendel’s extended family and the Yeshiva. Stifled by postpartum depression, Mendel’s obsessive study and inattention to her needs, and a crisis of faith that makes her blood boil, Sonia struggles in her role as stay-at-home mom. Then, one day, Mendel’s sinful older brother, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), invites her to run his jewelry shop nearby. The promise of being able to travel, to buy pieces from jewelers all over Manhattan while exercising her exacting eye for evaluating gemstones, is just the kind of liberation she desires. As such, her business dealings bring her into contact with people outside the incredibly insular community, and one liaison in particular wreaks havoc upon her marriage and familial relationships.

From the get-go, the film comes across as amateurish, like a made-for-TV movie, complete with a hokey, melodramatic score. Alarmingly, the first ten minutes or so also traffic in many Jewish stereotypes, which thankfully recede as the narrative marches on. In the prologue scene set when Sonia is a little girl, she listens to her beloved Yossi (Shelton Dane) tell a bedtime story that takes place in—you guessed it—the shtetl. In another early scene, which incidentally introduces the Hasidic community and establishes Sonia’s uneasiness with her religion and culture, she resents having to stand by and watch her son’s ceremonial circumcision from afar. Furthermore, the characters’ identities are laid on thick through their unambiguous and broad New York Jewish accents. We can’t fault the filmmakers for shooting in English, for it is more accessible and infinitely more commercial than Yiddish (which is the language most ultra-Orthodox Jews speak), but the actors do sound ridiculous.

But why is A Price Above Rubies so strange? It’s sexually confused, for one thing, leading me to believe that Yakin can’t empathize with Sonia’s sexual frustration. Sex with Mendel is passionless because he doesn’t want to offend god with any impure thoughts or actions. Then, a little later on, as Sonia suffers from a particularly severe panic attack, she kisses Mendel’s pushy sister Rachel (Julianna Margulies) as she tries to soothe her. In this moment, you might think Sonia is unfulfilled because she is a lesbian. Not so, and it remains a mystery as to why she hit on her sister-in-law.

Moreover, there are elements of magical realism that don’t quite fit. Following their uncomfortable and perplexing sexual encounter, Rachel takes Sonia to meet with Rebbe Moshe (John Randolph), to whom she relates that she’s convinced the intense burning sensations she’s felt all her life indicate her body contains no soul. Later, it’s revealed that her passionate confession caused the rebbe not only to amorously seek out his long-suffering wife but to also die in the midst of their love-making. For igniting this fire in her husband, the rebbe’s widow (Kim Hunter) is eternally grateful to Sonia. I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not all! Sonia hallucinates throughout the film, imagining Yossi is at her side while she eats a non-kosher lunch in a Chinatown park and when Mendel eventually kicks her out of the house for her supposed indiscretion (more on that in a moment). She converses with Yossi as well as with a beggar woman (Kathleen Chalfant) who impossibly follows her all around the city. It’s unclear if she only appears to Sonia, but notwithstanding one interaction with another woman, I believe the beggar lady is supposed to be a figment of Sonia’s imagination. But this isn’t the only instance of narrative confusion. In fact, there’s a lot more.

For instance, Sonia’s motivations are sometimes unclear. She doesn’t so much as embark on a love affair with her brother-in-law/employer, Sender, as she allows him to take advantage of her sexually. It’s clear in their early scene at the family seder that they have a powerful connection (his touch sends her into a tizzy) because they’re both more cynical than their devout family members. And so it’s awesome that Sender rescues her from the doldrums of her everyday existence with a business proposition. But it’s genuinely disturbing that Sender essentially rapes her before he leaves and she allows this behavior to continue long after the fact. At first, I hesitated to call it rape, but as we should all know by now, “rape is rape.” It may appear as if she consents to his sexual aggression willingly (and maybe she does because she wants to feel something that her husband doesn’t provide), but I think it’s more an expression of her subservient position which has been culturally ingrained in her and other ultra-Orthodox women she knows. Anyway, I kept wondering why Sonia, who we’re supposed to believe is strong-willed and desirous, would consent to such an arrangement. Does she honestly believe that it—their affair and the sex itself—will get better? When she finally comes to her senses and realizes, after she’s been ostracized, that she will never be free so long as he demands favors from her for protection, I couldn’t help thinking, This is all too little too late.

But just why is she ostracized, you ask? Well, already alienated by Sonia’s lack of faith in their religious leaders (she says at marriage counseling officiated by a rabbi that he has no right to tell her what she should think or do), Mendel asks Sender to trail her, and so he vindictively spreads the rumor throughout the Hasidic community that Sonia is having an affair with a Puerto Rican in the Bronx. Obviously, this is not the case. Ramon (Allen Payne) is merely a sculptor and jewelry designer whose pieces are among the most beautiful she’s ever seen, especially an intricately carved 22-karat gold band with an open setting for a gemstone. She spends a lot of time in his basement workshop after she commissions and sells his work (which he labels a mere “hobby”). To make a long story short, everyone—starting with her husband—excommunicates Sonia overnight: Mendel changes the locks on the door, and Rachel refuses to hand over her son and warns Sonia that her own mother has disowned her. Sender welcomes her to a Lower East Side apartment where he can keep tabs on her (this is when she finally refuses his form of “freedom”), so she winds up squatting for a few hours with the beggar woman before the vision of Yossi leads her to Ramon’s, where she falls into his arms and into his bed. But even this illicit tryst produces few fireworks. In fact, when Ramon, who was skeptical of Sonia just the other day, confesses that she is his elusive muse and leans in to kiss her, I couldn’t believe it. (I thought Ramon was gay, anyway!)

More problematic, however, is Yakin’s rushing this conclusion. Why is he so hellbent on establishing Sonia’s abject position literally overnight—only for Mendel to undo it the next morning? A Price Above Rubies ends on a more optimistic note because he invites her to visit their son often, even as she figures out her next steps (she’s not staying with Ramon, that much is clearly stated and in its utterance, supposedly breaks Ramon’s heart). This softened resolution leaves the wrong impression: it says that the shunning was only painful for one night and gives false hope that the community will be more accommodating than we’ve been previously led to believe.

The title refers to a biblical quote that Sender recites atop Sonia, post-coitus. The gist is that women of fortitude, who, of course, obey their husbands, are worth more than precious jewels. Through her rebellion, to achieve a sort of personal virtue and integrity that is at odds with ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Sonia pays “a price above rubies” for her freedom, which indexes not only humiliation and excommunication but also the forced abandonment of her child (she never cries over this, mind you). During their reconciliation, Mendel gifts her a ruby, her birthstone, which during the end credits fits neatly into Ramon’s band in extreme closeup. Neat, right?

Although A Price Above Rubies boasts some strong performances, particularly from Renée Zellweger, I had a difficult time understanding just what I am meant to get out of the film. As I stated before, Sonia is a very sympathetic character, but her journey is poorly conceived and realized. I wish she had been led on another path, because it’s too convenient for her to find a fledgling romance with Ramon—and wholly unnecessary. While the script delves into ultra-Orthodox Jewish life, the magical realist element keeps it at a distance, and Sonia’s childhood trauma (the loss of her brother) should have been explored more, for after all it precipitates her crisis of faith and identity. Too bad the feminist struggle I was looking for was just so damn fleeting.