July, 2001

Dancing The Very Technical Dance

July 30th, 2001 July 30th, 2001
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I phone the editor friend of the editor and find she’s working down the road from me so I can get a tape to her tomorrow. When I say down the road, I mean literally around the corner from the studios where I am. Fate & Fortune neg cut here we come.

I phone Michelle, the rerecording mixer, and she is there. Hoorah. We talk about surround sound. I now understand that it’s about adding room acoustic to the rear speaker tracks by using reverb. This changes the point where an ideal stereo signal is heard into a listening area. She explains that it’s about adding a small amount of delay, which is different (but to all intents and purposes I suspect has the same effect).

She apologises for not getting back to me (someone died, honestly) and says to put a ‘heavy pencil booking’ in my diary for this Sunday. Meanwhile I say I’ve written up some notes of what I want. Could I send them to her, she asks. Sure. I’ll do that. I say goodbye then realise I don’t have her address. I call back. No reply.

I dance my dance of film making. If Michelle doesn’t get back to me this afternoon I can send my notes (which I’ll write up tonight into something legible) to her care of the dubbing studios where she works. She also mentioned she won’t have time to tracklay all of the audio to do a 5.1 mix for every scene. I am okay with that, it doesn’t need it anyway. As long as we Just. Get. It. Done.

I spin. I skip. I try to take it seriously but it is all too much of a big freaking headache. I didn’t mention the idea of taking the audio raw materials back because it felt like the opportunity to do that didn’t arise. I’d hate to interrupt a constructive dialogue with a threat. She said she’ll call back Thursday, so I can wait until then. It’s an art I’ve been practising.

One step forward, no steps back.

One week later (August 3rd):

I managed to speak to Michelle again this week and Saturday and Sunday are now out of the question. The studios are booked out to someone with money. Curses. Still, she says we should be able to do the mix over two evenings next week. Two evenings next week would be fine. I just have this feeling that it isn’t going to happen. Drat drat and double drat. It’s Groundhog Day again.

Fully Saturated

July 28th, 2001 July 28th, 2001
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Fully saturated colour, that is. I went along to have a look at the Last Train answerprint prepared by the grader on Thursday and I have to say, it looks beautiful. Well, except for a few cutaway shots of trains that we filmed by available light (ie. streetlights). So, I’ve asked him to match some other shots with those (Geoff won’t be totally pleased as I degrade his beautiful images but still) and the next stage will be the blow up to 35mm. Mmmm nice.

Meanwhile to pay for these things, the money from my remortgage has come through. Hooray! How nice to have a random �26,000 sitting in your bank account. I’ve paid off my production-incurred loan and my credit card this morning, my overdraft is settled… and somehow I’ve misplaced the bill for neg cutting. Whoops. Well, I’m sure it will turn up though. The main thing is, the money is definitely there so the films can definitely be paid for.

In other news, Simon, the editor for both films has found someone who can sort out the EDL for Fate & Fortune for me as well. This is a good thing. It means that we can crack on with the neg cutting once that’s done and then get a long way towards a print. I’m assuming the lab quote is still valid, given that it is about six months old.

I am beyond patience with the audio postproduction people, though. I called them last weekend and they said this weekend. I called them on Thursday and they were out. Left a message. No reply. I called them today. Left another message. Still no reply. I just want the original audio tapes back now so I can go somewhere else. This seems to be a lot to ask. Nevertheless I will keep calling.

In short, I am breaking out the bunting for film one while shaking my fist in the air over film two simultaneously. It’s kind of like a gothic party. Have fun but wear black.

Looking Back On Five Months

July 21st, 2001 July 21st, 2001
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I thought I’d take a look at the list of things I posted on my ‘to do’ list back at the end of March and see how far each of them has got.

Neg Cut
Deliver negative (ten large heavy cans), Edit Decision List (EDL) and 2x videocassettes to Neg Cutters (Andy at TrueCut)
– okay this has been done.

Get new EDL for Fate & Fortune to include shorter title sequence, phone editor to arrange
– this remains. And now Simon’s gone to LA for five months. Agggghh. Yes, I really do scream. The only contact details I have for him are an email address. He knows that I need the EDL, however.

Titles and credits
Visit graphic designer and finalise opening titles, font, layout and closing credits. Find cash.
– graphics for Last Train are complete and paid for
– graphics for Fate & Fortune are done but not shot

Grading
Requires cut negative and cash, so phone bank and arrange outrageous loan for this and various other things. Re-cost out everything on this list in Excel, then take deep breath and contact bank
– grading for Last Train is done. I see the grader again on Thursday to look at the answerprint. Once I approve that, the lab checks the sound is in sync with the pictures and then produces a print. They also will make a video copy for me. Game over!
– grading for Fate & Fortune is on hold.
– funding has been sorted out thanks to getting property revalued and remortgaged. Money should come through by the end of this month.
Sound mix
1. Last Train – done, so go to optical
2. Fate & Fortune – kick sound editor on a daily basis, whine a lot and get numbers of alternative sound editors (in hand)

– regular weekly kicking of sound postproduction people has achieved pretty much no result in five months since writing the above. Latest news is they say they might be able to do it next weekend. I have a three page list of requirements prepared to take with me. I sigh. Loudly.

Optical sound negative
1. Requires Tascam cassette (done), cut neg (in hand) and cash (bank)
2. Requires Tascam (see sound mix), cut neg (in hand) and cash (bank)

– 1. will be complete in a couple of weeks.
– 2. in limbo.

Effects and opticals
Forget it, you’re broke!
– but I now know more about opticals, what they can do and why I might want them in future.

Final print
1. Director of Photography wants Grade A 35mm print in addition to graded print. Tough, unless he’s paying. Will probably go with Super16 print only.
– funny thing, he only wanted a VHS when I phoned him last week and invited him to come along to the grading. Oh, well. Two more weeks until final print, I think and I’ll have two copies both on 35mm. Hooray!

2. DoP wants Grade A 35mm print (surprise surprise) but will go with it because I do too. Takes priority over Last Train as it’s shot on 35mm for a quality look.
– priority schmiority, it’s still awaiting EDL, sound mix, etc.

Exhibition – festivals
– thanks to various people, including friends on the internet, I have a number of contact sites to pull festival listings from. Need to start getting entry forms filled in from this week.
– also, working with production company, Whatever Pictures, who have promised to help with distribution. I think they’d better as they have a credit as Executive Producers despite providing very little so far except their name to use for discounts and insurance. Okay, so I phone them up all the time to ask for advice and help. I admit it.

Exhibition – television
– I really thought early May would be possible when I wrote that last post? Wow, I had no idea! Deadline for BBC Choice scheme has been missed as has Cannes. Need to start pulling together distributor information for elsewhere, including website links (similar to above).

Get more work!
– Well, I will have one film complete by the end of this month and can start sending that one out and about to agents. I also need to update my resume, which is all listed out in job order rather than based on my filmography to date. I can do that this week in between the TV stuff that pays the mortgage I hope. Why don’t I send out a showreel of my video work, you may ask? Good question. Mainly because I’m not satisfied with the one I’ve got and I don’t have access to material I’ve shot that I am happy with. Plus I’m trying to change direction into drama here.

I keep humming and hahing because Last Train isn’t really *my* film in the sense that I don’t feel it really reflects my sensibilities. I didn’t write it either, I just thought it would be quick and easy to make as a trial run before doing something more complicated. It was like the mutant pancake to test the heat of the griddle and the texture of the batter before pouring the real mixture out. Nevertheless, it will be done and I know it is a start.

It’s like I have two seeds, one of which is ready for planting now although the other comes from a stronger stock but isn’t in my hand yet. I don’t know how (or even if) the first new seed will grow, but I am obliged to put it in the soil and see if it takes root and whether it will bring forth any flowers. So, I embrace my dark little mutant of a movie and get ready to send it out into the world in dark batches to see if and where it germinates.

Does this seem like reasonable progress in five months?

If The Aliens Landed

July 19th, 2001 July 19th, 2001
Posted in It's life, Jim...
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If the aliens landed would you get in the spaceship? Would I?

I wonder if I might stop and think, and say “Oh, I’d love to come but I can’t come now because…” and then start with my excuses.

Because… I found this small red tap a couple of months ago on the floor next to my washing machine. And I thought to myself, “That’s odd, I fixed the taps to the leaky washing machine and replaced them months ago. So how come this spare red plastic tap has appeared? Is it the old one?” And both new taps had their plastic turny things, one red and one blue, so I moved this spare one to the kitchen so I could think about it later. As you do. And then I threw it away without solving the mystery. I think I did. I was tidying up for the person coming to value the property and… anyway it’s gone.

Would the aliens wonder if that was worth worrying about?

Would they wonder if I told them that a couple of weeks ago I checked the water pressure in the central heating boiler and it was a little low but still within tolerance levels at around one atmosphere pressure in the system but I thought I’d top it up with a little more water from the mains. So I went to turn the tap underneath it that I always turn. And there was no tap there. I looked and it was gone. Just pipework. I scratched my head and looked around and down at the washing machine underneath, but no tap.

Would the aliens think it strange I had thrown away that little red tap that allows me to add water to the central heating to stop the whole system blowing up? Would they scratch their glowing heads and communicate the telepathic thought that I should get a plumber? Even though the pressure in the central heating system is actually fine?

“I can’t get in the spaceship today,” I would have said earlier, “because I’ve still not solved the incipient central heating problem that I created and the flat could be reduced to a smouldering pile of rubble.”

“Are you insured?” they’d ask using a music chiming language.

“Not for stupidity,” I’d reply by strumming my guitar really badly.

“Then solve it!” they’d insist with a sound like bursting bagpipes.

And I would have to tell them about today when I tried a different little red turny thing that didn’t quite fit on the knobbly bit of the pipe and it would only turn partway. Then it got mangled. Then I tried a pair of pliers but they were too big and I couldn’t turn them because they hit the wall so I used some smaller pliers. Then I tried a plumber’s wrench because that seemed the ideal tool to use on water pipes and somehow I stabbed my finger with it and made it bleed. Then I realised I was merely removing the flat bits from the knobbly bit that fits in the tap bit and to no avail.

“Call the plumber!” the glowing alien faces would implacably and unmistakably communicate. Then they’d get straight back in the spaceship and take off to report no signs of intelligent life on Earth.

I wonder if I’d wave?

Some time later…

I go out and buy a set of spanners that fit on the various parts of the central heating system. I find one that fits where that red tap once lived. I turn it all the way. No water comes through. I turn it back to its original position and I re-examine the pipework under the boiler. And there, right there, is a small black tap exactly where there has always been a small black tap. I turn it and water flows into the system topping the pressure back up. I turn it off.

There was no little red tap on the boiler. It was black, always black. The red one came from somewhere else–one of two taps on the washing machine plumbing (under the boiler) that I replaced earlier in the year. The red tap’s existence on my boiler was a mirage, an illusion, a thing that never was. I think the aliens would have pointed that out…

Grading

July 18th, 2001 July 18th, 2001
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Grading is where you go to the lab and discover all the little “we can work it out in post production” promises you’ve been told during filming were not exactly fiction but not strictly true either. That is not true without a lot of money to pay for extra processes. Grading is where you discover that your director of photography (or DP) has shot everything perfectly for his showreel rather than for the look you requested. Grading is an integral part of the learning curve. Let me enlighten you by way of example.

I stroll down to the labs and I meet Matt (the grader) and Ted (the boss). They shake my hand warmly (because I am a paying customer) and they run a print of Last Train for me. I say to Matt, “I would like these opening shots at the railway station to be dark and grainy to create an atmosphere of inherent violence, subliminal nastiness and edgy reality please.” Matt says to me, “I can only make them grainy by making them lighter.” I say to Matt, “Oh. Why can I not have them dark and grainy?” Matt replies, “Because you need to underexpose them when you shoot so that they are too dark to start with then I can then lighten them. You can only get grainy images by lightening the shots.”

This is all news to me, of course. I’ve been shooting on videotape for ten years, so I was relying on Geoff the DP to produce what I requested and required. “Your DP has shot them perfectly,” Matt tells me. “They look really good.” Of course. I bet the Geoff knows that too. I told him I wanted a really dark grainy look before we embarked on this endeavour and he said, “Sure. I can do that.” Of course he can. He was the second unit cameraman on such films as, oh, Star Wars and Superman among others.

Hmmm. Now I know that my short film differed from what has gone before in a couple of key respects. Our equipment was limited and my budget was nil. However, I cannot help but feel that I have been making a slightly different film from the one the DP was shooting. I was filming a specific story and he wanted something for his showreel. It is ever thus when you do not pay in hard currency. I shake my head. I accept the perfectly lit and composed images. The man is a pro and I am lucky. What can you do?

Matt and I go through the rest of the film on a Steenbeck (basically a projector that is like a large desk with spools on it). I ask for shots to be darkened in some places, lightened in others and colour casts to be added or removed. This is what a grader does. He can adjust the amount of any one or combination of three coloured lights–red, green and blue–during the printing process.

I ask about adding filter effects, such as blurring in some areas of the image as if a shot was taken through smudgy glass with a clear area where the action is. This is the kind of the thing I was told (no, really I was) could be “sorted out in post”. Matt explains to me that that would be an optical effect and I would need to go to an optical house to get it done. With video, I’d simply dial in something from the vision mixing console. I have even seen a telecine grader doing such things transferring film to video. No wonder modern feature films are all opting for completely digital post-production.

Well, my chums, I am learning. I also realised that Andy, the DP on my other film–Fate & Fortune–was exactly right to use filters during shooting. “We don’t think that was a good idea,” said Alex and Bruce, my friends at Whatever Pictures. “You’ll thank me for this later,” said the DP. How right he was. When I eventually get the sound mix and EDL sorted for Fate & Fortune I will thank him profusely for doing what I required. Meanwhile, I will have an answerprint of Last Train in a week’s time and I can see how the grading has turned out. Fingers crossed.

Who Is Matt?

July 17th, 2001 July 17th, 2001
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Matt is the grader. I’m seeing him tomorrow at 4pm at the labs to look at the one-light print of Last Train. Yes, there is a print. Next we grade it, which means I say what sort of filter colours, contrast and tonal range I want on the final print. Then it’s printed again on 35mm and then it goes to the nice people at movie theatres who show it.

It is as simple as that. Perhaps. Oh, you know this saga won’t end quite here but I reckon two more weeks, given that the mortgage money hasn’t appeared in my bank account just yet. Two more weeks and then I’ll have an artistic product that people can watch. A film, no less.

[…insert mad cackling laugh of unstoppable lunacy here….]

AI (continued)

July 17th, 2001 July 17th, 2001
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My comment: I would suggest that most people are so far ingrained in the machine=human paradigm that they can’t step outside it any more than the church in Copernicus’ time could step outside the Earth-centric view of the universe.

Response: Really?

Is this a British thing perhaps? Because such a view would be the OVERWHELMING minority view in America, for sure. I mean way way way in the minority. We’re talking 1 or 2% here. Most people think of science as a nuisance or just something important that they don’t need to worry about. We live in an increasingly superstitious, religiously-oriented world. Science isn’t dead just yet – but God has it on the ropes, that’s for sure.

Interesting…

Interesting.

You know, I love that I have this totally outside view of American culture. No wonder any posts I make which are anti-science are immediately taken as pro-religion. Still, not so. Religion has no more answers than science and a little healthy skepticism about either is a good thing.

I also think there is a machine=human philosophy operating even if religion is the dominant source of expertise. This can be seen in dictionaries and in the theories guiding both psychological research and AI research. The brain=computer theory is a powerful metaphor which is hard to shake because, well frankly there isn’t much else around that would be scientifically testable.

I suppose the main reason I don’t agree with some of your take on the film is that you are operating from an assumption that the modern zeitgeist is an increasingly mechanistic or rationalistic one. I think the exact opposite is true. I really don’t know very many people at all who think “man = machine” or anything close to it.

Again, interesting. I think those things are there in science, which means they are inevitably present in technology. Perhaps because such rationalism isn’t overt it isn’t seen but the impression I get from Hollywood with films like The Matrix is that there is a sense of a reality made up of explainable digits in a logic-based universe.

Perhaps also the dominance of religious thinking is why Spielberg uses a combination of religious metaphors such as creating a person to love the creator, and then resurrection and rebirth plus fairytale and film metaphors such as The Wizard of Oz=quest for heart and soul, and giant moon=childhood innocence. The mecha in AI are clearly simulations and Spielberg endeavours for the most part to show this.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was ambiguous about the main characters more through casting than acting. Despite revealing superhuman powers of strength and ability to withstand extremes of hot and cold, Roy Batty and Pris only appeared to break down in a mechanical way towards the end. Rachel initially comes across as withdrawn to the point of emotionless. Deckard… well, it’s Harrison Ford and he always has that kind of wooden monotonal drawling distance about him.

With the notable exception of Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner is all about imagery rather than emotional depth which is kind of why it works as an exploration of what it means to be human. In common with Blade Runner, AI explores empathy as a defining human characteristic. However, AI is far more ambitious in that Spielberg gives us not only visuals but also more emotional layers and muddily provocative morals to contend with.

I think there are also comparisons with Data and the Borg from Star Trek as well as The Bicentennial Man and the original Frankenstein story. All of these were based on a view of humanity as an evolutionary pinnacle that robots would inevitably aspire to achieve. AI goes well beyond this. AI also tells a nonhuman story where the central character is neither repulsive nor inhuman to look at. Nor is a robot child as threatening as an adult simulacrum.

Spielberg has given us a new way of viewing robots in cinema–and one which remains nonhuman to the end. I have to say I thought William Hurt’s character was a little reminiscent of the flatly unemotional Susan Calvin in Isaac Asimov’s stories. Almost like it takes a robotic type of person to make robots resembling people. It was still interesting that this character was marginalised in a way real people haven’t really been in a robot film before.

It woulda been a little more interesting in Kubrick’s hands, I feel, as he would have resisted the popular pressure to humanize David and give him his happy ending.

I don’t know. Spielberg is clearly comfortable putting complex scientific issues into easily understood filmic terms as witnessed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. He also has a track record of working well with children and exploring particular kinds of obsessive behaviour.

In AI Spielberg hasn’t gone for a soft option of laying it all out for us. He tells the story and explores the issues through layers of characters, visuals and ambiguous filmic metaphors. This is a departure for him and very in keeping with Kubrick. Kubrick is in one sense the real Wizard of Oz here but while AI follows his Yellow Brick Road, Spielberg goes beyond what either he or Kubrick have shown us before.

As for David’s happy ending, well was it? He got a day with Monica but it was a simulated Monica with none of her memories and somewhat off-balance. David was happy with the simulation where a real person would have been disappointed and felt the true hollowness of the experience. That doesn’t say much for robots as the next stage of an evolutionary process of the mind. It does say a lot for human beings as unique and therefore worthwhile however.

If the questions arise, then how can they not be poseable?

I meant that there is a sense in which this film redefines nonhumans as characters and that it will provoke discussion. That will generate future questions that relate back the film but currently can’t be framed because of the philosophies and ways of thinking we currently operate within. Spielberg is breaking a mould here. Maybe a few.

It’s a story about a robot boy who gets dumped in the woods

Or maybe it’s the story of whether a robot can be a boy. Is simply saying the words, “Mommy! Mommy! I love you!” enough? Maybe this is a retelling of the Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio. I think it’s more than any of those things. This is something new, a novelty with roots in the past and the present but looking to possibilities in the future.

I hope that if you gave the same themes to someone else they could come up with something that explored those subjects in a film that was half-decent.

I have to disagree. I thought A.I. was very well done. Most film makers given the same themes would have simply come up with a remake of Pinnochio or Frankenstein or a standard Hollywood studio linear action-adventure with all their ‘insert stereotypes here’ unsubtlety rather than creating such a thought-provoking piece of work. I suspect few would have been brave enough to keep David’s character as non-human right to the end.

AI: Cinematic Turning Point

July 16th, 2001 July 16th, 2001
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One of my online friends wrote this week that A.I. could have been great if Spielberg had the balls to let go of his famous people-looking-up scenes and let an ending be more than Hollywood schmaltz.

But it HAD to be. Because the whole story is about the idea of love being something you can program into a machine. I think that is such a clear fallacy that Spielberg has recognised it too and worked on that principle. How would you go about programming love other than by inserting fairy tales as subroutines? That’s the simple mechanics of what kind of process would have to be installed.

Any programming of emotions would inevitably be limited by the ability of the programmer to express his own feelings. William Hurt’s character was seeking to replace his own lost son so clearly obsession would have been part of the emotional programming he gave the robots. Some languages have separate words for describing the expression of familial, parental, friendly, religious, erotic and emotional love. English has one word for all of those concepts. This is not insignificant.

AI as a story was bound to be a hopeless quest because it is built on the hopeless paradigm of modern biology–that human beings are not just equivalent to and understandable as machines–‘Human beings ARE machines’ shriek the thinkers of our age. Hell, even dictionaries like Miriam-Webster say it is so. Unfortunately, it is not so. We are not machines and emotional or familial or any other kind of love are not a series of programs that we run. No emotion is. I think it is extremely powerful and timely that AI shows this so well and it is a film that will be judged more prophetic in later years rather than lauded for being right in the present. That is an incredible strength.

This story follows from Spielberg clearly recognising (in this script at any rate) that human beings are fundamentally different from machines and exploring that. AI shows the dangers of losing our morality and emotionality and spirituality if we blindly follow science and logic as religions rather than seeing them as the tools they really are. David (what amazing acting!) will always be a machine, a tool. He could never be a person. Spielberg gets it and gives that to us in the narrative form he works with. Something like the Blue Fairy was inevitable because David wasn’t programmed to love in the human sense. He was programmed to fixate on one specific individual and to obsess over them on the basis of a series of subroutines built on fairy tales and fiction.

All the fairy tale references looked deliberate. They were too blatant to be otherwise. The Wizard of Oz with Gigolo Joe and Teddy as amalgams of the Tin Man, Scare Crow and Lion, there was an Emerald City and Dr Know as the Wizard, manipulated by William Hurt as the man behind the curtain. Hansel and Gretl being abandoned in the woods (and doesn’t that make you think about the cultural references we give our children?) It was all straight out of children’s books and film imagery–even Spielberg’s own from ET with the giant moon. However, they were there to show that stories do not equal real life, despite the efforts of writers or programmers. David’s biography is more about man’s inadequate attempts to pigeonhole our feelings than anything else.

Okay, you may say David was programmed with the capacity to learn. That is part of artificial intelligence. So maybe love could grow from there as opposed to fairy tale regurgitations. I think not, though. He would simply be trapped in his own programming because of the Oedipal fixation thing. What would he have learned from? His real life models were the family he was adopted by. He saw his frozen organic brother brought back to life (resurrected) and reunited with a loving mommy. The final act of the film became a reiteration of that experience. Spielberg shows us what computers do best–mindless repetition.

On the subject of the ending, I saw it is as a bit like a dream sequence. Maybe David’s mechanical mind had started to break down and random electronic pathways fired as his power ran down slowly under the ice. Perhaps this was his dream before it finally ended. Perhaps that was why it echoed so well those parts of his experience he equated with love. His own robotic saviours even turned up in a box! As it seemed so allegorical, I wasn’t worried about whether this part was really possible. It was a film and therefore all fiction, never more so than at this point.

David’s story exemplified that any endeavour which attempts to take poorly and misunderstood concepts from science and philosophy and then apply those in another area is doomed to a certain kind of failure although not necessarily without producing novelty and fascination. Meanwhile, I love the fact that this is a totally new exploration of these concepts breaking away from Blade Runner which was really dealing with replicants and cloning as opposed to mechanical intelligence. Both are built on that same human=machine paradigm but both develop from it in different ways.

For me, one of the biggest points of the film is also to ask that question ‘can a human being love a machine?’ and it’s the audience who ultimately must answer. On the basis of this story, I think the answer would be a resounding no. We can care, we can feel affection and fondness. We can enjoy their fairytale existence and story. But it isn’t love. And I think that’s a whole subtext that Spielberg wants us to get. I didn’t always like David as a character. He was somehow dead inside despite the cuteness, despite the simulation of life. I may have wanted it to be otherwise but it wasn’t. Yet that very spiritual deadness is somehow revealing and gave him great freedom to explore human boundaries.

Many of the questions that arise from AI are not answerable or even poseable given the level of current understanding in biological and behavioural sciences, computer technology and ultimately the paradoxes and weaknesses inherent in philosophy today. Unlike Ebert, I think Spielberg was wise not only to avoid providing simplistic answers to questions he couldn’t answer but to keep us thinking. What is love? What is intelligence? What is important and what is not? Can we care about and love that which we do not know?

Future history will judge this film as a result in part of the discussions and thoughts it will have provoked. It is flawlessly made. It is full of ambiguity and metaphorical characters. And it is one of the most ambitious explorations of philosophical ideas I think I’ve seen attempted in any film. I think it’s great that Spielberg has made a truly deep multi-levelled sci-fi movie. It is a tribute to Kubrick in the sense that it is meant to make the audience think beyond their experiences and I don’t think everyone will like that. Cinema audiences don’t usually enjoy being provoked in overly complex ways. I did.

Another author wrote: Just because you can’t figure out how the mechanical process works doesn’t mean you have to romanticize it. We are not machines – we are animals run by nerve impulses. We like to make more of these electrical impulses than is really necessary which is fine and well just as long as you realize that’s all they are.

But we are more. We are awash with hormones many of which are stimulated and some even produced (eg pheromones) by the environment around us. We are constantly hit by particles and energy from space. We sense deep mysteries and psychic phenomena through means not yet explained. But I accept your disagreement. I would suggest that most people are so far ingrained in the machine=human paradigm that they can’t step outside it any more than the church in Copernicus’ time could step outside the Earth-centric view of the universe. This is why I see this as a film which will be judged by history. AI captures a zeitgeist as surely as Andy Warhol’s soup cans, Michaelangelo’s David or prehistoric cave paintings.

Science fiction has explored other ways of seeing the universe, such as the nodes of Frank Herbert’s Whipping Star and the intelligence created from the intersection of waves of existence and communication relays in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series. These things say to me there are other ways of thinking about life even if we reject a completely religious viewpoint. History tells me science has never had a monopoly on the truth and is no more likely to with a Cartesian mechanistic view. AI reinforces this with its hopeless tale and lack of answers (which I still think is a good thing).

Above, I said, “AI shows the dangers of losing our morality and emotionality and spirituality if we blindly follow science and logic as religions rather than seeing them as the tools they really are.” Let me elaborate on that point.

Sure. If everyone is reduced to the level of an automaton, where their feelings are simply a string of electrical impulses along the lines of a computer program, then several things are likely to result. One is people generally feel alienated from each other. This hurts because it is not part of our nature and we wonder at it and feel frustrated but impotent because we become overly reliant on experts for a worldview. The dominant experts of the day tell us to reject spirituality in favor of science because science can test its hypothesis. In years gone by the experts would have been religious and would have told us to reject science. Thinking people always question for themselves which is why AI works at a provocative level.

In the science-dominated world of AI Gigolo Joe (and if ever Spielberg created a cult legend it is surely Gigolo Joe) satisfies a physical desire. But Joe could never fulfil a deep emotional relationship except for those who equate need with love. Gigolo Joe is fascinating because he has a huge capacity to learn and he constantly innovates. He embarks on what appear to be seemingly random and out of character actions. In the Dr Know booth he displays a real imaginative leap. Yet mostly his actions stem from his programming to show a capacity for caring and understanding. He simulates emotional attachments but cannot develop the kind of moral framework that would have resulted in the police arresting the real killer of his slain client. Nevertheless his simulated empathy is so good that we can empathize with him.

Empathy however suffers with a mechanistic view of life. People start treating each other as objects to be manipulated. Once everyone is an object, morality is a tool to be used or discarded rather than a definingly human characteristic. You can eventually launch other objects through the spinning blades and disolve objects in acid or tear them apart with hydraulics for entertainment with impunity. And those objects can resemble people so closely that to all intents and purposes they *are* people, at least as far as the audience’s emotional attachment is concerned. As long as they don’t speak or look or sound too attractive, as David did.

David’s begging for his existence swayed members of the Flesh Fair crowd but seriously would you keep your PC simply because it begged you not to throw it out? Programmed empathy is not the same as real feeling. I suggest that this only worked because the audience were already working from the philosophical premise that orga and mecha were equivalent on some levels. It is part of the man=machine zeitgeist. And if those are equivalent at some levels, then at what point all levels? The unquestioned philosophical values mean sometimes we ask why instead of why not.

Mechanistic explanations of behaviour are derived from worldviews where control of other people was paramount in the thinkers’ minds. It takes a while for philosophy to catch up with life and most of us always inherit a kind of socially-acquired philosophy that is centuries out of date. Even if it were only decades out of date, we aren’t *that* far from generations who thought of classes of people as little more than cannon-fodder for their wars and factory-fodder for their industries. Now we are shown David, a product designed for a specific application, a human need. Emotional-fodder. Yet on one level, AI shows that only other human beings really fulfil that human emotional need.

Another result of equating machines and people too closely is that we start forming emotional attachments to non-people–objects, tools. And we start romanticising them. One scene in which David shows he is a non-person is when he grips his human brother and pulls him down into the swimming pool then simply sits on the bottom. Of course only one of them will die but he doesn’t understand this or else he sees his obsession with Monica as above the value of other life. Again it comes down to empathy–the ability to put himself in another’s position, which is a result of not seeing anyone as different from an object.

David clearly lacks empathy although he simulates various aspects of it, such as assisting others and learning through imitation. This is part of his programming and again is a limitation of the designer operating without full knowledge. It is also a direct result of a designer/programmer creating emotion based on the assumption that he knows all about human beings because they can be reduced to a bucket of chemicals. A roboticist’s view is that orga and mecha are not only morally equal but can be analyzed in the same terms. Therefore mecha can be built to the same specifications as orga, notwithstanding the fact that orga comes without specifications. Again it derives from a mechanistic view of the universe.

Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Yet still there is this feeling that we have come so far so fast that we must really understand everything in the world around us because we have so much knowledge. I don’t think that is any more true of emotional knowledge in particular than it is of AI generally and that acknowledgement of our lack of complete understand is part of why this film will fascinate for years to come.

Another friend of mine commented: The importance of the film was not really the issue. It may well be important in the context of film-making, and maybe there are such things in this film that will influence the making of future movies in a way that will benefit me, the humble movie-goer. I didnt think it was ‘important’ in a social or historical context any more than Terminator, and I would certainly never argue that was an important film.

So, importance to the film industry was not what I was looking for when I watched AI. I was looking for ‘watchable, interesting, engaging, moving, humorous, sad, entertaining etc.’ Any one of the above would have done, but I got none. If I got ‘important’ I was unaware of it, and could not have given a toss even I had been aware of it.

I’m not looking for importance to the film industry either. Films for film makers are generally pointless (mine being the exception, of course. Ahem). I do think this is an amazing story–part drama, part action–following a non-human’s doomed quest not to become human as so many other films have done but to discover love in his/its own terms. It is sad in a very tragic way and although it contains many beautiful images I see it as primarily a film to provoke thought. Definitely a departure for Spielberg but very much in keeping with Kubrick.

A.I. sets out to explore an old theme–can we make an artificial life-form that’s indistinguishable from ourselves? It’s the theme of Pinocchio and of Frankenstein as well as any robot story ever told. In fact, it’s also the theme of any science fiction encounter with aliens. Usually aliens are shown as people who not only speak our language and resemble us physically but who share our values.

David actually does speak our language and resembles us outwardly. However, A.I. is importantly different from other tales because it doesn’t slip into anthropomorphism. David is a non-person. His world is limited by a series of subroutines as he exhibits a programmed version of love which lacks real empathy. And that all means we can never empathise with David (or any of the robots) and, although this is the reason it alienates most film goers, it gives us a whole new perspective on intelligence, emotion and what it means to be human.

I suspect that my friend hated it precisely because it is about non-people. Films are usually most powerful when they’re about other people in situations similar to our own. A.I. is not just about someone in a situation outside our experience, it’s about a character who can never be a ‘someone’ in our terms.

Intelligence without real emotion, without empathy, is truly alien and with the exception of a few sporadic attempts in Star Trek we’ve never really seen it done like this before. Even in Trek, the rock creature that burned its message on the floor was just trying to protect its children, the Borg resorted to having a queen to give viewers context and the Q is a playful imp. They are all reflections of ourselves. A.I. is a paradigm shift for storytellers and its echoes will eventually reverberate through our culture just as Mary Shelley’s seminal tome became a standard before it.

To start with, both psychologists and computer programmers will have to face the consequences of a world where human beings cannot be fully understood through human-machine/brain-computer metaphors. A.I. shows that the illusion has limits. That’s not all, because a large chunk of our philosophy–and therefore our culture–is based on the man-machine metaphor. It goes back to Descartes and we’ve reached a stage in our scientific and technical development where we’re beginning to realise we’ll have to think again. A.I. is the first visible step on that rethink.

Chasing The Lady

July 8th, 2001 July 8th, 2001
Posted in Fire and Light
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I never would have had the slightest interest in finance, investment and the stock market if wasn’t for a friend of mine called Jill. Jill is producing her own films and when I first met her about ten years ago she was working in teaching. In a few short leaps and with a lot of effort she transformed herself and her career, albeit nearly burning out in the process. I have a lot of admiration for her. She’s blazing a trail and I consider her a peer.

About three years ago Jill phoned me up and asked if I’d mind a financial advisor getting in touch with me. I’m immediately suspicious. I love wasting telephone canvassers’ time on the phone and resent any kind of hard sell. So I’m, “Like why?” And she tells me this guy is really good and has helped her out on a film project and if I go for a free no obligation consultation it will help her out although I don’t have to. So I say sure. Soft sell I can buy into.

Okay, well I go to see this guy James and he is a Ferrari driving wideboy with a certain amount of charm and a certain amount of slickness and an expensive suit covering both. He works in a big open plan office with a whole team of slickers all with phones glued to their ears or vacant looking clients sat at their desks.

I listen to James while he explains to me why most people don’t invest money. In fact, why most people don’t save money. “Do you know why most people don’t save money?” he asks. He doesn’t pause for my answer but provides it, “Habit. Habit. Pure and simple. That’s the secret of saving money. How big is your overdraft now? I’ll bet you’ve always had that overdraft haven’t you?” I nod in my best impression of a vacant looking client. “You always will. All of my clients have overdrafts but the difference is now they have the habit of saving too.” Ooo-kay…

Jameses’ mouth runs at the speed of his sports car while he gets me to think about how much cash I’d really like for my pipedreams–“Ooo, about a million to start with…”–and the various ways I can go about building capital to achieve all that. A lot of it is pure BS and I let it drift over me. Some of it makes sense. Then he comes to a key question, “What do you think you would invest in to make the best returns possible on your money?” Of course, he plays this in from left field to catch me off guard so I pause and blink.

Before I continue, let me share a bit of background. Chase the Lady is a card game based partly on strategy and partly on luck. I think it’s also called Hearts and the way it’s played is each person lays down cards, following suit if they can and acquiring tricks. Hearts are worth points so if you can’t follow suit and lay a heart, the person winning the trick ends up with those points. The queen of spades is worth points too, so you try to dump her on some unsuspecting player too, hence the name of the game. The object of the game is to end up with as few points as possible.

Now, here’s the trick. If you can win all the hearts and the queen of spades you can zero your own score or double everyone else’s. This immediately makes you the winner. However, it’s a highly risky strategy to play because if anyone else spots it, they will hold back on one of the cards you need and take some damage themselves while dropping you in deep doo-doo (cf. my garden). If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to play dumb and innocent right up to the last minute before going in for the kill and taking all those points to win.

So, here’s James and really he wants nothing more than to sell me some kind of index-linked front-loaded insurance policy and maybe take out an endowment on my house too. But I listen because he is right about several things including that I’m currently investing nothing, I can afford 20 a month (for starters) and I have big plans. I play kind of dumb and innocent and listen to him right up to this question, “What do you think you would invest in to make the best returns possible on your money?”

Pause. Blink.

My first answer is property. James says yes, okay and that’s alright and pooh-pooh’s my repayment mortgage (more fool him, I think). But what else? So I say I’d invest in growth businesses. And he asks how I would choose those (because unbeknownest to me at that point he’s got his tracker fund all ready and waiting). And that question stops me. And it hits me. What would be my best possible investment? If I could invest in any company, what would I chose as the surest possible high return on my investment? What business would I believe in more than any other?

There’s only one possible answer.

Given that I’d play the Chasing the Lady game to win outright and never mind that it is high risk to try that double-or-nothing strategy, I *know* who I believe in. Me. And that’s my answer. If I’m going to invest in any company, I’m going to invest in mine. I have more faith in my abilities, my own intelligence and my own creativity than nearly anyone else I know. And I know myself better than I’ll ever know someone else’s business. So at that point I my decision becomes clear: I’m going to invest in my own film making future.

And here I am. Okay, I had kind of already made the decision that I wanted to get on with film making after working in television. But the thing with Jameses’ questioning is that it firmed up my resolve.

So now I’m remortgaging my house and lucky me, I was right about investing in property and picked the right place in the right location. My equity has built up far more than I dreamed it would. Meanwhile, okay, actually getting things made is proving to be far slower than I’d hoped but I’m getting on with it. I did buy the front-loading insurance tracker thing from James because, well I wasn’t actually saving anything and what’s 20 a month (or 120 as it became). It’s still small potatoes and hasn’t seriously affected my overdraft and I have other investments now that back it up.

I certainly would never have had an interest in the Motley Fool if I hadn’t started doing any kind of financial planning. But the bottom line is, my main investment is still myself and I leverage what I can into my own future–though not absolutely everything. There’s still some comfort zone with other fallbacks for the future and I didn’t want to give up absolutely everything that makes living now enjoyable either. That was the other thing Jameses’ talk illuminated for me. He was so adamant about investing for the future that I realised very quickly his schemes could eat up all the money needed to have some kind of quality of life in the present.

Nevertheless, as far as investing in my own future goes I feel like I’m playing a hand of Chase the Lady to win. There is a certain amount of strategy, a certain amount of luck, a certain amount of playing dumb and a certain amount of shrewd calculation. Film making is an expensive, challenging, complicated yet rewarding mistress, as far as I’m concerned, and she’s rewarding in so very many many ways, not just financially. Careerwise, I can’t think of any other lady I’d rather chase. Careerwise, that is.

Boom Boody-Boom Boody

July 7th, 2001 July 7th, 2001
Posted in It's life, Jim...
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My head goes / boom boody-boom boody / boom boody-boom boody / boom boody-boom boody / boom boom boom!

Or more accurately, it goes bang bang bang thud saw saw thud. BANG! Yes, me old mate and new neighbour has been laying his hardwood flooring again. He has opted for a subtle approach to this. Subtle like a ton of bricks raining from the sky, that is. bang bang. Two o’clock in the morning, 7am… there’s no guessing when I’m going to be woken up. BANG bang bang bang. And the trouble with that is that it’s too hot to go straight back to sleep. So when dark rings start appearing around my eyes, don’t be surprised if some shortsighted zookeeper locks me up mistaking me for a panda.

Boom boody-boom boody…

I console myself with a vision of my other neighbours all building a wicker man out on the field next to our homes and dancing (naked probably–they’re all mental) around a huge bonfire at two in the morning tomorrow when more hammering starts. They are chanting, “Trepan the floor man! Release the evil spirits!” Then they drill a hole in his head and his stupidity escapes with a hiss. Maybe he turns out to be a helium balloon and he deflates when this happens. As the air rushes out, he whizzes round and round before finally drifting into the bin in his garden.

Boom boody-boom boody…

Incidentally, after my success at weeding and digging my own garden, the neighbourhood cats have decided that it now resembles the largest litter tray they’ve ever seen. They must just be purring with delight as they empty their bowels there. The orange peel I put out to prevent this dried out in the sun after five minutes and is now having absolutely no effect. Well, other than attracting ants. I’ve put out fresh chunks of citrus peel which cats are supposed to hate but they seem immune now and an abundance of cat crap continues to appear.

One of the people I work with has suggested that if I pee on the garden the cats will detect that I’ve marked my own territory and stay off. Somehow this prospect seems less than appealing, even if I do take it out in a jug for the Christening ceremony. On the other hand, it’s getting pretty disgusting out there anyway. Damn. I ought to be saving that pee to take the varnish off Gary’s flooring.

Boom boody-boom boody…

Hmmm… Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone. You know, “Oops, oh sorry mate! I was keeping this jug of pee for my garden to keep the cats off but I appear to have spilt it over your floor instead. Here, let me do my hobnail boot dance now as that will increase the surface area to volume ratio. This simple application of the Laws of Thermodynamics will ensure that it evaporates faster.” I’m not sure he’ll get that last bit. In fact, I’m not sure he’d be able to add two plus two as I strongly suspect the only thing he’s ever got on an IQ test is drool.

Boom boom boom!

Well, goodness gracious me!