To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have NotTo Have and Have Not established the team of Bogie and Bacall. Lauren Bacall was cast for the role when she was a 19-year-old model. Humphrey Bogart was a 45-year-old established star. And yet, they sold the relationship. Bacall was the only woman tough enough to match Bogart without sacrificing any of her 1940’s class.

The film plays to both actors’ strengths. Like in Casablanca, Bogart is the rough-around-the-edges good guy who you might mistake for a bad guy at first. He’s an American who takes on a role perfected by Kipling and other British imperial writers. He’s been accepted into the foreign culture — and sort of seems to run things. But then, the war interferes with his exotic, yet comfortable life.

Bacall carries herself like a beautiful woman who knows she’s beautiful, and has never really had to prove it. She accepts her looks as a simple matter of fact. When she meets her equal, they play and tease – even though they realize as clearly as the audience does exactly what is going on.

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Why I Doubt Artificial Intelligence

What is it that truly separates us from the robots?

AI - Professor Hobbys Robot.pngIt’s more than just a self-awareness. OK Google has a self-awareness of a certain sort, but it’s certainly not a person.

We people (and many animals) have a consciousness, a sentience, a ‘qualia,’ that even a robot or computer that passed the Turing Test might not. And whether or not artificial intelligence can have this same sentience or life-force is the question many sci-fi films answer in the affirmative. (i.e. Ghost in the Shell, Her, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.)

A scene in Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence: AI illustrates the question.

Professor Hobby: Tell me, what is love?

Robot: Love is widening my eyes a little bit… and quickening my breathing a little… and warming my skin… and touching my…

This robot is an example of what is called a “philosophical zombie.” The lights are on, but nobody’s home. The robot is intelligent, self-aware, and might even self-replicate. But it’s not alive – at least not in any of the ways that deeply matter.

Professor Hobby: You see, what I’m suggesting is that love will be the key… by which they acquire a kind of subconscious never before achieved. An inner world of metaphor, intuition, a self-motivated reasoning, of dreams.

In order to figure out if a device made from synthetic material can have this sentience, we have to figure out why creatures made of organic material can have it. And that is what philosophers call the “hard problem of consciousness.”

            The tidiest conclusion is to deny the problem exists. That way there is no qualitative difference between us and a robot (or a thermostat). Philosopher Daniel Dennett does just that. In both his book Consciousness Explained and his popular TED Talk, he purports that this subjective “qualia” is just an illusion. You don’t actually have a self in the way you think you do. The sum of your parts don’t add up to something immaterial.

The primary argument Dennett makes against sentience in his book is that “qualia” is difficult to explain and is in many ways ineffable. I don’t find that argument convincing. I’m quite a skeptic, but just because you have trouble describing something with our currently knowledge doesn’t mean it does not exist. Especially when I am constantly being provided with evidence of its existence! Descartes said it – cogito ergo sum. The fact that I have a subjective, conscious self is, in fact, the only thing I can be truly sure of. It’s much more likely that Dennett has made an error in reasoning than it is that I am a philosophical zombie.

Consciousness poses a challenge to the materialistic views that Dennett holds. He is convinced that matter and physical processes are all that exist in the universe. Consciousness doesn’t easily fit into that world view, and so denial is more useful than confronting the “hard problem” head on.

                 But you don’t necessarily need to reject materialism to think the problem exists. Dennett’s fellow pop atheist Richard Dawkins [2] subscribes to the theory of emergent consciousness. According to this idea, activity patterns in the brain give rise to consciousness. The new thing (consciousness) can be said to emerge from the old, simpler thing (brain activity) in a way analogous to how hurricanes emerge from air temperature activity. But unlike meteorology, the idea of emergent consciousness isn’t a scientific one. At least at this point, it’s at the level of philosophical possibility. (I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop for a longer, better exploration of the idea.)

Emergent consciousness is an attractive idea. It makes intuitive sense, and it seems to allow for a materialistic worldview without the need to deny experiential evidence of sentience.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s true. This model could provide the possibility of artificial intelligence that is conscious. If my brain patterns create consciousness and your brain patterns create consciousness, why couldn’t a robot’s brain patterns create consciousness?

             My first objection is that brains and computers think differently. It’s not simply a matter of complexity or processing power or speed. I readily imagine that one day – maybe this century, maybe not – computers or synthetic networks will exist that have more complexity and can think faster than the human brain. I think there’s a qualitative difference between us and “them.”

Logic Gates

Logic Gates in computer programming.

What most of us see when we interact with machines is the physical output. Behind the user interface is code, which describes magnetic poles and whether an electric switch is on or off. Scientists have wired computer chips together in ways that resemble neurons, but they’re functionally still chips, not brains. Ditto for possible complex quantum computers. Although computers can be programmed to learn natural language and mimic human irrationality, they themselves are rational.

People are capable of thinking through algorithms and a small few of us can process binary, but that’s not how we normally exist. We’re not on/off. A calculator will display an error message if asked to do something irrational. Human beings are completely capable of believing two contradictory things at the same time – to Mr. Dawkins’s constant frustration.


Logic gates do not apply to Ophelia

Human existence is rarely rational. It’s difficult to even describe it in a rational manner. The most complete way to describe a computer program might be to look at its code.The most complete way to describe a human life might be to see a performance of Shakespeare’s works. I’m not trying to be romantic. Our minds are much better at understanding and remembering through fictional stories than through straight facts.

And these stories communicate things we have trouble putting not just into rational sentences, but into any words at all. Computer language has precise, exact terms – a forgotten ‘>’ can wreck havoc on an entire program. Human language is fungible and elastic, with words that evade universal definition and purpose. Although OK Google might learn some of the “rules” of human language, it always has to translate it back into its own binary code of 1s and 0s. My thought, however, is in the same chaos as my words. There’s something about consciousness that seems fundamentally ineffable, which may put it forever beyond the access of a mathematical system.

               There are many more elemental problems to consider with the possibility of artificial consciousness. Does the type of matter that makes up my brain make a difference? Is emergent consciousness a special property of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon? Does consciousness require a spinal cord? In Ghost in the Shell, the “Puppet Master” appears to achieve sentience without any of those things.

very queer isnt itIs it possible that consciousness a special property to Earth-live that can be inherited, but not duplicated? Are there undiscovered physical forces that exist in the brain or body that give rise to consciousness? If so, will these forces be discovered one day or not? Could they be replicated with synthetic material or not?

These are just some of the questions we’d need to answer before building a conscious machine. I don’t think it’s happening anytime soon. There are some philosophers who think we’ll never figure out how conscious works. The is the position of the “New Mysterian” philosophers, including Colin McGinn. New Mysterianism doesn’t claim there is necessarily anything supernatural about consciousness. Dennett and Dawkins’ fellow anti-theist popularizer Sam Harris endorses this position:

“But couldn’t a mature neuroscience nevertheless offer a proper explanation of human consciousness in terms of its underlying brain processes? We have reasons to believe that reductions of this sort are neither possible nor conceptually coherent. Nothing about a brain, studied at any scale (spatial or temporal), even suggests that it might harbor consciousness. Nothing about human behavior, or language, or culture, demonstrates that these products are mediated by subjectivity. We simply know that they are—a fact that we appreciate in ourselves directly and in others by analogy.”

            Outside of committed materialists, most people across the world assume a mystical basis for consciousness. It is so unlike anything else we observe in the world, it seems supernatural. When we describe consciousness, we find ourselves most readily drawn to speaking in spiritual language – whether from Bronze Age religious texts or New Age YouTube videos. Some philosophers are using words like “pansychism” or “panprotoexperientialism” and invoking “quantum mechanics” and an almost magical term.

In science fiction, the world of film almost can’t help itself but use this same language to portray the acquisition of consciousness by robots. Stanley Kubrick showed the evolution of consciousness as something beyond our ability to grasp by giving astronaut David Bowman a mystic vision beyond even that of the medieval saints.

AI Artificial IntelligenceThe Kubrick-developed A.I. Artificial Intelligence has a similar structure as 2001, and a similar resolution. In the quest to “become a real boy,” David fixates on the Pinocchio story, and believes the Blue Fairy can grant him personhood. David’s 2,000-year vigil in front of a wooden carving of her at Coney Island resembles a Marian devotion, while his interaction with the evolved robots once he is thawed from the ice brings us back into science fiction. The future synthetic creatures he meets are, like David, longing to bridge the gap between themselves and humanity. What they’re missing is a soul. Engineering and science aren’t enough; Kubrick & Spielberg had to add an ineffable element. They found the answer in David’s unconditional love for his mother. Experiencing love, as Professor Hobby explained, is the difference-maker between “real boys” and robots.

Whether we visual it as tapping into a global consciousness, or being endowed with a soul by a creator, a robot’s awakening from machinehood to personhood is a gap to be bridged. I’m sympathetic to the New Mysterians on this one. We, as a species, can’t even describe the experience of consciousness fully or clearly. I doubt we ever will. And we can’t translate poetry or religion into computer code – at least not without losing what gives it fire.

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Anti-War Films of World War II

Army of Shadows (1969) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville

Army of Shadows follows the story of the French Resistance under Nazi occupation during World War II. Wikipedia says of the film, “While portraying its characters as heroic, the film presents a bleak, unromantic view of the Resistance,” and cites the Criterion and AV Club articles on the movie after its 2006 release in the United States.

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows

Although Army of Shadows certainly is bleak, I disagree with idea that is is “unromantic” or that it somehow deconstructs ideas about the war. Rather, Army of Shadows romanticizes its heroes and their struggle in the way only the French can — one of the central characters debates whether or not he ought to run from a firing squad. Once he is rescued, he pauses to ponder his own existence. The fictionalized Resistance members have the trendy cigarette-smoking, death-accepting cool we think of as stereotypically French.

It’s also nearly impossible to make a World War II film without being pro-war. Everyone left of Lew Rockwell agrees the allies needed to fight the Nazi and Imperial Japanese forces. The alternate history is too horrible to even comprehend.

Dresden victim -  Woman 's body in an air-raid shelter

Dresden victim –
Woman ‘s body in an air-raid shelter

I can only think of a few anti-war films set in that action. There was the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which focused on atrocities committed by allied forces, rather than axis powers, as is usual. As many editions of Vonnegut’s book now note, he derived much of his historical description of the bombing of Dresden from Holocaust denier David Irving. Certainly, the allies committed wartime atrocities. No army in history has fought a war with clean hands. But it is extremely difficult to criticize immoral acts made on the allied side without appearing to justify or create an equivalent with those on the axis side. The current Archbishop of Canterbury opened a large can of worms when he called the bombing of Dresden “controversial” a year ago.

Germany has made a few anti-war films, as a part of its postwar penance. Das Boot and Downfall are two of the most popular. They focus not so much on German war crimes (it would be perhaps too difficult to navigate the sensitivities involved to do that), as they do on German madness. In both films, the German people sin by acquiescing to their war-crazed leaders, but the blame is still laid on those at the top and not on the volk at large.

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

Japanese director Isao Takahata’s 1988 animated film Grave of the Fireflies is the only film I’ve seen that portrays the horror of allied carpet bombing without abrogating the responsibility of the axis powers. It shows war as something that rains from above, like a powerful hailstorm. Those dropping the bombs are kept faceless, and largely nameless. This way, it can create sympathy for the children living in an axis country, without creating anger against the allied powers. If anything, Grave of the Fireflies hints that the Japanese Imperial system is to blame for bringing the plague upon the nation.

I write this to help contextualize Army of Shadows, and the French reaction to it in its initial release. Despite its lack of overt nationalism, it is still a pro-war film. “Do what needs to be done,” the characters tell each other.

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows was released in 1969, in the aftermath of the May 68 protests against right-wing President Charles de Gaulle, and the Algerian War. Both events made the French left skeptical of nationalism and anything that might glorify the Resistance, which de Gaulle led. So a film that portrays the French Resistance members as gritty heroes who gave their lives for the fatherland? Wasn’t going to fly.

Decades later, its re-release in the United States went much better. Our left is more open to entertaining right-wing ideas – particularly in war. And, de Gaulle never left as bad of a taste in our mouths as he did in France. We don’t have to worry much about domestic politics overseas, so we get a rosier picture of our foreign allies. Churchill, as everyone knows, is much more popular here than in Britain.

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Eyes Without a Face

Eyes Without a Face (1960) dir. Georges Franju

Eyes Without a FaceGeorges Franju’s 1960 horror film Eyes Without a Face reportedly shocked audiences when it was first released. Some people walked out because of its grotesque portrayal of skin grafting, while others allegedly fainted. I say allegedly, because everything in the film seems nice and PG (maybe PG-13 if the studio was trying to avoid the ‘family friendly’ label) by modern standards – or by the standards of France’s own Grand Guignol, for that matter.

The plot is of pretty standard Alfred Hitchcock Presents quality. The ‘shocking’ twist doesn’t pack much of a punch, since the title and the movie poster tell you pretty much exactly what happened to the young woman in the film.

eyes_without_a_face_franju_dogsTwo things embed the film into my memory. One is the pervasive sense of creepiness that Franju seeps throughout every scene of the film. He seems to have shot it after studying parts of James Whale’s Frankenstein. Not the large, operatic shots of the laboratory and the lightning that we remember. Franju takes the tense, slow shots. He trucks the camera across the frame, making us feel both claustrophobic and watched.

The other is Maurice Jarre’s score. This was the second film he scored, and was only two years away from his soaring tracks for Lawrence of Arabia. You can hear some of his themes in the YouTube trailer below. It evokes a deadly circus – a house of mirrors to fit the film’s theme.

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Audition – Slow Boil Feminism

Audition (1999) dir. Takashi Miike

auditionI love horror films with a slow, patient build. Audition is the best at this I’ve ever seen. It follows the same basic pattern as Hitchcock’s The Birds. The first 90 minutes of a film with a 115-minute running time plays like an elegiac romance. Aoyama is a lonely widower. His son and best friend both urge him to remarry. Both the setup and the melancholy reminded me more than a bit of Ozu’s Late Spring. We don’t approve of Aoyama’s plan to hold an “audition” for a fake movie in order to find a bride. Or the way he falls for Asami so quickly. But he seems so lonely that we forgive him.

We also overlook the misogynist winks he gives his son when he brings home a pretty girl. These would be a tip off in any other film. But we like Aoyama, and director Takashi Miike has set such a dull mood that we allow these gestures to pass.

Audition Bag - The Birds - Tippi Hedren first attackBut we can’t overlook whatever is in the bag at the audition winner’s home. Miike leaves a few clues about what is to come — just as Hitchcock added in a few small bird attacks to whet our appetite while the main horror is still on slow boil.

Audition - Eihi ShiinaThese two paths — Aoyama’s quiet misogyny and the hints of Asami’s violence — converge for the final 20 minutes of the film. No spoilers here. But be warned that this is an awful date movie.

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Neo-Tokyo_AkiraAkira was one of the first major anime features to be widely distributed in the U.S., making it a cult classic that has influenced generations of filmmakers and nerds. In 2011, The Guardian summarized its importance to the genre:

“There are certain science-fiction films, such as Blade Runner and Kubrick’s 2001, that are so well realised that they can influence the genre for decades to come. Now Akira has been around for some 23 years (and is due for a Hollywood remake), we have seen how long a shadow it has cast not only over science fiction but also animation, it sits comfortably alongside those other lauded titles.”

Akira ScientistI admired the way Akira squarely targeted grown-ups, but I couldn’t help but feel like I would have enjoyed the film more if I had seen it first as a teenager. There are explosions and terrific set-pieces and random bits of philosophy thrown in, like a very good Christopher Nolan film. Thrown in, not woven in. Like even a very good Nolan film, Akira is very interesting, but lacks artistic consistency.

Akira KeiAkira‘s plot and characters leave a lot to be desired. Why are the clown bikers trying to kill the protagonists? Who are these children with super powers? What exactly happened to Tokyo? What is the resistance resisting? None of these questions are taken up, and none of the characters seem to have much of an internal life. They feel more like paper-thin tropes than actual people.

AkiraAll of these disappointments are more than made up for by Akira‘s stunning animation. It’s stunning to remember these frames were all hand-drawn. This level of detail in a full-length feature film was a direct contrast to the laziness of Disney’s “dark age” during the late 70’s and 80’s.

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The Cranes are Flying

the cranes are flyingThe Cranes are Flying is a Soviet film released a little more than a decade after the end of The Great Patriotic War, and four years after the death of Joseph Stalin. It was only well after Stalin’s death, under the protection of Khrushchev’s thaw, that director Mikhail Kalatozov was safe to make the film.

The Cranes are Flying would have bothered Stalin. It’s not unpatriotic — instead, it’s patriotic in the wrong way. Under Stalin, Soviet films portrayed the war as a glorious victory, with the common people and the nation’s strong leader working hand-in-hand to defeat the Nazis. (American and British films largely did the same during this decade.)

Cranes are FlyingBut The Cranes are Flying skips the victory. It exposes the war as a tragedy – one that killed about 1 in 10 Russians. The battle scenes show soldiers trudging along in misery, and being killed for no clear reason. It shows the people at home suffering through no fault of their own, denied even the halo war widows are given in the novels.

The Cranes are Flying - Tatyana SamojlovaThe Cranes are Flying coalesces this suffering into a single character. Veronica may have lost her only true love in the war. She has also lost her home, her family, her self-respect, her social standing and has undergone tremendous trauma. She moves through wartime Russia as almost a non-person. She keeps her pain inside of her.

Then the film climaxes, and Veronica lets it all out. Her pain is transformed into a pain of victory, and is identified with the greater Russian cause.

Some leftists saw the film as anti-war. I disagree. Much like Saving Private Ryan, it acknowledges the horror and pointlessness of war, but without denigrating the cause. The movie legitimizes the trauma of the Russian people, and encourages them to see their pain as an act of patriotism, rather than a cause for discontent against the ruling regime.

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