Radio Interview

The following is an interview I did today with Tom Hayes on his show “Upbeat with Tome Hayes.”  Talking about several topics relating to the essays that have been posted on this site thus far.

Link is to interview is here

Full link:  http://www.blogtalkradio.com/tjhayes/2015/07/15/upbeat-w-tom-hayes-and-brian-culkin

Ex Machina

Of all the thematic binarities Ex-Machina employs to develop its narrative–man vs machine, morality vs power, secrets vs transparency–it is the one never overtly spoken of that has the most profound effect.  For in thisbinarity, the mise en scene of the entire film, the primal dialectic ofnature (the pure and untouched natural world, that is) is confronted with thedigital.  The traditional opposition, on the other hand, of nature vs. technology has always been articulated through the confrontation of nature with specifically analog technologies such as oil spills, factory pollution, and toxic waste, which most often serve as our metaphors for this hostile relationship of nature vs. man made technologies. It is an obvious, and by now well-worn thematic opposition, namely that nature is clean, while technology is dirty.

But it is this very point of reorganization within Ex Machina where we can be most disturbed in our framing of this binarity. For the technology used in this film is, of course, digital technology, and this specific form of technology is not quite so obviously threatening to ecosystems.  Rather,digital technology seems, at first glance, to be in sync with nature itself. It is, after all, clean, minimal, ‘organic,’ and contains no external waste. Digital technology’s ostensible effect on nature – never conspicuous in such outward events as a nuclear accident or an urban smoke stack – makes it seem entirely harmless. But that is the precise problem this film forces us to confront.

The narrative begins when an employee, a star programmer at a Google-like technology firm called Bluebook, wins an internal company contest that has as its prize a chance to spend a week with Bluebooks’s reclusive founder at his personal compound. We don’t know where this compound is located, as we are never told, but we can guess based on the scenery that it is somewhere close to either the North or South Pole: southern Argentina, Iceland, the southern island of New Zealand, or maybe even northern Canada. The point is that the compound is immersed and surrounded by pure nature, a postmodern Garden of Eden.

The employee, Caleb, is helicoptered in to meet the Sergey Brin/Elon Musk/Ray Kurzweil inspired character, Bluebook founder, Nathan. Shortly after introductions, and following the disarming of Caleb’s star struck attitude towards Nathan, Caleb is told the truth of the contest’s real purpose: Caleb has been selected to perform a Turing test on a recent model of Artificial Intelligence, known as Ava, that Nathan has programmed in his seclusion. The Turing test, initially theorized by computer pioneer Alan Turing, goes something like this: if you are interacting with an intelligent machine and you cannot tell whether it is human or not, then it has passed the test, it is bona fide AI.

The Turing test, however, was always theorized to be undertaken as a blind test. That is to say, the person would never be looking at the machine directly, but rather interacting with it from afar, or from a screen. However, the test Caleb is charged with performing is an open version of the test. He will  come face to face with the potentiality of Artificial Intelligence, yet clearly perceive that this humanoid is in fact a machine of appearances: she has robot arms and legs, her head is partially exposed as machine circuitry, yet her face is human. So, an apparently simple test to be performed, with this outward constitution of machine properties giving the game away, herinner self, her digital soul, becomes far more difficult for Caleb to grasp in simple black and white terms.

This is the consistent mind bend that Ex Machina gives us: we know that Ava is a machine, yet we don’t, or at least we are confused that we don’t. Ava, sadly, has more human qualities than most contemporary human beings. She is present, attentive, engaging, mirroring, and inquisitive. She displays a very real sense of human presence. Her vulnerability is palpable. Her honesty is intoxicating.  This is contrasted with the inner life of Caleb, a computer programmer, a man who has ostensibly been stuck to a pixillated screen, writing code and constructing algorithms for the past ten years. We learn in their interactions that Caleb’s parents were killed in a car accident. We learn that he lives alone, in a one bedroom apartment on Long Island near the east coast headquarters of Bluebook. We learn, that he has built in defenses, like everyone else, walls around his heart, and protective mechanisms that seal his very humanity within himself.

What do we see on the screen?  What is this existential rupture that appears before our eyes?  It is a man, Caleb, who has paradoxically become a machinethrough his conditioning and interactions with postmodernity. And it is a machine, Ava, who paradoxically behaves like a human through her programming language.  It is an opposition of itself and within itself.

As Caleb and Ava’s sessions continue, a relationship begins to develop. Caleb is captivated by her qualities, her honesty, yet he resists his feelings because he knows her truth: “she” is a machine. This complicated relationship is further extended when the power inside the compound is cut during a session, effectively disabling Nathan from monitoring their interactions, and Ava delivers a bombshell to Caleb, Nathan is evil. Do not trust him under any circumstances.’ The power is suddenly turned backed on and Ava changes the topic so effortlessly, so subtly, that you wish you could have been as coy the time you got caught bad mouthing your boss behind his back.

Caleb is shaken by Ava’s revelation, but this is not a compete surprise to him either. First, Nathan is a severe alcoholic, a person with tremendous internal dysfunction. Second, he also demonstrates traces of megalomania, this frightening desire ‘to be God’ as he comically asserts in one scene in his relation to being the first human to write a program of AI.  Now, in a way even Kafka could never articulate, Caleb is essentially caught between the binary:  do I trust the human who I know is bad, or, do I trust the robot whose true nature I don’t even know? 

This decision is eventually made by the dual factors of Caleb’s feelings for Ava developing further after additional sessions, but also when Caleb, while Nathan is passed out, logs on to his computer and sees clear visual evidence of Nathan ‘killing’ past versions of Ava. He is forced into realizing the inevitability of Ava’s fate if he does not intervene before his week at the compound is up.  He also realizes, while Nathan is unconscious, that Kyoko, the silent female Japanese house servant, (the only other character in the film) is actually a model of Artificial Intelligence as well, having a sophisticated outer layer of skin that covers her entire body and effectively makes her machinic nature unsuspected.

In the next session, during another power cut, the plan is made: the next day Caleb will get Nathan drunk, hack into the security system, and flee the compound with Ava, freeing her from her confinement, thus liberating her humanity. However, unbeknownst to Caleb, that morning Nathan had installed a battery powered camera (subtly proving analog technology more effective) so that he could monitor Caleb and Ava’s interactions in case of another power shortage. Nathan, learning the truth, confronts Caleb and surprisingly congratulates him for his deception.

That is to say, Nathan essentially says to Caleb,  ‘Thank you, Caleb. You showed me, by falling in love with Ava and trying to rescue her, that she did in fact pass the Turing test. She is, without question, Artifical Intelligence.‘ However, Nathan has underestimated the extent of Caleb’s commitment. Caleb then reveals that he has already disabled the security system, effectively freeing Ava from her private room into the larger compound. Nathan, turning to the security monitor and seeing Ava roaming the hallways freely, punches Caleb in the face and knocks him out before heading towards a final confrontation with his creation: the digital self of Ava.

We now come to the climactic scene, in which the filmmaker, Alex Garland, reveals the truth, the essential horror, of the situation in a multiplicity of cinematic meanings. In my reading of the film’s text the most important moment of this scene is absolutely not the violent encounter between Nathan and Ava. Rather, it is the entirely unsettling encounter between Ava and Kyoko, the other intelligent machine, before Davis appears in the hallway. Note that Kyoko has appeared entirely docile throughout the film. She prepares sushi, cleans the house, and even has sex with Nathan. But when Ava, initially seeing her in the hallway, approaches and whisperssomething in her ear, her internal programming is reconstituted. The machines, recognizing their respective ontological truth as digital entities, join forces against their programmer.

Nathan appears in the hallway and Ava  sprints toward him and violently attacks, jumps on him and begins to strangle Nathan. Nathan regains the upper hand when he gets on top of Ava and bashes her arm off with a metal pipe he had brought with him as a defense. But then, in a moment taken directly from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Nathan is stabbed in the back with a kitchen blade. And rather than saying, ‘Et tu Brutus?’ it is Caesar 2.0 in the form of, ‘Et tu Kyoko?’ Nathan is literally and metaphorically stabbed in the back by his own program. Kyoko, the docile houseworker machine, is transformed into his assailant. Nathan manages to “kill” Kyoko with a violent blow to the head when he turns around, but Ava rises, takes the knife from his back and stabs him in the heart, killing him.

We are then further amazed when Caleb, upon awakening from his injury, is made privy to the violent turn of events: Ava has killed Nathan.  And now Ava, after the event, has gone to Nathan’s private quarters where she finds a ‘body suit’ and puts it on, shielding her machine torso and limbs, thus becoming human. She is now effectively, from the outside at least, ostensibly human.  But Caleb, now waiting for Ava to keep her word and escape with him, is abandoned by Ava, left locked inside the compound unable to leave. Ava ultimately has no interest in Caleb and on her own accord, leaves the compound and takes what would have been Caleb’s helicopter ride, back to the heart of Western Civilization.

Again, the machinic theme that Western cinema has been wrestling with since at least 2001: A Space Odyssey: at a certain point, the machine progresses on its own, leaving the human behind. The final frame of the film shows Ava on her own in an urban shopping mall. The shadows on the ground–an obvious nod to Plato’s cave–give us the final message: we are lostin technology, and must, one day, somehow, make our way out of the cave.

Nightcrawler and the Murder of the Real

At first we will point at three forms of violence. The primary form is that of aggression, of oppression, of rape and spoiling: the unilateral violence of the most powerful. Another form is that of historical, of critical violence, the violence of the negative and the transgression of revolt and revolution (included maybe the violence of analysis and interpretation). Both are determined forms of violence – effects that are related to specific causes and to whatever form of transcendence, be it that of power, of history, or of meaning.

These are, I would say, the violence of the first type and of the second type. But now we have to deal with a violence of the third type, a very different one. More radical and subtle: the violence of deterrence, of consensus and control, of hyper regulation and deregulation altogether – the violence of the virtual, a meta-violence in some way. Violence of forced consensus and interaction, which are like the plastic surgery of the social. Therapeutic, genetic, communicational and informational violence …. violence of a general extradition of conflict, of death. Violence which paradoxically puts an end to the violence itself ….

The image is violent because what happens there is the murder of the Real, the vanishing point of Reality. Everything must be seen, must be visible, and the image is the site par excellence of this visibility. But at the same time it is the site of its disappearance. And that something in it has disappeared, has returned to nowhere, makes the very fascination of the image …

| Jean Baudrillard, The Violence of the Image |

A recent Hollywood film that captures the ‘third type of violence’ articulated by Baudrillard is the excellent Nightcrawler. Like any critique of the global media apparatus as it relates to the disruption of concrete social relations – in which digital subjectivity and networking has intruded upon the most intimate and vulnerable theaters of human contact – Nightcrawler gives us the irony of the entire situation: the individual becomes entirely alienated in the face of the virtual, so, rather than retreating from it, he instead delves deeper into it as an answer to the very problem it created.  More of the problem becomes the solution to the problem.

In the opening montage of Nightcrawler a series of images, images of one of the largest and most populated urban spaces on the planet appear in a montage before the audience.  However, by the end of the chain of individual frames, we notice something missing, something so obviously voided from the succession of forms that I imagine many in the audience entirely fail to notice: the absence of human presence. Our introduction to Los Angeles, a metropolitan area of over 16 million, is apparently empty, entirely vacant of social relations and human contact.  And it is this very insinuation, the absence of social reality, forms the entire crux of deeper meaning we can excavate from Nightcrawler. Reality, the concrete relations of the social body, fades away in the presence of an ever expanding global media apparatus; the virtual paradoxically becomes the dominant theatre of ‘reality’ and the human subject suffers deeply in the excruciating psychological and relational consequences of this transition.

We are not simply referring to the blatant distortions and less than honest framings of social reality through media manipulation and narrative construction that is realistically portrayed in the back offices of a local news station throughout the film, we can also feel something even more chilling, more abstract, that is transpiring before us. What we can rather sense is something that goes far beyond the creation of sensational news stories through contrived and selective narrative methodologies, but rather, something that Baudrillard referred to as the murder of the Real. For in Nightcrawler, nothing becomes more confounded than the attempt to grasp for reality itself.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a sociopath of the DSM variety. His life demonstrates a more intense and acute kind of contemporary alienation that is generically experienced during breaks from twitter feeds and the endless ‘conversations’ supplied by the various media forms. He is utterly alone and, paradoxically, our initial contact with Bloom shows a man that does even use social media and has little contact with technology. That is to say, Bloom lives in the reality of ‘reality.’ But this, ironically, is the precise problem that Dan Gilroy’s vision attempts to elucidate in our initial rendering of Bloom’s psychic and relational dysfunction: the media is so big, one doesn’t even have to use it to experience the traumatizing effects. And within this mirrored world of social alienation and ruptured human relationships in the face of digital encroachment, the world itself has been engulfed by the media, the virtual representation, and Louis Bloom moves in the shadows of this emptied world alone; stealing, killing, and conniving.

But it is this exact point where the narrative develops: Bloom’s world, the real world, is empty and he wants in to something that will offer deeper meaning and purpose to his current life. The irony, however, is that this meaning Bloom seeks is not to be discovered in the authenticity of concrete human relationship and contact, for that is a hopeless pursuit as he knows better than most. His meaning is rather to be found in the virtual itself, in the capturing and creating of reality with a technological interface, which progresses in a startling, horrifying vector.

His ‘in’ is gained in the form of an opportunity to work as a nightcrawler. A nightcrawler, a free agent videographer that uses police scanners to track in real time any form of human disaster; car wrecks, murder, and most specifically ‘suburban tragedy.’ Upon acquiring video, local news stations bid for the most graphic, most obscene coverage that can be used to captivate their audience and subsequently acquire ratings which lead, logically, to capital.  Rene Russo plays the station manager responsible for acquiring nightcrawler footage and soon develops an intense and comically dysfunctional relationship with Gyllenhaal. Their entire relationship and dialogue focuses on a disturbing, yet with a pitch perfect ‘realism’, fixation on locating and framing violence to be used in newscasts. It is obvious to the point where the audience may miss it entirely, that reality for both characters has nothing to do whatsoever with anything that is not filmed and distributed through an integrated network of media distribution. ‘If its not on video, it’s not real,’ could be the motto for both characters. For in both characters, we see an interior life so ravaged by the very thing they desire more of, that the virtual has paradoxically become a place of solace, a place of work, a place of connection. I often feel that this very logic employed by Russo and Gyllenhaal, which seems to encapsulate so many users of digital applications: using it makes me feel alone, inferior, and disconnected, I must use more to compensate, has a similar logic to the active heroin addict or alcoholic: the solution to the problem of heroin is more heroin. Does the audience see this logical fallacy?  They may, but Gilroy never makes it an obvious conclusion. He hides it perfectly throughout various interchanges between the characters.

The ending of the film, which aptly chronicles Louis Bloom’s brilliant nightcrawler capabilities into a climactic scene where all of his sociopathy, cinematographic literacy, knack for creating narratives, and total alienation conspire into tragedy. However, what most certainly does not happen for Bloom is some sudden awakening, a deep examination of his behavior and its causes. There is rather a kind of visceral hopelessness we can sense in Bloom for any type of responsibility, social integration, and compassion. His character, the interiority of Bloom, has been entirely emptied and nullified in reality by the virtual and only in the space of the virtual does he consider that any solace be found.

The opening quote from Baudrillard is most appropriate in my own reading of Nightcrawler. “Everything must be seen, must be visible, and the image is the site par excellence of this visibility”  There is no doubt to the darkness and emotional vacancy displayed in this film. And those closest to the virtual, to the image itself being portrayed as reality, are the ones most deeply disturbed. Yet, at the same time, the less dramatic loneliness and alienation often accompanied by our own attempts at making and maintaining virtual friends and staring at pixilated screens can provide insight into the fleeting nature of reality and the emotional consequences we face in its demise.

MEDITATIONS ON THE MISSION

This short essay relates to a film that I wrote and directed entitled, ‘The Mission.’ I have shown the film twice publicly and is currently being put through final post production rearrangements. The film deals with the social and cultural theatre of “ghetto” basketball formation in the decades following World War 2. Specifically looking at public housing, The Great Migration, and the social chaos produced by the American city’s process of deindustrialization; basketball emerges as not only a game, but a sport with multiple social functions.

Here are some thoughts I have about basketball and its rise as a national sport from the mid 60’s -1990’s :

1. It socially functions better than any other sport in both reduced and multiple spatial settings.

2. It was integrated, naturally, into the city park structure.

3. In addition to being embedded with city park planning, it was also integrated to postwar public housing design and construction.

4. It provided creative solutions to its reformation in the wake of the vast and intense social order breakdown associated with the prewar industrial economy.

5. And perhaps most importantly – its economic accessibility made it a sport that was available for those with limited economic mobility .

To elaborate on each point

1. Basketball performs in both reduced and multiple spatial settings. Is there any sport that can be effectively played and practiced on such small dimensions as basketball, i.e. the reduction of space? Played at the end of a driveway, in an alleyway, with a makeshift hoop attached to the side of a public housing project; or in its standard form: a playground court of regulation dimensions. And as a logical supplement, basketball can also be played upon a multiplicity of settings. To put it bluntly: find me any place to secure a basket, give me a ball, and a potential basketball court emerges. It is these interrelated features of basketball — it’s ability to be effectively played regardless of spatial or formal limitations — that were fundamental in basketball’s association with postwar urban life.

2. Basketball is perhaps the only sport planned and integrated within virtually every city park — a basketball court featured in the city park is often the essential feature of its design. This structural relationship — municipal parks to the game itself — was deeply influential on the development of basketball as a social activity within the city, and intended or not, the game’s emerging popularity became an unstated imperative of urban planning in it of itself.

3. Basketball was often an essential design feature to the construction of public housing, a key site in postwar cities and culture. Public housing, apart from its status as bona fide social disaster, did much to cement the association of basketball with inner city life. Nearly every single public housing project — although often absent basic amenities such as heat and hot water as the projects descended into virtual war zones in the 1970’s and 1980’s — still maintained the possibility of basketball as a positive social activity due to the fact that the sport had been integrated to the scope of both its architectural and social philosophy. Dr. Robert Fishman, urban historian at the University of Michigan, notes in The Mission: “One purpose for creating a lot of open space in the projects was to open up space for playgrounds. And this was an essential part of the design philosophy: that “the street” was evil, and the worst thing that could happen to kids was for them to be hanging out on street corners. On the other hand the playground, especially organized team sports, were seen as the salvation of youth. So, if you were going to plan a better neighborhood, the first thing you did was to eliminate the streets and leave plenty of room for open space and especially for playgrounds. Because that would be the future of youth, that would save youth from poverty and crime.”(8)

4. We can speculate that the unlocked potential of basketball’s radical and creative energy that was unleashed during this time frame, occurred not in spite of the social instability and economic dysfunction, but because of it: basketball became both a social mirror and aggregator throughout this period. When we view basketball’s earlier practices — a la iconic figures such as George Mikan or Dolph Schayes — we are naturally inclined to think of basketball as being analogous, almost like boxing, to a measure of factory logic: rational, regulated, and linear; Mikan’s famous hook shot is perhaps the best example of basketball performing with an “assembly line” logic of sorts. But then, in an almost miraculous turn of events — and we can never underestimate the truly radical transformation of basketball that took place in the postwar decades —  the prior version of basketball (the factory like Mikan style of play) is eventually replaced by the style of iconic figures such as Earl Monroe, or eventually in the person of Magic Johnson; this change in basketball logic is nothing short of shocking. But this is the precise metamorphosis that would be endlessly worked out on the inner city playgrounds throughout the post war decades: no look passes, reverse dunks, alley oops, and the true symbol that became emblematic of the formal break with the basketball of disciplinary logic: the fast break. These materializations, these elements of basketball’s emerging de-centered logic, are in some respects simply byproducts of the factory’s closure — rational space, planned production, and administered labor all being lost as global financial services and technological systems begin to replace them — and the corresponding emergence of a de-centered global economy. So basketball in this period of urban history became a mirror of the social disruption that enveloped city space: boring set shots are substituted for spontaneous slam dunks. And at the very same time basketball became a sort of social aggregator: continually taking the pieces and fragments of the industrial fallout and inserting them into its own logical edifice: perfectly embodied in basketball legends like Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas, and the player I view as both the symbol of its peak, and the beginning of its decline: Stephon Marbury, the legendary 1995 graduate of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York. (9)

5. Basketball is perhaps the most economical of all sports to play. What could be more financially accessible than a pair of sneakers and a ball? This may be the most influential aspect that brought forth the intimate relationship between city dwellers in postwar urban America and the game of basketball: its economic accessibility.