Citizenfour / The Imitation Game

Two films I watched lately. I did not plan to see them one after the other and, at first, I did not see the connection between the two. Now… well… you know… like two peas in a pod…

The movie The Imitation Game draws its title from Turing’s homonymous paper. The idea behind the paper was to figure out if it were possible for a machine to imitate a human being well enough to pass as one. He suggests that instead of trying to find out an answer to the question of whether machines can think or not we should actually ask if we could imagine a digital computer that would do well enough at imitating a thinking being.

The idea was not new. Hundreds of years ago Descartes asked himself about the possibility of thinking automata. For him, animal bodies were simply machines, although machines too weak to respond appropriately (i.e., humanly) to human stimuli. What about the brain itself? Leibniz, in his Monadology, challenges us to imagine something like a brain but only much bigger, big enough for us to walk about inside it and see how the whole works, how connections are made, how one movement leads to another, etc. Differently put, let us think of a brain big enough to see its synapses firing, its connected neurons pulsing with small electrical charges. Are we also going to see a trace of consciousness somewhere there? How are we to tell? Leibniz thought it wouldn’t work, it couldn’t work. Hence, consciousness (and therefore thinking) is to be found in a simple, separate, immaterial substance.

But I should go back to the movie. I think there are two main arteries pumping life into this motion picture: first, there is the quest for finding the code and second, there is the drama, the personal touch. Neat idea, overwhelmingly common though. The trouble is, the drama is mostly sketched, lacking deep characters (who do not really attempt going over stereotypes). And the febrile search for the code is not exactly… precise. As it is usually the case, less would have been more. Concentrating on one thing and doing it well would have most certainly brought the rest along.

Turing’s life was more complicated than we are tempted to think watching the movie, an impression facilitated by the fast pace at which things seem to happen on the screen, as if explaining his sexuality, his way of thinking and being would somehow be engaged in a race with breaking into the Enigma machine. As if they kept thinking: “We have a couple of hours to get there and we have to explain everything. Oh, my furry ears and whiskers!” Or most of it, at any rate. What Turing’s team was building at Bletchley Park was a computing machine, a bombe, a precursor of the modern computer. Turing did not invent it, but he did bring the whole field a step closer to the modern digital machines. If interested, there are other ways to find out how a bombe works and what was their connection to the German Enigma device than watching this particular movie. One might use The Imitation Game as a stepping stone to wanting to learn more about the whole thing.

On the other side, I think that squeezing a whole life into two hours of screen time is a very risky business. I might be wrong, but I would be happier if I were given the chance to think more about little than little about a lot. This seems to be an almost impossible enterprise today.

Or is it?

Well, let’s have a look at Citizenfour! This is a movie about a computer guy who finds out that something fishy happens at work, something which he could have let happen and moved on, hiding behind a “none of my business” kind of thing. He did not. He reacted, much like a human being would when he realized the seriousness of the breach in trust so many people put in their communication devices. He realized he had a conscience. And no, this is not a fictional movie: it’s a documentary. Snowden decided to leave his country, friends and family, language and his comfortable life just to share one secret with the whole world. In Citizenfour we see him in a hotel room talking with a couple of journalists about about one’s right to privacy being violated (at an unimaginable scale) and his intent on setting the record straight (as much as he can, from the very disquieted position he is in).

It is uncanny to see all the precautions he would take when only typing his password. Thoughts about people building up conspiracy theories out of everything might cross your mind as well. Thoughts about trusting someone like Snowden to tell the truth, would also come up. And how could it be possible that someone like him (a normal human being) could have access to so much information and that he would be willing to go public with it, knowing that his decisions could have devastating consequences (for him as well as for the whole world)?

Nevertheless…

What Turing wanted to achieve (i.e., a machine that can do lots and lots of calculations in a tiny amount of time in order to crack a code that could lead to saving thousands and thousands of lives every day) has already been built and we are now thinking about how likely it would be for a machine to indeed be so sophisticated that it could imitate a human being (think of projects like cleverbot or Experiments in Musical Intelligence and of ideas behind movies like Ex Machina). At the same time, since these machines have become in many ways the backbones of the society, they can also be easily used to spy on those employing them. It’s as if, ironically, we are playing the Enigma game again and we try to crack open the secrets that we are ourselves, each and every one of us. The machines are trying to imitate us. Again.

What am I to do now, Citizenfour? Is this our fuku or is it our zafa? Are we cursed for trusting our private lives to our gadgets and thus make ourselves more vulnerable than we ever thought possible? Or are we blessed to have someone looking over us, taking care of us and helping us when needed? Who are we to know if we live our lives under the sign of a spell or that of a curse? Where shall we look for that consciousness… thingy… substance… or whatever, Mr. Leibniz? DSC07660

Birdman

For this post, I would have liked Sanchez to follow me.

With sticks and toms and all that brass…

Just like Panza.

And his Don.

For what else is Birdman if not a Quixote of sorts? Who else could be more virtuous in exercising his ignorance than Don Quixote?

This movie took me by surprise. I heard people talking about it but I refrained from reading anything beforehand. Those long takes, the wide-angle close-up shots, the music… they all took me aback. Real and surreal at the same time. Here and there and now and then and loud and quiet and funny and dark…

Death, cultural legacy and cultural significance, a fear of having nothing to say to the world or of not being able to say anything, an all-encompassing anxiety each time one scrutinizes oneself are the sort of ideas often present and closely investigated by Inarritu’s movies. Birdman is not (why should it be?) any different. Riggan dwells in two worlds simultaneously: ours and a world of superheros, to which only he has access and which is, quite often, not a tranquil place. Except for the scene at the very beginning (where he seems to levitate) and for a “flying through NY in the good tradition of the Birdman” scene, there is mostly violence, broken furniture, a giant mechanical bird jumping on the roofs of buildings and squashing helicopters, a menacing baritonal voice pushing Riggan to choose. Yes, choose. He could have the whole world at his feet if he would go the Birdman way. Why does he need all the trouble he puts himself through with staging a play? He could have action, he could be a hero. Why not? What is there to lose?

Love, that’s what it is! The play talks about love. Riggan only wanted to be loved.

He was loved as Birdman, true. But was that all he could be? A character in a superhero franchise? That’s easy to love. Wasn’t he an actor too? And a writer? And a director? What about a father? Was he loved as a father? Did he find any love as a husband? Staging the play, he tried to be good, he tried to matter as a human being, not only as an image of a superhero.

His wife seems to have a special place for him, even if that place is also charged with fear. His daughter, I would think, is his image more than one would suspect at first. Spending time on the roof of the theater, wanting to be not only a daughter or an assistant, twitting on his behalf (only once, for first and last time), screwing Mike just because.

And then her looking up in that last scene, even if one could take it as a message of hope, testifying to the real superhero powers of the Birdman, it might just as well be a sign that she received the baton and she has started her own quirky race. Perhaps she’ll be even more quixotic than her father. After all, she’s always asked for “dare” in the “truth or dare” game. Never truth. Truth is so pettily predictable, isn’t it?

Thus, you are left on your own in the end and you can choose whichever conclusion you wish. Magical realism? Perhaps. But don’t forget the failures! Hope? Perhaps, as there is also a crushing evidence to the contrary.

Truth or dare, Don Quixote?

Certainly not truth!

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P.S.

But then… what if… he is already dead? What if he shot himself and what we see as the closing scene are only his terminus thoughts, à la Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the brain? What if the Birdman won in the end, but only by sacrificing Riggan, all for a flash life, a few nanoseconds long?

Books, exhibitions, movies…

Books:

Sarah Thornton – Seven Days in the Artworld. Well, this was an eye-opening book. I did not read it for the plot (there is none) and the writing itself is rather weak and often self flattering. There’s not much in the way of an analysis of the artworld (from artists to the art market) but more of a show off, naming names and places and putting oneself there and then, together with these people who are the important ones in the world of art. Well, but that’s all I needed. Made my list already and started checking up. I just have to keep up the tempo (although it is a bit maddening – I have to go through all the names pretty much every day). And I can only hope it will bring me somewhere one day. The more I know, the better.

I cannot believe it took her 5 years to write this book!

Julian Barnes – Arthur and George. A long book. A mixture of policier, documentary, historical novel. But a good one. Hello, Sherlock Holmes! BTW, I think next week the new movie will be in the theaters already. Might try to see it.

Richard David Precht – Liebe: Ein unordentliches Gefühl. Am through with half of it (reading in German is not my forte – I need time) but I am not sure it’s going to be the wow I expected. And I simply hate the ad hominem arguments popping up here and there. That’s not nice, Mr. RDP! Not nice at all!

Susan Sontag – On Photography. Good essays. There is lots to learn about photography in this book. It’s a good analysis, written at a time when film photography started to be mass available. A bit outdated, one would think. Well, I don’t think so! What we go through now with digital is pretty much the same with what happened in the 60’s and 70’s. Again, many names in the book. Some I knew already, some I had to look up. In any case, I have revised (a little bit, at least) my relationship with photography. I need to take things a bit slower when I take pictures. I need to think a bit more and not leave almost everything to the accident. “Just shoot! There will be a good frame you could choose in the multitude you make!” – well, I have to say good bye to this approach. I have to crank it down a notch. Take it slower… L’instant decisif has nothing to do with hurrying up. It has more to do with waiting and waiting and waiting until the time is ripe. Take the scene in, make yourself invisible, keep being interested…

Exhibitions:

Zoe Leonard – At MUMOK. The photographer gathered quite a lot of life experiences. All the things she’s been through, all the jobs she’s done! I like her BW photos. The ones of railway tracks and the Niagra falls and of trees swallowing up fences and iron rods. I am not that sure about the Analogue series. I have to think about it a little more before I come to a conclusion.

Gender Check – (MUMOK) still ongoing for me. I only saw a part of it. Must go back again (which I can do now as often as I want with my new museums card).

The Impressionists – Albertina. There are some nice paintings in the show but nothing to die for. I found the explanations and the examples of fake paintings (a Monet landscape put next to a copy, etc.) pretty obvious. But I started thinking about the evolution of pigments and is something I will be looking into rather soon.

I found it funny that in the upper right corner of a Cezanne painting hang a piece of a paper tissue the cleaning lady used to clean the glass screen with.

What do people who work in museums do when their work there is done? I do not mean the curators, etc. but the cleaning people, the workers hanging the art. Do they know who the artists are? Do they ask? Do they go home and check their prices on Artprice or Artnet? (Well, I cannot imagine they’d have an account for it but you get my point). In MUMOK there were two well built guys, more in the way of bodyguards than museum guards who were walking here and there along a wall and who kept talking and talking. They talk about what car does X drive and if it works well. It was a BMW, it was supposed to work well. They talked about Y’s wife and her tits. But they also talked about the world wide web. One of them had a bit of troubles remembering what the WWW stands for but together they solved the mystery in less than 10 min worth of walking. What do you want? I think they were a bit over 40. Things like this happen… Don’t they?

Movies:

Das Weiße Band – A bit of a shock with this movie. After two and a half hours, when the it comes rather abruptly to an end, I kept looking around thinking “Was that it?”. I wanted more! Haneke did a very good job. He tried to make this movie in Austria but did not find anyone who’d be willing to support him financially. In Germany he had more luck. And now the prizes start raining in… I saw an interview with him where he talks about the work and how they spent months only trying to find the right people for the roles. They screened about 7000 kids and they chose only 10. Pretty much the same was with the adults. They combed the surroundings in northern Germany, where they shot most of the scenes, but did not find enough people. Half of the extras (about 100) come from small villages in Romania. Why? That is where Haneke found people who still look like farmers living in Germany a hundred years ago. All he was looking for were real farmers’ faces… However, the most interesting thing about the movie is the fact that with it Haneke wanted to point out a possible development that lead to the emergence of fascism and NS in Germany.

Avatar – Schwarzenegger at the Golden Globe Awards joked, “If you did not see this movie… you are perhaps the only one…” Judging after the money it makes, it seems to be true. Anyhow, one does/should not see it for the story (we know it and we saw it a million times) but for the special effects, the 3D, etc. Only to get an idea about what the Motion Picture industry can make these days. Well, it can make a lot. Or should I say what WETA can make? Using computers running Linux in that far corner of the world that is New Zeeland. Well, WETA can make a lot.

But let me tell you a little story: Margaret Mead went to Samoa in the ’20s to study the primitive societies. And she wrote a book about it – Coming of Age in Samoa and she pointed out how people there live differently than those in the western world, how the adolescents develop without the “emotional and psychological distress” as we are used to in this part of the world. Astonishing! Well, it was astonishingly untrue. What she saw in Samoa was actually only what she wanted to see. The same here, with Pandora. It is not another world, but the same old one. Just put another pair of legs on this horse and move its nostrils at the base of his neck, make the people a lot taller and make them… blue, etc. It is not an Experience as one would want an Experience to be. Someone called it a Techno Kitsch. I think I might go with this description.

Soul Kitchen – If you don’t feel like doing much in the evening, go see it. It is fun but otherwise not much. It tries to be something it is not (namely, an American movie). But anyway… It’s funny…

Lately

Don’t really feel like writing lately. I want to, I sit at the computer and start typing but words don’t come up. After several good minutes of tossing around I abandon it altogether and try something else. Reading books and blogs, watching movies, planning challenges for the new ubuntu 9.10 I installed on the laptop I have at work, etc. But not writing. The brain in the vat thing; but with a twist. Not for the good though…

Anyhow –

It was Paris. Four days in the city. Planned to go from coffee house to coffee house and restaurant to restaurant (by way of metro) and nothing else but we ended up walking around for miles.

musee d’Orsay + Orangerie. James Ensor – quite a good exhibition. And Ensor was quite an odd fellow. Spent some time watching the impressionists. Le dejeuner sur l’herbe – Manet, laughed at the youngsters trying to get a good and long view of Courbet’s L’origine du monde, etc. etc.
– the new Quai Branly museum (by Jean Nouvel) – one would need several good hours to really understand the whole stuff put on display there. I did not have that but I wanted to see the building. Which is impressive. Inside as well as outside.
The leather walls, the spiraling walkways…
– ended up (again) eating falafels in le Marais, Japanese at Kintaro, good French pastery on blvd. Beaumarchais, and brunching at Le Pain Quotidien. Missed having pancakes at Breizh. The weather was not particularly nice but we still had a bit of sun.
– the red wine was, to my surprise, almost everywhere we went, quite chilled. Did not expect that. What I also did not expect was the smokeless pubs and restaurants. That’s something I like and something I hate not having here in Austria. Bad, Ösies!
– met a friend I hadn’t seen for long and found out about the course she teaches, about Brasil and its impetuous urbanism.

 

Then, it was Carnuntum. The wine thingy in Lower Austria. Managed (again) to taste my way through the afternoon and discovered that the Oppelmeyer family had a good wine too. Of course, Nepomuk has perhaps more to offer for the price but the Pinot Noir 2006 from Oppelmeyer is quite exquisite.

Saw:
(again) Blue from Kieslowski and Zabrisky Point from Antonioni.
Politist, adj. (Porumboiu) – I really liked this movie. Of course, it seemed a bit too long at times but somehow it worked so as it was. One needs time to see it. You have to watch Cristi and you have time to think about what he’s thinking and to think about what you’d think if you were him. Opening and closing doors. Slurping soup… Using a dictionary in a police station… Good! (Thank you, A!).

 

Finished reading… Are you ready? The Time Traveler’s Wife, from Niffenegger. I read it till the end. And did not really get it. It’s not because it is a difficult book. It is not! Once you get over the time traveling thing, it is an unspectacular contemporary novel. Do you remember the dream you had when you were a child, the dream of a friend you’d have, only for yourself, with whom you’d spend time and to whom you’d be close without having to give any explanations to anyone? Well, the book is about that. And what’s more, this friend grows up to be your lover and your husband, etc. Having a cake and eating it too, sort of thing. But the feeling of loneliness is always there. The projection cannot get you over it. The two guys, Henry and Clare seem to me to be just two lonely people. Actually, since you take Henry to be Clare’s projection (which he is not but could very well be), this whole book is about a lonely person and her escapism. They don’t really have friends and their lives are pretty much the same over the years. But I could talk about it a little too long… I’ll cut it down here.

Now I read some stories from Lucian Dan Teodorovici. Which work. Somehow rustic and heavy but they work nonetheless.

 

A (very) small walk through the galleries in the first district…
Krinzinger – Kader Attia – French artist. A few photos, an installation [Po(l)etical] and a wall painted with water.
Mario Mauroner – Usle Civera Family Show – some of the stuff was interesting, some not. I liked the big paintings that look like books in a library.
(again) TB21 – Transitory Objects.

Varia

The Human Stain. The movie. I read the book long time ago and liked it. But it was only now that I got to see the movie. Which isn’t bad, but does not match the book. It’s not easy to match it, anyway, as it is pretty densely packed with stuff to think about. You simply cannot put all that in a feature film.

Philip Roth is one of my favorites (don’t think about the Nobel). I read several of his books and I like the sinew, the strength he is able to convey. And, of course, he’s funny. A different kind of funny, but he can sure make you laugh. The Anatomy Lesson, for example. I think I want to read this again. And The Dying Animal. That was quite a story. Or The Ghost Writer… Where could I find the time? Where? Where?

There is so much to do!

The last couple of weeks I lingered around with Calvino’s If on a Night, a Traveller…. I think I only read about 60 pages. This is definitely not a book that one could read in the underground or in chunks of 20 min. It’s a book that needs time. Hours… to be read slowly… I just cannot do that now…

I had to go back to Hemingway. And now I am almost through with The Old Man and the Sea. I do not need to write about it, do I?

I think (again) about studying. I just like the university. But how to do it? And where? Another Ph.D.? What for? I think it is because sometimes I need to talk to people about things other than work and daily life. Or hear other people talk about it. Time.

This week I saw a photo documentary on Lens (Ernesto Bazano). It was called Sisyphean Days in Cuba. Wonderful BW photos of Cuba. Perhaps I should call all this Sisyphean Days in Vienna. Sometimes there is too much…

The display of the A200 has a problem. Might be broken. Did the last trips in the mountains have something to do with it? I guess not. I have to send it to be repaired anyway. What am I going to do now without a camera? Well, I think I am going to buy some rolls of film and try my luck with shooting analog. The old Minolta sits in the cupboard and just waits. I never shot film with an SLR before so there is something new to try out. I already looked around to see what’s available and I think I’ll go with Fuji’s Superia. I have to shoot a lot less, I have to wait for the right light to be available and I have to learn how to use a new camera. A handicap that could turn into something exciting! And the field of view is so much different on a full frame! So much wider. Definitely will have to try it! I can only hope the weekend is going to be sunny enough.

There is another film I recently saw. The Reader. I think it might’ve been a very good movie if they hadn’t pushed the melodrama button. A bit too much violin and too slow reactions. Winslet was great but Finnes… already stereotypical. This is a movie one could talk long about. Beginning with the relationship between the kid and the woman, going through the moral issues and pride and ending with the film itself as an artistic product.

Not write about it but talk about it! It’s not a very good movie but it’s good enough!

Going up the mountains. This is something I always liked to do and now it finally happens more often (thank you R.!) Hohe Wand, Schneeberg, Rax. Each time a bit more challenging, each time more beautiful. The light was just perfect last time! I think every day with good light must produce at least a good photograph.

Some movies

Vendredi Soir – A movie of very few words. I guess the whole script would fit into a couple of pages. But again, it is one of those movies where one has to be patient to enjoy them. I must confess I was tempted several times to push the fast-forward button. I did not do it and it was good I did not. This movie has to be slow. If you’re in the right mood for it, you could do with an even longer version. It’s about love. It’s made by a woman and it shows. The gestures, the close-ups, the surroundings.  I liked it. It’s about two people meeting in a car and wanting to know more of each other. Not too much though – whatever they need to say they do it exchanging glances and touching. All this in a cold autumn night in Paris.

My Summer of Love – Somehow, it barges in. I did not know where to begin with it. Slowly it started to make sense. The stories of the two girls started to develop and grow into something. It reminded me of the other two girls, down in New Zeeland, with Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures). One of the girls actually looked a bit like Winslet. It cannot be!, I thought. And, indeed, it was not. It took a sharp turn and changed everything upside down.  Today I was thinking though why was it called My Summer of Love. Whose summer of love was this? What did they love, these girls, anyway? Each of them only projected their ideas of freedom onto the other. And played…

Ice Storm – That was quite a movie! I saw it years ago but was happy to watch it again. Pretty well done in all respects. I liked the 70’s feel to it and the absence of the need to explain. Why did this happen, why did that happen? It does not matter! I mean, it does, of course, but not for the film itself.  The explanations are to be made individually. You have to take your time and try to see for yourself. No good film would show a story that stops bothering you as soon as you got out of the theater. No explanation should be served up like popcorn!

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – a “re-run” (saw it long ago). A bit funny, a bit sad. Not a masterpiece but good to watch. Am wondering about the ratings IMDB gives to films. Yes, the readers/movie goers rate them, but I do not agree with many of them. Question of taste! The same happened to me with book reviews and since then I stopped reading them. Just have to do it!

Kinomontag

Il Divo. In Italian with German subtitles. Made me spend some time on the internet reading about the recent Italian history. Was this a good movie? Don’t really know. It happened a lot in it but it did not really have a plot line. I mean like a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Lots of characters have been introduced at a very quick pace. Some of them have been subsequently left to drift aside. But it was engaging and had a rather funny photography. Lots of red. Funky music (check the soundtrack!). And the legendary Andreotti quotes shined like diamonds on the background of the dark interiors where most of the action took place or through that  red Sicilian dust.