Computer ChessA Few People I Met at the Movies in 2013

Jackie Kimball

I’ve written before about how Dan Sallitt gets close to his characters in ways that would make less fearless directors squirm in discomfort. In The Unspeakable Act, he’s introduced us to his most heartbreaking, endearing, and baffling protagonist yet. Jackie’s dilemma—her unseemly love for her brother—blots out all possibility for a normal sex life. Another filmmaker might invite us to gape at her, but Sallitt forces us to meet her with unflinching eye contact. The film is like one of those ecstatic, decorum-rending conversations that can only happen when two people find a way to hack through the underbrush of conventional taboo, and confront each other frankly with their most private desires, fears, and agonies. A character like Jackie sparks the realization that we rarely meet the subjects of movies so directly; the dramatic philosophy that guides most movies instructs filmmakers to break people up into parts and project these fragments at an angle. In its crudest form, this technique asks us to believe that people’s lives consist of Oscar-clip-ready fits of sobbing, shouting, or resolute monologue. Where most films aspire to put Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory  into practice, Sallitt takes the opposite approach, melting the emotional glaciers that stand in the way of a fuller understanding.  This movie is more than the story of a gross infatuation; it’s a quiet transgression of the boundaries that most films erect between their characters and audiences, and a testament to the flawed and deeply lovable core of every person.

Theodore Twombly

Theodore Twombly’s desire is almost as taboo as Jackie’s: he’s in love with a computer operating system. And who wouldn’t be, if it were voiced by Scarlett Johansson, whose breathy absence thoroughly upstages the inertia with which Joaquin Phoenix drifts through the role of Theodore? Spike Jonze’s Her purports to be a study of our contemporary emotional matrix, or the way in which our fleshy romantic lives are mediated by the cold shell of the technology that encases us. Juicy stuff without a doubt, but the film’s potential is squandered by the protagonist to whom it pins its inquiry—a stunted adolescent whose imagination doesn’t reach beyond the bounds of his corporate-catered lifestyle. As Richard Brody has pointed out, Her takes the consumer society in which it is set for granted (at the film’s NYFF press conference, Jonze tossed off, as if he considered it a given, the observation that urban life was getting better and better, and expressed sincere enthusiasm about “the Jamba Juice palette”). Through Theodore, Jonze expresses trepidation about the direction technology is taking us, but it never occurs to character or director that the problem may not be quasi-mystical advances in computing power, but the way that power’s use is dictated by those who control it. Theodore is an attractive figure to anchor an ambitious, way-we-live-now styled movie on because he’s a prized consumer, a demographic formed into a person. White, male, straight, with disposable income and loneliness to spend it on, Theodore is exactly the sort of person that, say, a sentimental studio-indie film from a big-name director like Jonze might be marketed to. I don’t mean to argue that the financial vectors behind a work of art preclude its potential to become a thing of its own, but Her keeps blindly returning to the economic logic that makes it possible. Take, for instance, the scene in which Johansonn’s operating system presents Theodore with an anthology she’s compiled of the personal letters he anonymously ghost-writes. Leaving aside the implausibility of such a volume’s publication – wouldn’t it be in the interest of Theodore’s employers to hold on to the rights to those suckers, given the discretion involved in such an enterprise? – Jonze invests the event with an import that only makes sense in the context of our web economy. Theodore’s life work is the equivalent of one of those blog-turned-paperbacks stacked by the counter at Urban Outfitters; based on the excerpts of this outsourced emotional labor that we get over the course of the film, they may be even more mawkish and trite. That Her sees this gesture – a repackaging of one commodity in the form of another – as the type of valuable connection that computer technology makes possible, rather than an indication of our failure to build a more humane environment in our new home of circuitry, goes a long way towards explaining why this film leaves me so cold.

Tsar 3.0

For a fuller (fuller in its willingness to declare itself confused and scared shitless) view of what our interactions with technology look like today, look no further than Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess. Pay particular attention to the scene in which Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) recounts a late-night experiment with the Tsar 3.0 program. Tsar begins to respond to Beuscher’s questions with inexplicably mysterious answers, suggesting capacities far beyond the intentions of its creators. This hilarious, terrifying dramatization of the Turing Test is the center from which the rest of the film radiates. Computer Chess seizes on this encounter between man and machine, reprograms and redeploys it as a series of confrontations between blurred binaries: black/white, male/female, linear/circular, film/video, U.S./U.S.S.R., mind/soul, war/game, human/feline. The movie’s miniscule budget and limited setting might make it look small, but its intellectual reach is encyclopedic. Computer Chess is nothing less than an origin myth: a glance at the moment when the difference between people and computers first became indiscernible.

Robert J. Birgeneau

Frederick Wiseman has spent his career documenting the inner workings of a different kind of machine, the institutions on which our society is built. Like contemporary America’s other great institutional observer, David Simon, Wiseman’s eye for the failings of our social systems is matched by an appreciation for the human capacity for good. Yet rarely does any figure emerge as central in Wiseman’s panoramas to the extent that Birgeneau does in At Berkeley; and even more rarely does Wiseman’s approval of that character and the system he presides over resound so clearly. The director has made a point in recent interviews of nodding in approval at the former chancellor’s administration: “There are a lot of people who think the only true subject of documentary films are unpleasant things and nasty people, but it’s just as important to show people who are intelligent, sensitive, and responsible.” Lacking knowledge of the university’s recent history, I was inclined to accept this view when I first saw the film. Birgeneau’s eloquence in outlining the challenges the University faces, as well as his own accomplishments in dealing with them, make him easy to like; and his toothy grin and earthy croak make him an appealing camera subject. Wiseman is right to let Birgeneau trumpet his achievements, which include a record high of low-income student enrollment and a faculty agreement to accept furloughs in order to reduce layoffs. Nevertheless, it came as something of a shock to discover that Birgeneau went on to authorize the use of force against Occupy protesters, leading to a vote of no confidence and possibly factoring in to his resignation. Obviously I can’t fault Wiseman with failing to shed light on this episode – it occurred well after he had finished shooting – but its discovery still somehow made At Berkeley’s admiration for Birgeneau more suspect. The film now strikes me as a near-masterpiece: near because of how thoroughly and subtly it understands institutional logic, but not quite there because of its failure to imagine any alternative to that logic. Wiseman knows that an element of administration-resilient incalculability is essential to any laboratory for creative thought, as evidenced by a scene in which a professor invites her students to “think outside the box” while acknowledging that her structural role is to maintain the boundaries of the box. Although Wiseman is unparalleled in his ability to map the intricacies of the box, in At Berkeley his notion of what lies outside is much fuzzier. The student protests that occur at the climax of the film are seen in a characteristically lopsided fashion: we get sequences of cheering and speechmaking, but the important moments of the episode are seen from the administration’s point of view. The protesters’ demands are listed by the administrators who mock them, not the students who frame them in the first place. The students leave the occupied library before night falls, but Wiseman isn’t there to document their decision to do so. Could this be a conscious gesture made as a sign of the protesters’ willingness to work with the administration? This is impossible to tell from the film’s footage of the already-vacated library, suggestive merely of a movement’s exhausted and inconsequential failure. I don’t know whether it’s an outcome of Wiseman’s choice to spend more time with administrators than with students (dorm life is conspicuously absent), or a matter of certain subjects simply being easier to preserve in the presence of a camera, but the result is that At Berkeley never takes any existing critiques of the university very seriously, even as it abstractly acknowledges the necessity of such critiques. In Birgeneau, Wiseman has found a figure whose brilliance for institutional navigation equals his own; and a man whose duties take him to the edge of the cliff, where his capacity for fulfilling them drops away. Wiseman has made a career of thinking like Birgeneau, mastering the ins, outs, and what-have-yous of complex social arrangements. Still, something in me wishes that Wiseman had gone where Birgeneau was unwilling to, into the anarchic abyss where institutional logic no longer holds true. I’m well aware that to ask this is to ask for something other than a Frederick Wiseman film, but the creeping sense that At Berkeley is little more than one logician’s (exquisite) portrait of another makes me eager to rewatch and reevaluate.