My own Imitation Game

Went to see The Imitation Game, and it’s pretty good!  Alan Turing was, of course, a seminal figure in computer science, and his imitation game, or Turing Test, provides an interesting way of thinking about artificial intelligence.

It turns out that I include a Turing Test in my novel Replica.  Here’s the setup: After an assassination attempt, President Randall Forrester has ordered the kidnapping of brilliant scientist Shana York so that she can create an android replica of him to take his place at public events.  Now she is holding a Turing Test to see if Forrester’s frightened aide, George Hunt, can tell the difference between the real president and the fake one.  The scene begins with Forrester confronting his replica, and continues with the test.

The door opened, and Forrester stood there, grinning. The grin disappeared as his eyes met those of his replica. Shana felt the android’s hand slip from her shoulder.

They looked like twins reunited after a lifetime—except there was no joy on their faces, only a kind of frightened fascination. Neither spoke.

“Do you still want the test?” Shana asked after a while.

Forrester glanced at her irritably, as if she had intruded on Replica coversomething that didn’t concern her. He managed a cold smile. “Of course. I just felt like spending a quiet moment ahead of time with my friend here. I must say he’s a handsome fellow.”

“You should check out the size of his ego, too.”

The smile didn’t waver. “That’s precisely the sort of thing I will be checking out,” he said. He advanced into the room. Shana had been obsessed with the man for so long that it wasn’t even disconcerting to be in a room with two of him. There could have been a dozen Forresters, and they would only have seemed natural projections of her state of mind.

Forrester went right up to the android, reached out a hand, and stroked his jaw. The android didn’t move. “He came from a scraping they took of the inside of my cheek,” Forrester said. “Is that a miracle or an obscenity? Both, undoubtedly. How does it feel to be an obscenity, my friend?”

The android didn’t reply.

Forrester looked at Shana. “What is he, the village idiot? That’s not the way I would act if someone insulted me.”

“He does what I tell him to do,” Shana responded. “If you want him to act like you, I’ll tell him to.”

“I see.” He turned back to the android. “If Ms. York told you to jump headfirst out the window, would you do it?”

The android slowly nodded.

Forrester laughed. “Ever get the temptation, Ms. York?”

“Yes, but I manage to remind myself that he isn’t you.”

“Of course. You know, I had you pegged from the start, Ms. York. But enough. Why don’t you run ahead while I make sure my friend’s tie is knotted properly and his hair is combed just like mine. I’m dying to find out how well George does in picking out his boss.”

Shana didn’t like leaving the android alone with Forrester, but that was stupid; soon enough she hoped to leave him for good. “All right. When you get downstairs, Randall,” she said to the android, “you are the president. Understood?”

“Understood.”

Shana left them and went down to the hot, dusty parlor where Hunt was sitting in a wing chair covered with a graying sheet. “A few minutes,” she said.

He nodded, and they waited in silence.

When the two of them finally came downstairs, Shana could feel Hunt become tense. Twice as many Forresters to be afraid of. She tried to pick out the real one. She couldn’t. “Well, George, are you ready?” one of them said. “Be careful, your job depends on this.”

The other one said, “That was clever. That was really clever.”

The first one’s smile faded a little. “Don’t patronize me, you zombie.”

“Oh, I get it—you pretend you’re me losing my temper. Too facile. You’ll have to do better than that.”

The first Forrester swiped at the dirty sheet covering the couch and sat down. “I don’t see why we have to do this in filth,” he muttered. “Come on, George. We’ll stop bickering if you ask us something penetrating and clever.”

Shana turned to Hunt. He looked as if he were about to become ill.

“Come on, George,” Forrester-standing-up said. “We can’t spend the entire campaign here.”

“Tell me about our education policy in the second administration,” Hunt offered.

“Oh, George, how dull. You helped write the plank, of course. For one thing, we’re going to propose a stiff tax on automated equipment designed to replace humans. We’ll use those funds to establish retraining programs for laid-off workers. We’ll also provide bonuses and other incentives for people who retrain as teachers. That way, we’ll provide both a disincentive for layoffs and a boost for education.”

“He could’ve got that answer out of The New York Times, George,” Forrester-on-the-couch remarked. “You and I know what we’re really up to. These disincentive laws are just window dressing. If we get the kind of majorities in Congress we expect—”

“I see the game,” Forrester-standing-up interrupted. “Take whatever I say and go it one better. Why don’t you ask him a question and let me act smug and superior.”

“Don’t interrupt me,” the other one said. “I don’t allow zombies to interrupt me.”

Forrester-standing-up turned on Shana, the veins in his forehead bulging. “Is that all you’ve managed to accomplish here—to teach this thing how to insult me?”

“Bravo!” the seated Forrester shouted. “What you’ve actually taught him is a good imitation of me with my dignity wounded.”

“Oh, now you’ve got him judging my performance.” He mopped his brow. “Come on, George. The test is over. Surely you can make up your mind by now.”

“Now he’s acting decisive and presidential, George. ‘The war is over and I’ve won.’ Notice that the creature still hasn’t shown that it knows anything. Keep going, George. Ask obscure questions. Probe. You can do it.”

“I can’t,” Hunt said softly.

“What’s the problem, George?”

“Don’t let him browbeat you, George.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, George.”

Hunt looked at Shana. “I can’t stand any more,” he said.

“You don’t know which is which?”

He shook his head. “Do you?”

“No.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” they both shouted in unison.

Shana walked behind the two Forresters, who both turned and glared at her. She put her hands behind each one’s head. When she touched the one who was seated, he suddenly smiled, and she smiled back. She gave a slight tug, and he slumped forward. She held out the cartridge to the one who was standing up. “Here you are, Mr. President,” she said. There was the slightest emphasis on the word you.

The room was silent. Forrester ignored the proffered cartridge. Shana stood behind the android, her free hand on his shoulder. He was soaked with sweat, and so was she.

Then Forrester started to laugh, so loud the furniture seemed to vibrate with his merriment. “You really couldn’t tell, could you, George?”

Hunt shook his head.

“Well, the joke’s on me, obviously. Fifty-four years of developing a personality, and here Ms. York comes along in a few months and duplicates it. What do you think of that, George?”

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Oh, absolutely, I’m delighted. Congratulations, Ms. York.”

Shana didn’t respond.

“Suddenly modest, are we? Most commendable. Anyway, you’ve done it. So let’s get started, shall we, George?”

“Right away?”

“Why not? Let the android give that damn speech in St. Louis tonight. What’s after that?”

“Breakfast meeting in Atlanta, news conference at the White House.”

“I should do the news conference, I suppose. I can come back here for the substitution, and you can update me on what went on. Any problem with that?”

Hunt shrugged and looked at Shana. “Can you get him ready?”

Shana breathed deeply. “It’ll take a while. I’ll have to implant some memories to give him a reason for being here. Any ideas?”

“Oh, George brought me here to check the place out for campaign strategy sessions,” Forrester suggested. “Can you make him believe that?”

“If you give me some time.”

“Yes, well, George will wait for you. I have better things to do.”

“And afterwards I’m free to leave?”

“Oh, of course. I’m sure George has worked it all out. And, Ms. York, let me just say how much I’ve enjoyed our little meetings.”

“You’re too kind,” Shana replied. She bent down and reinserted the cartridge in the android’s skull. “Let’s go upstairs,” she murmured to him.

“And don’t jump out any windows, my friend,” Forrester added. “I need you.”

The android ignored him and followed Shana.

Okay, it’s not exactly the way Turing imagined it.  But, hey, it’s a novel!

The New York Times proclaims “Love, Actually” a Christmas classic

I guess this is my annual Love, Actually post.  The New York Times  ran an article recently contemplating which recent holiday movies were classics.  And Love, Actually makes the cut:

The director Richard Curtis fills the cast with nearly every great British actor, and they make even ridiculous moments — Mr. Grant’s dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (for My Love)” through 10 Downing Street — seem like master classes.

Thanks to the way-back machine that is the Internet, we can see what the Times had to say about the film back in 2003, when it first came out.  You don’t see reviews of major movies much worse than this one:

”Love Actually” is a patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos, ending as it began, with hugging and kissing at the airport (where returning passengers are perhaps expressing their relief at being delivered from an in-flight movie like this one). The loose ends are neatly tied up, as they are when you seal a bag of garbage — or if you prefer, rubbish.

Yikes. (Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 63%, slightly over the line from rottenness. Audiences like it much better, coming in at 73%.)

Speaking of hugging and kissing at the airport, the latest episode of The New Girl features the cast at the airport heading to various places for the holidays. It plays a cover of “God Only Knows” at one point as it cuts from character to character, clearly a reference to the soundtrack of Love, Actually.  Does a movie become a classic when a sitcom pays homage to it?

“Birdman” and Chekhov’s Gun

Birdman has gotten great reviews for its acting and its zippy direction.  Underneath the long tracking shots and the magic realism, though, it’s a pretty standard backstage drama, the kind that would not have seemed out of place in the 1930s.  There’s the aging movie star risking everything to gain legitimacy by directing and starring in a Broadway play.  There’s the backstage romantic tension.  There’s the jaded New York Times critic, writing her reviews in longhand on a barstool.  There’s the ex-wife, the rehabbing daughter, the long-suffering lawyer . . .

And there’s even a pretty straightforward example of Chekhov’s gun.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

In the final scene of the play that the movie star (Michael Keaton) is staging, he is supposed to aim a gun at another actor (Edward Norton).  At one of the preview performances, Norton, who is a talented jerk, complains to Keaton that the gun isn’t real enough; he can’t react appropriately to a toy gun.  End of scene.

Well, you can’t really have a character complain that a gun doesn’t look real enough without bringing this back into the plot in a big way, can you?

It’s opening night.  Norton has been sleeping with Michael Keaton’s daughter.  Keaton is being sued by an actor he dropped from the play. The Times critic has guaranteed to Keaton that she’s going to give the play a terrible review, no matter how good it is.   Things can’t get any worse for him.  We see him backstage before the final scene, loading a real gun . .

The plot device is hackneyed, but the movie actually does a clever job of playing against our expectations.  The thing worked for me, even as I said to myself: Ah, come on . . .

Actually, I’d have enjoyed the movie even without the tracking shots and Keaton flying through the air above Manhattan.

Writers in movies: The Romantic Englishwoman

Another in a random series.

The Romantic Englishwoman is a 1975 movie with A-list credentials: it stars Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, it’s co-written by Tom Stoppard, and it’s directed by Joseph Losey (who also directed Accident and The Go-Between).  I love Tom Stoppard, but I hated this movie.

Caine plays a successful novelist and screenwriter; Jackson is his do-nothing, dissatisfied wife.  They have a beautiful kid, a beautiful house, beautiful friends, a nanny, but, well, you know.  Jackson goes off to Baden Baden for reasons she can’t articulate.  Caine is insanely jealous.  She comes home and in turn is jealous of him and the nanny.  He decides to write a screenplay about all this.  He invites the good-looking drug dealer she met in Baden Baden (Helmut Berger) to stay with them, basically trying to stage-manage his screenplay.  There are complications.  Jackson runs off with the drug dealer; Caine goes in pursuit.  They get back together again, in an abrupt ending that neither my wife and I understood in the slightest.  But perhaps that’s because we had long since stopped caring.  (By the way, that sexy poster has nothing much to do with the movie, although Jackson does have a brief, weird nude scene.  It’s kind of depressing to think that she’s now 78.  We should all stay young and gorgeous forever!)

You can see that intelligent people were behind the movie.  It’s about fiction mirroring reality (or maybe vice versa), and it seems like half the shots in the film involve showing someone’s reflection in a window or a mirror.  The plot has the makings of a thriller (the drug dealer is being pursued by bad guys), but the movie shrugs this off in favor of baffling deep meanings.  (And the Caine character tells his producer that he doesn’t want to write a thriller.)  But the movie didn’t bother making anyone even slightly sympathetic, so I just wasn’t interested in the deep meanings.

Caine’s character isn’t particularly interesting.  He’s a selfish jerk, which is of course entirely accurate for a writer, but we don’t get any sense of why he’s so successful, what makes him tick, or how he writes.  I can think of a couple dozen Michael Caine movies that I enjoyed more.  And virtually anything else by Tom Stoppard.

Writers in movies: Bright Star

Another in an occasional series.

Like The Invisible Woman and Hemingway and GellhornBright Star is about a real writer — this time, John Keats.  The movie covers the last three years of Keats’s life, focusing on his relationship with Fanny Brawne.  

Unlike Dickens and Hemingway, Keats was not a jerk.  He is, in fact,  just about the most lovable great writer I know of.  This is, of course, problematic in a movie.  Here is what the director, Jane Campion, had to deal with:

  • All Keats’s friends loved him.
  • His relationship with Fanny Brawne was chaste and “appropriate”.   Fanny’s family loved him as much as his friends did.
  • At the end of the movie he’s gonna die, and we all know it.  (He dies because he catches TB taking care of his beloved brother.)

So you have a sort of tragedy — the romance is doomed, and Keats is doomed to think that he will die a failure.  But that’s just sad; it’s not dramatic. Where do you find your conflict?  Campion finds a little between Fanny and Keats’s roommate, but that’s about it.  For the most part, watching this movie is like watching very elegant paint dry.  It’s well acted; the costumes are great; but there’s just not that much going on.  

There’s a little bit in the movie about writing: we see Keats and Charles Brown, his roommate, sitting around during the day trying to find stuff to write about.  And then there’s the famous scene of Keats sitting in Brown’s yard one morning writing “Ode to a Nightingale”:

According to Keats’ friend Brown, Keats finished the Ode in just one morning: “In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of the nightingale.”

But really, there’s not much you can do to dramatize that.  This is the essential problem with writers in movies: a young guy sits in a chair, listens to some birds, and scribbles out an immortal masterpiece.  It just isn’t very cinematic.

Anyway, let’s all enjoy Bright Star:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
         Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
         Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
         Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

 

“The Kiss” and Chekhov’s Gun

The Kiss, from 1929, was the last silent movie for both MGM and Greta Garbo.

There’s no to watch it except for Garbo.  That’s because there’s just not much going on in it.  As the web site Silent Volume says:

I got the feeling that The Kiss, Garbo’s last silent film, was acted on the sly, as though everyone knew the Temptress had run its course and wanted to see how little they could build around the character and still make it work. For The Kiss is short: 62 minutes; without a subplot of any kind, one scant scene of comic relief; a barely resolved second act and no real third act at all.

A commenter on the site suggests that the studio just gave up on the film because it knew that talkies were the future and didn’t want to waste time and money on something no one would watch.

I’m always interested in plots that involve Chekhov’s gun, however, and The Kiss includes a very rudimentary implementation of the technique — every bit as rudimentary as the one in The Two Mrs. Carrolls.  In an early scene we see Garbo’s husband dropping some papers, and then opening the bottom drawer of a file cabinet to insert them into it.  Inside the drawer we and Garbo see — a gun!  Later on (spoiler alert!) Garbo is trying to stop her husband from beating up the callow young man he has seen her chastely kissing (Lew Ayres, appropriately awful). The husband thrusts Garbo aside.  She is on the floor — she suddenly recalls the gun in the file cabinet next to her — she takes it out — she shoots!

I don’t know the state of forensics back in the 20’s, but it seems odd that the jury lets Garbo off on the theory that her husband committed suicide.  The bullet, after all, was fired from a gun at least half a dozen feet away, held at the level of the husband’s kneecap.  Such details aren’t worth worrying about in this movie, however.  Better to just look at Garbo.

Writers in movies: Third Star

Haven’t done one of these in a while.

Third Star is an indie movie from 2010 starring Benedict Cumberbatch and three other young British actors.  The main character is a 29-year-old aspiring writer who is dying of cancer.  His friends take him on one last journey to a remote bay in Wales.  Along the way they laugh, they cry, and they learn something about life, about friendship, and about loss.

I know what you’re thinking: This is just the kind of movie I want to avoid at all costs.  And you would be right.  The movie is nicely photographed, nicely acted, it contains no superheroes, no one meets cute . . . but it still feels very trite, very paint-by-numbers.  Everyone has his own flaw, his own secret . . . and yet, at the end, we don’t really feel that we know them; instead, we feel manipulated by a screenwriter without anything deep to say.

There are actually two writers in the movie: the dying-of-cancer-so-he-will-never-achieve-his-life’s-ambition writer and the talented-writer-who-could-never-be-as-good-as-his-famous-father-so-he-gave-it-up writer. But there’s never a moment when we really see them as writers.  Cumberbatch’s character feels a generalized sense of loss, of leaving this world too soon, but he never feels this loss as a writer, with stories left untold, with characters left undescribed.

Which is not to say that I can’t empathize with that loss.  I sold my first novel when I was about 30; by that time Cumberbatch’s character would have been dead.  And I recall that one of my strongest reactions was one of relief.  I would never have to think of myself again as an aspiring writer.  Instead, I could now think of myself as a published author.  However unsuccessful my writing career might be, no one would be able to take that away from me.  It surely would have been a cruel fate to be denied that satisfaction. I was hoping I’d get some sense of this from Third Star, but alas, I enjoyed The Two Mrs. Carrolls more.

Writers in Movies: The New York Times gets into the act

Last Sunday’s Book Review had a pair of essays on the topic “Why is it so hard to capture the writer’s life on film?”  This a question that seems easy enough to answer.  Thomas Mallon captures it like this:

Because no one wants to watch somebody typing, Hollywood often makes movies about writers who stop writing. It’s easier, and more entertaining, to show them being Technicolorfully destroyed by fame or drink or premature success.

And he brings up one of my favorite writer’s movies, Wonder Boys:

The hard part is always trying to show writers doing what they actually do. The Michael Douglas character occasionally sits at his Selectric wearing a woman’s bathrobe, like a pitcher’s lucky underwear, trying to summon more phrases for his already overlong, inert manuscript.

It seems a bit odd that there are so many movies about people whose lives are so fundamentally boring.  My guess — and it’s only a guess, mind you — is that this is because many movies are written by writers.  Anyway, these essays are pretty good, and they provide me with several additions to my list of writerly movies to watch (or re-watch):

Barton Fink
Deconstructing Harry
Julia
The Hours
Beloved Infidel
Capote

And, in particular, Bright Star, which I’ll blog about next.

Writers in movies: Hemingway & Gellhorn

Another in an occasional series.

Like An Invisible WomanHemingway & Gellhorn is about a famous novelist’s relationship with a woman — in this case, the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.  This was an HBO original movie and got a ton of Emmy nominations.  Unlike An Invisible Woman, this movie has an A-list actress, Nicole Kidman, playing the woman.  She’s pretty good!  Clive Owen as Hemingway, however, never convinced me the way Ralph Fiennes as Dickens convinced me.  Surely the director (Philip Kaufman) could have found an American who’d have done a better job. (At least an American could have gotten the accent right.)

The other major problem with the  movie is the script.  It never settles down and becomes about anything.  It just dramatizes a series of real-life incidents, usually with clever camera work and editing, and that becomes the film.

We do, of course, see Hemingway writing, and I assume they got that right.  He types standing up, his typewriter on a dresser, floating discarded sheets of paper in the direction of a wastebasket at his feet. He types as bombs fall in the street outside, and he types after a long night of drinking, while Gellhorn is too hung over to get out of bed.  And the script is full of what I assume are accurate Hemingway quotes, such as: “Writing’s like Mass.  God gets mad if you don’t show up.”  All good stuff.  But they didn’t make me like the movie.

Writers in Movies: The Invisible Woman

Another in an occasional series.

Like Young CassidyThe Invisible Woman is a biopic about a famous writer. Unlike Young Cassidy, it is really really good.

It’s the story of Charles Dickens and his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan. Ralph Fiennes directed the movie and plays Dickens; Felicity Jones plays Ternan.  I like the way the film captures the complexities of the relationship: this wasn’t a love story.  Ternan admired Dickens, but above all she needed money and security; Dickens was fond of Ternan, but above all he needed a young, pretty woman to admire him.

Beyond that, I like that they got Dickens right. Dickens was a creep in his personal life: he was awful to his wife, dismissive of his children . . . but he was also haunted by a dreadful childhood that goes a long way toward explaining the mess he made of things.  And there was his art and his public, both of which were more important to him than his wife and children.  The film captures that: he is constantly writing, and when he isn’t writing, he is performing.

Finally, the emotional climax of the movie is Ternan’s explication of the alternative endings of Great Expectations.  How cool is that?

The movie seems to have been kind of a flop, which is too bad.  There are plenty of reasons why, I suppose.  It’s not especially romantic; there’s no musical soundtrack (which worked for me); Dickens is probably considered old-fashioned and sentimental.  But I found it more satisfying than almost every other movie I’ve seen lately.

(By the way, someday I might start an occasional series of Shakespeare on film.  The previous movie that Fiennes directed was a modern-day version of Corialanus, with Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain.  That, too, was pretty good.  And also kind of a flop.  Maybe Fiennes needs to sign on to direct Iron Man 4.)