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Garbage in, garbage out – technology in movies

Thursday, January 11, 1996

Bullock’s character still has to defeat the leading bad guy by hitting him over the head with a heavy object

Suddenly our movie screens are about to become computer screens, as Hollywood releases a crop of films about the Internet and virtual reality. Just when you thought the cinema was the only place you could escape from the media hype, it appears that swords and kilts are yesterday’s news.

The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, started the process here last autumn.  Johnny Mnemonic (starring Keanu Reeves) is due next month, and Virtuosity (with Denzel Washington) is on its way. These are big-name stars, and the films have the budgets to match, but their directors and writers insist they are thoughtful and timely examinations of how technology is changing our lives.

‘I see it as a fable for the information age,’ says Johnny Mnemonic’s writer William Gibson. ‘The film is a cautionary tale about how technology can expand our minds and horizons and how it can also reflect the worst of what we’ve become,’ says Brett Leonard, the director of Virtuosity.

However, there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip and these films are not topical and interesting explorations of identity and humanity but familiar action thrillers with unconvincing depictions of computers threatening to conquer the world. More jumping on the bandwagon than surfing the new wave.

The Net is set in the present and shows how dependent we all are on information about us held on computers. Criminals wipe out all trace of software expert Angela Bennett (played by Sandra Bullock) when she receives a floppy disk containing secret information. Angela’s ability to run her life without leaving her computer (including ordering a pizza over the Internet) makes her particularly vulnerable to such an attack.

The film, directed by Irwin Winkler, depicts her sheltered and high-tech life convincingly, but when she leaves her desk, she leaves the best part of the film behind her. We get a depressingly familiar list of chases and car crashes – there is even a chase scene in a fun fair – and despite her technological prowess, Bullock’s character still has to defeat the leading bad guy by hitting him over the head with a heavy object.

The biggest problem, however, is that for all its pretensions, the film has a very confused approach to technology, The Net is full of holes.  It sets out to raise valid questions about the role of computers in our lives, but then distorts the truth about this for the sake of the plot.

The studio argues that The Net describes a world in which good hackers can log into remote computers and alter any information they choose: flight plans, top-secret government information, even someone’s identity. Of course, there are files containing information about all of us stored on computers but there is no way any of these confidential files can be changed using the Internet.

Just because computers got clever doesn’t mean the people looking after them got stupid. Most organisations charged with storing personal data just don’t allow any dial-up access to the computers containing the records.

The film plays on people’s fears of computers. The audience is given what has come to be the cinematic party line on computers – they’re smarter than we are, they’re no substitute for real life, and sometimes even pulling out the plug won’t stop them.

In their Hollywood incarnation, computers make excellent bad guys in action films, except that they don’t wear black and they don’t move around a lot. Virtuosity overcomes this by bringing a database of serial killers to life. One American reviewer commented that the film resembles its computerised villain – all flash and no flesh – and certainly the closest it gets to virtual reality is in being virtually the same as many other technological chase and kill movies.

The most eagerly-awaited film in the incoming wave of computer films is Johnny Mnemonic, adapted by William Gibson from his own impressive short story. Gibson coined the phrase ‘cyberspace’ in his novel Neuromancer and might be expected to produce something thoughtful. ‘Johnny Mnemonic is phrased as an action-chase piece, but our real agenda is a little more serious than that,’ Gibson has said.

Unfortunately, this agenda seems to have been lost in the $30 million budget and curious cast. Keanu Reeves stars as the man who has had his memory removed so he can act as a human courier for computer data, and he is supported by rock singer Henry Rollins, rap artist Ice-T and musclebound Scandinavian Dolph Lungren. On its release in America earlier this year, it received only moderate reviews.

What is so frustrating about these films is that they are wasted opportunities to examine more deeply the issues they only touch on amid the chases and fights. There are good films to be made on the problems of identity in such an interconnected world and attempts to explore how our lives will be changed by technological advances would be very welcome.

Perhaps the action thriller genre employed by The Net, Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic just isn’t the right one to discuss this material. One wonders if studio bosses thought, ‘we have to make films about computers to cash in on all the Internet hype, but because computers are inherently boring we’d better throw in some explosions and shootings.’

Hollywood thrillers can hardly be said to reflect real life, and it’s in everyone’s daily life that the real impact of this technology is being felt. There’s a computer programmers’ acronym that is appropriate here:  GIGO, standing for ‘garbage in, garbage out.’

If you make a basic error at the start, you’ll get nonsense at the end.  If Hollywood still gives us the old cliches about computers, then its films will fail to address an important area that could really do with some artistic interpretation.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday, January 11th, 1996)

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Newt’s Knights – the real meaning of First Knight

Tuesday, July 18, 1995

. . . if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich

It’s a cliche that history books say more about the time they were written than the time they describe, but the recent crop of medieval-based films have shown that the same is true of historical films. You go for swashbuckling and damsels in distress, and end up with a discussion of big government versus the rights of the individual.

Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s latest film, and Mel Gibson’s forthcoming epic Braveheart both describe the little man fighting for freedom against the English military and political machine. First Knight, despite being a reworking of the story of King Arthur, shares this uneasiness with government intervention into individual lives, however well-meant.

All three films are surprisingly secular. The setting might be the distant past, but there is no hint of magic or mysticism. This is in contrast with the sword and sorcery films of the 1980s, such as Highlander, Legend, or Excalibur. In all these, destiny and magic are important, and the worlds on show feel very different from our own. With the recent films, however, we get contemporary political concerns dressed up in armour and stuck on a horse.

First Knight show this most clearly. There is no Merlin or Mordred, and Arthur is portrayed by Sean Connery as a well-meaning liberal. The Knights of the Round Table are ‘members of the High Council’, and the carving on the Table itself declares, ‘In serving each other we become free’. 

It all sounds like democracy not feudalism, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to see Camelot as America. We’re told that having won a prolonged war, the kingdom now looks forward to peace and prosperity. Camelot also offers protection to smaller nations which share its values, such as Guinevere’s Lyonesse. Arthur is a Bill Clinton figure, stressing his belief in law and the responsibilities citizens owe to one another.

King Arthur certainly means well, but we are shown that all is not as it should be. Malagant, the compulsory English bad guy (played by Ben Cross), repeatedly describes Camelot as a dream, and his actions question how realistic Arthur is being. “People don’t want brotherhood, they want leadership,” Malagant explains, plausibly.

Despite Arthur’s attempts at diplomacy, Malagant conquers Lyonesse, and Camelot’s response is the medieval equivalent of Operation Desert Storm – an impressive show of force with an inconclusive result. Malagant is beaten but not destroyed, and you start to wonder if Lyonesse has any oil reserves.

Malagant is the Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic of the piece, showing that things would be fine for the Kings of Camelot or the White House if everybody played by the one set of rules. Malagant points out, ‘Other people live by other laws,’ and Arthur falls back on the suspicious defence that “What we hold to be right and good and true,” must be right and good and true for everyone else as well. Which sounds a lot like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”.

However, if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich, and he poses the real threat to King Arthur’s big ideas of big government.

Lancelot exemplifies the fashionable idea that you don’t need much government at all – people do much better when left to their own devices. Described in the opening titles as ‘a wanderer who had never dreamed of peace or justice or knighthood’, he knows what he wants and how to get it – twice he rescues Guinevere single-handedly where all of Arthur’s well-drilled troops had failed.

Richard Gere keeps his American accent – the only one heard in the film – and Lancelot’s brand of rugged American individualism is seen even after he has become one of Arthur’s knights. In battle, he leaves the ranks of helmeted horsemen to fight on his own, with his head uncovered.

Malagant and Lancelot have little to do with the existing Arthurian material, and the ending of the film is also more Malibu than Malory. Arthur dies idealistically and foolishly, and Lancelot is left as the new ruler of Camelot under instructions to ‘look after’ Guinevere.

There is some justice to this, as Sean Connery always looked too old for Julia Ormond, but Arthur’s death underlines what we should take from the film.  His idea of beneficent big government is a dream, and he dies with his eyes open, having been woken at the last by the realisation that people (even those you love) just can’t live up to the ideal.

So we are left with the independent Lancelot in charge, who, like Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson in the other historical summer releases, won’t be told what to do by anyone. With his dying breath, Arthur tells Lancelot, ‘you’re the future’, and in a worrying way, maybe he is.

(first published in The Irish Times, Tuesday July 18th, 1995)

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Looking back in desperation – 80s revival in the 90s

Saturday, March 25, 1995

?Nostalgia isn?t what it used to be. Like a crew of rowers, artists have always looked backwards to earlier times in an attempt to move forwards. At the moment, however, they?re not looking back very far: there?s a 1980s revival going on.

Last year, there was a 1970s revival, and we were awash with flares and platforms, disco and Starsky and Hutch. This year, however, it?s The Human League and the Rubik?s cube. We?re running out of decades to be nostalgic about.

We have classic Eastenders and Grange Hill episodes on the BBC, and a Tube retrospective series on Channel 4. Radio stations play the classic hits of the ‘60s 70s and 80s’, and students have started having 80s parties, where dressing up as Adam Ant or a kid from Fame is compulsory.

Abba have scarcely been so popular, and the ?Strictly Handbag? night at The Kitchen specialises in kitsch tunes from the period. Record companies are releasing 80s compilations hand over fist, and even Kajagoogoo must be preparing for a comeback.

The ultimate 1980s experience, however, is the satellite tv channel UK Gold. All day every day, it allows you to relive the past by watching reruns of Blake?s Seven, Miami Vice, Every Second Counts, and Juliet Bravo.

Of course, the way earlier art and attitudes look different in a different light is constantly fascinating. Victorian mock-gothic architecture, for example, tells us at least as much about the grand ideas of the 1860s as it does about the medieval traditions on which it draws. Even the 1980s passion for Laura Ashley and Brideshead Revisited can be illuminating, when seen as an attempt to hark back to (and commodify) safe tradition in a fast-changing world.

With earlier examples of this form of cultural oarsmanship, the gap between the original and the revival allowed space for reflection and new creativity.  This time round, however, the revival is so recent that it’s beginning to seem slightly desperate. It also seems slightly misinformed, since one of the points about 80s culture is that it was itself deliberately nostalgic. What does this leave us with ? new New Romantics?

One explanation for all this is economic. It?s cheaper for tv stations to pump out re-runs than it is for them to commission new work. Another factor must be that people who grew up during the early 80s are reaching positions of responsibility in the media, and can now indulge themselves.  Chris Evans is a good example of this. Guests on recent editions of his show Don?t Forget Your Toothbrush included Suggs from the band Madness (who?s made a second career from this retro fashion), and the woman who danced seductively in the opening titles of Tales of the Unexpected.

One of the ironies of reviving so recent a period is that many of the original creators of this work are still around to reinterpret themselves for us ? at least saving us the mournful question, ?Where are they now??.

Suggs might be content just being Suggs a second time round, and The Human League are back, sounding very much like they did ten years ago.  Sting, in contrast, is constantly changing his back-catalogue. His danced-influenced cover of the 1981 Police song ?Demolition Man? was one of the highlights of his recent greatest hits collection.

However, aside from a few examples of innovation, this return to the culture of the previous decade shows a profound lack of confidence. It?s easier to listen to and watch things that you already know about. People are comfortable with Minder so why go to the trouble either of watching new tv shows, or discovering enough about a more distant time to borrow from then instead?

However, as with all nostalgia, we don?t recall what the time was really like, we reconstruct it how we want to. You remember watching Rockliffe?s Babies, so seeing it again takes you happily back to an earlier time.  It?s a shame you?ve forgotten that it wasn?t very good ten years ago.

If bad programmes taken on a new value, then good programmes suffer by being stripped of their context. Channel 4 is currently showing Auf Wiedersehen, Pet again, but watching it as a piece of personal history makes us forget the wider social and political atmosphere from which the show emerged.

This is perhaps the most worrying element of the return to the 1980s.  In reviving all this stuff, we are being presented with a very selective picture of a time so recent that its effects are still being felt. Those involved in the Celtic Revival at the turn of the century had the space to reinterpret the period they studied, to the extent of making up large chunks of ‘history’ to suit them. We can’t afford to this with the events of 10 years ago.

During the 1980s the Conservative government in the UK was criticised for reworking ?Victorian values?, but reworking that government itself less than ten years on is even more risky. Last week, for example, the London Independent on Sunday reported the increasing interest in Mrs Thatcher memorabilia. A Thatcher teapot bought for ?25 five years ago recently fetched ?207 at auction.

In all this nostalgia, there is very little reference to the recession of the early 1980s, or to the Falklands War, or to the rioting in English cities. Talking about teapots, or Tucker Jenkins from Grange Hill is much more appealing.

So far, this trend seems to be mainly a British phenomenon, and it would be tempting to say that culturally things are exciting enough in Ireland for young people here to keep their eyes on the future. However, it can only be a matter of time before we too start immersing ourselves in our recent past, so maybe it?s time for another papal visit. Then again, . . .

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday March 23rd, 1995)

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Have you seen the film of the ad? – movies and commercials

Tuesday, February 21, 1995

You know the tv commercial where two men in an office washroom are discussing the imminent sacking of a colleague, when the doomed workmate emerges from a cubicle and starts singing? What?s it all about?

It?s hard enough to remember what it?s for (Allied Dunbar pensions and life assurance), without trying to work out why it says anything about the product aside from the most basic, ?he?s not fussed, he?s got a pension?. However, the advert is a fine example of a recent trend in commercials to stop talking about the product.

Instead, the desire is to make 90 seconds of entertainment for an intelligent tv-literate audience. Make us like the ad as a piece of art first, and then maybe we?ll think about a pension.

The way many advertisers are doing this is by borrowing creatively from movies, to the extent that commercials are now often much more inventive and visually stimulating than the ?real? programmes they interrupt.

The Allied Dunbar advert is, for example, an unlikely combination of two elements. The setting in the washroom with the unseen listener is modelled on a scene in Robocop, Paul Verhoeven?s satirical and violent science fiction film. However, when the man starts singing ?Let?s Face the Music and Dance?, we?re suddenly watching a Dennis Potter tv play.

It?s long been recognised that TV commercials follow the same genres as other types of television. So we have the soap opera-style ad, such as the Nescafe Gold Blend campaign, the daytime tv-style ad, with glowing first-person endorsements for baby products from real mums, and even the costume drama-style ad.

The most famous example of this style is the Hovis campaign from the early 1980s. Here the production values and artistry were so impressive that the ad with the little boy pushing his bike up a hill looked as beautiful as the other quality period-piece of that time, Brideshead Revisited.

However, now it is not just genre-types that are being borrowed from film and tv, but specific plots, settings and scenes in a post-modern frenzy of quotation and pastiche. We’ve got used to seeing the film of the book, but now we’re seeing the advert of the film.

Two examples show the two ways this can be used. In the current Nescafe commercial, a young vet helps out a dour Yorkshire farmer, and ends up leaving his jar of coffee behind. It is obviously based on All Creatures Great and Small, and this creates a recognisable atmosphere very quickly.  The insertion of the brand into this familiar framework associates instant coffee with the relaxed and comforting world of James Herriot.

However, aside from updating the setting ? to avoid the anachronism of the young vet swapping his modern instant coffee for ration book vouchers ? few changes are made. The original material is invoked but not investigated.

The current ad for the Peugeot 106, however, is much more rewarding since it takes its model, the Ridley Scott film Thelma and Louise, and makes something new from it. Two young women are driving through Hollywood lamenting the fact that ?everyone wants to be in the movies?. Never a truer word, since even this advert wants to be in the movies, as our heroines find themselves being filmed while appearing to drive off a cliff.

By now, those viewers that have seen Thelma and Loiuse are expecting the pair to plummet triumphantly to their deaths. However, the advert surprises us by showing the car merely driving through a cloth backdrop.  The layers of irony are piled deep: to begin with, the advert is quoting a film made by a former ad-man (Ridley Scott directed some of the Hovis commercials before starting in films).

Secondly, it makes us reconsider the original film by showing us directly what we try to suppress when watching a movie ? the fact that?s it make-believe. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davies no more drove off an actual cliff than the couple in the advert do, and so curiously, the copy reminds us that the original isn?t real either.

Of course, if you haven?t seen the film, you watch the ad in a different way, but the question of which is the original is still raised. One day, you?ll settle down to watch Thelma and Louise, and find yourself saying ?the end?s a bit like that car ad?.

The current VW Polo advert appeals to its own brand?s advertising history while also making clever use of a Coen brothers film. Volkswagen have dropped cars in their commercials for years, but this time in dropping the new Polo from the top of a skyscraper they use the same tumbling point-of-view shots and fast-cutting as The Hudsucker Proxy.

It is easy to criticise the advertisers for cashing on other people?s creativity, but if it?s valid for Joel and Ethan Coen to use some of Frank Capra?s ideas in The Hudsucker Proxy, is it not just as valid for advertisers in turn to use the Coen brothers? work? Once these images, ideas and settings are abroad in the culture in whatever form, then they?re creative fair game for someone to make something new from them.

On this note, advertiser?s storyboards must be groaning under the weight of forthcoming commercials based on the films of Quentin Tarentino.  Seeing Reservoir Dogs reworked to advertise a bank, or Pulp Fiction flogging a car valeting service is almost too trendy to contemplate.

(first published in The Irish Times, Thursday Feb 21st, 1995)