Monday, February 14, 2011

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 11

Four more movies to round out the final weekend. Now we're really on the home strech.

First up, the documentary THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR. Last year at Docfest I was introduced to Ray Kurzweil in the movie PLUG AND PRAY. That was a wide-ranging exploration of artificial intelligence--the cutting-edge research and the moral and philosophical implications. Kurzweil was one of the fascinating subjects in that film. He made a fortune in text-to-speech scanners for the blind, which brought him into collaboration with Stevie Wonder in developing the synthesizer keyboard that bears his name (which is all I knew of him before). But now his passion is immortality, and he has founded the Singularity University in Silicon Valley to pursue that goal.

Okay, so far everything I wrote is based on my memory of/previous post about PLUG AND PRAY. I wrote that on the BART en route to Indiefest, and I haven't actually seen THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR yet. So now I'll watch it and see what new, fascinating things I learn from it.


Okay, first thing I'll say is that was the wildest, most entertaining infomercial I've ever seen. Second thing is that for all the talk, the "singularity" is fairly poorly defined. Is it the moment machine intelligence outpaces our own? Is it when the distinction between the two becomes meaningless? (In which case, I think it'll be more of a continuum than a singularity) Is it the point at which our ability to replace/augment our own bodies (including the brain) becomes so advanced we are essentially immortal (which would be awesome)? Maybe it's all that and more, but Kurzweil definitely believes in the law of accelerating returns in information technology, and the film posits a future where AI passes the Turing test (and is granted legal person status) by 2030, and by 2045 (as Ray's AI creation Ramona explains), the idea of going a day without automatically backing up your brain is unthinkable.

As far as a back and forth about the likelihood of all this happening, there isn't much in the film (one person argues that AI will be very, very clever but won't pass the Turing Test by 2029). Instead, as I said, it's an infomercial for Kurzweil's view of the future. But as far as that goes, it's a fascinating, tantalizing view of the future that's fun to play with and for all I know might just come true.

Oh yeah, and whatever happens, I like my meat brain. I think I'll hold on to it for as long as I can, if only for the ironic hipster retro-cool of it.

Next up, food documentaries starting with the short THE INHUMAN EATING MACHINE. Andrew Levy writes a blog with a simple challenge: once every other month he'll explore bay area restaurants by eating at at least 8 in a 24 hour period. He'll have at least two of each meal (typically the same thing at each restaurant--he has done hot dog days, hamburger days, taco days, ice cream days) and will finish everything before moving on to the next restaurant. And just to keep it affordable he puts a $10 limit at each. I love this guy! This is exactly the sort of crazy, obsessive, stupid behavior blogs were made for!

That was the lead in to FOOD STAMPED, the antithesis on the scale of responsible nutrition. Some 27 million Americans are on food stamps. Paradoxically, that's contributing to the obesity epidemic, as the cheapest foods are the highest calorie, lowest nutrient stuff--fast food, junk food, ramen, etc. Co-directors Shira and Yoav Potash set out to go one step beyond the Congressmen who spent a week eating on a food stamp budget. They set out to see if it was possible to eat healthy on $50 a week (for one week). No spoilers intended, but the answer is, "kinda." But more importantly I liked how they showed positive steps. Rather than repeating the depressing stories I hear routinely on the news, they show school lunch (and breakfast) programs that are at least trying to do better. Community gardens, organic foods, and conscious moves away from cheap, easy, but bad food. Yeah, there's stuff there about government subsidies pushing down the prices of junk food ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, but the Potashes seem to take a deliberately positive look. In the greater question, "can we feed our population well without spending too much?" the answer is an optimistic yes, we can, we just happen not to.

Then I saw THE SENTIMENTAL ENGINE SLAYER, a beautiful and befuddling first feature from Omar Rodriguez Lopez. The writer/director also stars as Barlam, a young Mexican-American living in El Paso. The world is bright and colorful, and drug dealers and prostitutes live amongst the devout Catholic iconography (a bit of a theme of the festival--religious trappings juxtaposed with sin). He has a bit of an incestuous attachment to his sister, often waking up embracing her. Or perhaps that's the same waking up scene many times. And that brings me to the befuddling part--several scenes are either repeated, out of order, or maybe exist only in his imagination (perhaps all three). What is clear is that the frustrations of this terminally shy, anti-social kid turns very dark by the end. Dark and violent. I'm not sure if this is a 'puzzle' film--if teasing out what 'really happened' is at all more rewarding. This might be more of a tone poem--the (d)evolving mood is more important, whether it's brought on by real events or violent hallucinations. What is clear is that it's very visually engaging the whole way through, and the auditory soundscape is deliberately designed to increase the feelings of frustration and alienation.

And then the last film of the night (and the official Indiefest Closing Night film when it plays again on Thursday), THE LAST CIRCUS from Alex de Iglesia (ACCION MUTANTE) kept up the theme of church iconography + evil. In fact, after a brief setup scene establishing the Spanish Civil War interrupting children laughing at the circus, the opening credits role over a montage of clowns, monsters (both historical and mythical), and the church. By the end our hero is a killer clown dressed as a demonic pope, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Little Javier witnessed his father die at the hands of Franco's soldiers (particularly, one sadistic colonel). Before he died, his father told him that the only way to carry on the family profession (clowning) was to be a sad clown. He had never had a childhood, being born and raised among death, and so could never make children laugh. Decades later, Javier joins a circus led by a popular, funny clown who turns violent and maniacal when he drinks (which is only every night). To make matters worse, he beats his acrobat girlfriend, whom Javier falls for. It all gets to be too much, and things are bound to fly out of control. There are also plenty of references to the Spanish Civil War and to Franco, much of which I confess was lost on this ignorant American. But what wasn't lost was the awesome, sick, anarchic glee infused in this movie (and pretty much all of Iglesia's work that I've seen). Oh, and it included a version of my favorite baby joke, first told to me by a friend at college. But I won't give that away.

Total Running Time: 344 minutes
My Total Minutes: 223,477
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