This is the last of my reflections on the Ambiguously Human film series. See the ones on Wall-E, Ghost in the Shell, and The Stepford Wives. Up next is the installation, Humanized Objects.
I finished with Ex Machina because it takes that two-way flow even further than The Stepford Wives and integrates the artificial body and mind concerns of Ghost in the Shell as well as the importance of individual choice in qualifying a being as human implied in Wall-E. It deals pretty comprehensively with the issues surrounding my question that I’ve seen addressed in film.
Ex Machina has a very small set of characters that we get to know quite well, and everyone we get to know in Nathan’s house occupies an interesting, complicated place on this human-robot or human-object spectrum. First, there’s Caleb, the naïve young programmer who wins a trip to visit his company’s CEO for a week. He seems to be shy and smart, not someone who’s faced many moral quandaries in his life. He’s at first guarded with Nathan but soon opens up, and then quickly closes off again when he starts getting to know Eva. What begins as scientific curiosity soon loses out to sympathy for who he sees as a fellow person being unjustly held prisoner. He likes Eva (though he feels conflicted about his attraction to her) and hatches a plan to deceive Nathan and help her escape. Unfortunately for Caleb, Eva’s feelings don’t seem to be reciprocal and she leaves him to die.
Part three of five reflections on the Ambiguously Human film series and installation. Earlier reflections were on Wall-E and Ghost in the Shell.
I chose to show The Stepford Wives after Ghost in the Shell because I thought they made a nice pair of perspectives surrounding my central question. Whereas Ghost in the Shell looks at the integration of objects – mechanical bodies, digital minds – into the spectrum of the human, The Stepford Wives shows how human qualities can become quite inhuman. Wall-E, as I discussed, shows this, but The Stepford Wives deals with it more directly and in a particular context. This ambiguous dichotomy flows two ways, object towards human (which I’ve mostly focused on) and human towards object (which is still important to consider in this project).
I’ve become interested in how the body mediates or confers human identity, and that was interesting to look at in The Stepford Wives. Early on in the film, before we know they’ve been replaced by robots, several of the women Joanna and Bobby encounter around Stepford seem extremely devoted to their housework and role as wives and mothers. It’s strange, but not outside the possibilities for human variety. Early on Joanna and Bobby look at these women and their presumably-chosen lives with laughter and a bit of scorn. Their suspicions that something is amiss grow over the course of the film, largely due to abrupt personally changes and the ubiquity of happy housewives in the town.
This is the second of my reflections on the events in Ambiguously Human. The first, on Wall-E, is here.
Ghost in the Shell was a perfect movie for my film series because it deals very directly with the question I’m interested in. Its characters have bodies that range from almost entirely biological to almost entirely mechanical, and Motoko, one of these mostly-mechanical people, repeatedly questions her own humanity. Additionally, it has another character, the Puppet Master, who initially has no body and a completely digital mind. Ghost in the Shell provides a nice array of biological, mechanical, and digital aspects of both the body and mind to examine what each particular combination might mean for the status of that being as human or thing.
Togusa, one of the members of Motoko’s team, is almost entirely human. We’re told that his intelligence-enhancing technology is the only non-biological component of his body. He’s certainly regarded as human in the film, and is mostly interesting as a contrast to two examples of extreme technological integration.
Over the next week I’ll be posting my thoughts on the different events in Ambiguously Human, starting the with films and then the installation. Here’s the first one, on Wall-E.
Wall-E initially interested me in the context of this project because its heroes are robots that are robotic only in very particular aspects of their lives, and the humans are often robotic. There’s a reversal of roles.
The humans in Wall-E are shown to be mindless consumers. They receive all their nutrition from drink brought to them by robot attendants, they change the color of their clothes immediately when informed a new one is in style, and they exist almost entirely in the digital world. They don’t care about Earth and don’t really seem to know much about it. Children are educated by robots and the content is essentially a commercial. They may be biological humans, but their bodies are atrophied and they don’t use their minds for anything highly individual. They act like robots.
The last two screenings and discussions in the film series have been scheduled! We’ll look at The Stepford Wives with Rubenstein Curator Rachel Ingold at 7pm on Tuesday, March 1 in the East Duke building and then Ex Machina with Professors Kate Hayles and Jay O’berski at 7pm on Thursday, March 10 at Perkins Library. Read more about the films and general topics for their discussions on the films page, and join the facebook groups (here’s the page for The Stepford Wives and the page for Ex Machina).
Please share with anyone you think might be interested! I hope to see you there.
The next film screening & discussion will feature Ghost in the Shell. It will start at 6pm on Thursday, February 25th at the Graduate Liberal Studies house. You can join the facebook event and read more about it on the films page. I hope to see you there!
Please join me this Wednesday (February 10th) at 7pm for the first film screening and discussion! Wall-E will be shown at the Griffith Theater in the Bryan Center. It’s also part of the Kenan Institute for Ethics’s Film Fe(a)st series and will be followed by a discussion with Dirk Philipsen and me. You can read more about the film and discussion topic on the films page.