Mike Figgis uncut

Digital democracy and the death of Hollywood

Mike Figgis

You might have missed it (it was only a little thing, after all) but the director Mike Figgis gave an interview to the NS two weeks ago about the future of film. It ends with what is perhaps my single favourite quote from the arts pages - if not ever, then certainly of the last year or so:

Simple question: what's a cinema? Is it the Rex or the Odeon, with bad sugar-laden food on sale in the lobby, a place you don't really want to hang out in for long afterwards? Or is it a club, an interesting space you've converted to show films?" All you need now is a half-decent projector, a couple of decent Bose speakers and whatever you want for your source. It can be a Quicktime film. It can be a tape, or a DVD, depending on how high your quality needs to be. Or it can come off your hard disk. So, what's a cinema? And do you have to own it?

Figgis, if you don't know, directed a few (just about) conventional Hollwood films - including Leaving Las Vegas and Miss Julie - before delving into all manner of forward thinking projects; experiments in digital film, setting up the industry website Shooting People and generally working to turn cinema into an everyday, democratic art form rather than a product we're supposed to just sit back and consume. When I spoke to him, he talked about way more than I could fit into the NS pages, so here is a choice extract from the transcript:

NS: Does the current economic crisis present an opportunity for film-makers?

Figgis: I know that most artists I've spoken to in all genres recently have all welcomed it. There's an attitude that maybe we can clear out some of the detritus. It's quite interesting recently, in a number of newspaper articles, critics have started to express real dismay at the latest crop of films. It's like lines have been crossed, in terms of bad taste and the desire to shock for the sake of shocking.

NS: What films in particular do you mean?

F: This trend of, let's say, juvenile American male fart-wank-and-sex-obsessed films.

NS: Films in the vein of American Pie, that sort of thing?

F: Yes, that used to be a mildly amusing offshoot of what was on offer. It's now become the mainstream. And when you talk to studio executives, you can see that it also reflects their taste, which tells us something about the kind of people who are running the studios and writing - when someone like Judd Apatow is described as "the smartest guy in Hollywood", by which they mean the richest, then you know things are not in great shape.

NS: Perhaps this is why Hollywood is now reported to be in decline?

F: The buzzword in Hollywood is "3D" - like that's going to save the planet from extinction. Like that's going to save the industry! Why don't you consider just making a decent film for an option?

Hollywood has sadly never been capable of seeing innovation as anything but an aberration from the norm. When I made Leaving Las Vegas and shot it on 16mm, no-one inside the industry was prepared to take that as an option. Now of course they're all bitching "we're going to lose film, we're going to lose film". And now finally they're looking at super 16 as a viable way of saving some aspect of film making on celluloid.

NS: Does the Hollywood system act as a barrier to democracy - both in the art and the ideas expressed?

F: It's interesting what's happened, it's almost like the way pollution takes place. There's always some form of pollution, you can have good pollution or bad pollution, so let's say somewhere around the 1940s you suddenly have this really interesting pollution of eastern European refugees, who were so often members of the avant-garde, turning up in Hollywood doing a bit of writing, a bit of composing, a bit of directing, and you get pretty highbrow mainstream culture coming out of films. I mean, those avant garde ideas taking place within the Hollywood system would be unthinkable now. For the last 15 years, slowly the eyebrow has been descending.

You could do an interesting thesis, starting with Fatal Attraction, where for the first time, what the audience said was taken seriously. And not just seriously but in terms of statistics - and you can bend any statistics. And I remember being party to these kind of audience comment screenings.

NS: But defenders of Hollywood would say taking comments from the audience is democracy. Is it?

F: But it's dumb, because they ask the wrong kind of questions. Eg, "did you like this scene?" and the audience say "no I didn't like that scene", so the studio takes take it out. But of course you wouldn't like a scene where someone is dying, for example, because it's really uncomfortable.

If you re-phrased that to ask "were you uncomfortable in this scene but do you think it's important to the film?" you might get a different answer. But the speed at which these naysayers always interpret the evidence means you end up making bad films.

NS: Is there a movement in film that gives you a particular hope for the future?

F: Yeah I would say the Third World, which is the large part of the planet where they're only just starting to have access to the stuff now. There are all kinds of interesting ideas about how it can be made part of an educational and learning and teaching tool as well. And how if people were truly innovative, people like Google and Mac and so on, that access to education through these tools is really not such a huge challenge.

It's something I'm now actively concerning myself with. So I would say there are hopes for an unsullied new approach to film making, which like many things in our culture is going to come from China, or it's going to come from the Third World, it's not going to come from the phoenix of the Hollywood ashes.

The problem in America is that it's so corrupted that young independent film-makers who win the audience award at Sundance have already got their eye on the Hollywood big bucks. And the independent film movement in America is like the poor cousin to the mainstream. Everyone sees it as a stepping stone to get into the mainstream and the big bucks.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution