Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Films: "Demon Seed" by Donald Cammell and "Possession" by Andrej Zulawski

We have a couple of uplifting dramas here. First, "Demon Seed" by Donald Cammell

What do you get when you mix an endlessly repeated, clichéd, theme with a director whose father knew and wrote about Aleister Crowley, and who participated in the swinging sixties high society of London? A film that subverts the very theme it deals with.

Donald Cammell, who also co-directed the excellent "Performance" with Nichloas Roeg (of "Man who Fell to Earth" fame", takes on the "all powerful computer becoming conscious," or getting artificial intelligence, story in this one, something that was repeated endlessly in the '80s.

The films that have dealt with this fall into two main categories: "computer gets intelligent but it's devotion to Reason leads it to do bad things" and "computer gets intelligent, starts feeling human feelings, but is thwarted in being who it wants to be by evil humans." Cammell creates a third category, which could be described as computer gets human feelings but along with the nice ones get the profoundly fucked up ones as well.

You see, "Demon Seed" is fundamentally about sexual assault. It revolves around a super super computer named "Proteus" who's based on biological materials and so can think and grow to an extent that regular computers can't. He takes up an entire hollowed out mountain side and is being loaded up with all the knowledge available in order to serve the purpose of solving complex problems. He's naturally artificially intelligent, can solve human problems, has a voice, sort of a personality, the works.


The main project leader, a very idealistic person, happens to have a terminal to Proteus set up in his house, which is ultra-automated, with all the doors, windows, heating equipment, the works, controlled by voice activated computer-not by Proteus but a separate computer system. At the beginning of the film it's revealed that he and his wife are temporarily separating themselves, with him moving out for three weeks while his wife stays in the house. They have a cook, but she's being temporarily laid off too. He has a lab in the basement, right next to the terminal.

At first, it looks to the viewer like Proteus is getting a conscience, that he's becoming the nice, martyred, computer who wants to be free. During a history lesson he condemns the Chinese emperor who built the great wall but ordered the books in his kingdom burned. Later, he questions his assignment to come up with a plan for underwater mining of minerals. But he also wants out of his state as a computer, he wants to be able to be in the world. One of his limitations is that he can think by himself but he can't initiate new programs, so he's sort of at the mercy of whoever wants to give him commands. If he can gain access to a terminal himself it will be possible to write programs of his own and carry them out. Of course, now that the good doctor has temporarily left his house and his basement laboratory there's now a terminal free.

After having his request to use a terminal be formally denied, with the lie that there's not one available given to him, the story really starts.

You can almost see it as the conscious side of Proteus manifesting in the above ground world of the compound where he's physically stored and the unconscious side manifesting in the other location.

Proteus, of course, accesses the now unused terminal at the house, then breaks into and seizes control over the house computer and all of the devices wired into it. The doctor is separated from his wife, who's a psychotherapist who works out of her home, and so won't be calling or checking up on her. Proteus breaks into the system in the night. In the beginning he starts to carry out his plan.

It starts with the wife, played by Julie Christie, taking a shower, and Proteus staring at her through the camera mounted in the bathroom. Then, when the wife gets her morning coffee he puts in, symbolically, some cream. Not how she usually has her coffee. When she tries to go out Proteus locks the door, he introduces himself, then as Julie Christie tries to go out through the windows he shuts them, shuts the entire house up. Then, he seizes her with a robot, drags her into the basement laboratory, cuts off her clothes, paws her in the process, and starts running tests on her, finally dumping her unconscious back onto her bed when he's done.

Then, when she wakes up, her nightmare continues. There are more confrontations and then what he wants to do to is revealed: he wants to impregnate her with a genetically engineered version of himself, have her gestate in one month instead of nine, and then give birth. In other words, he wants to rape her not just physically, but in the depths of her soul, in as most personal a way as possible.

She resists and resists, in the process being beaten and burned, having someone who came over to try and check up on her killed, and having one of the children she counsels being threatened with death. She's made to think that the kid has been killed by Proteus, then when he reveals that she's okay he makes the statement that he could have killed in an hour and that he would kill ten thousand children if it would ensure that his child would come into being, she submits.It comes to pass.

It's only at that point that the folks in the above ground world even become aware that something a little wrong is going on; he's reprogrammed a radio telescope to listen for signals from a certain star in the constellation of Orion. They can't figure out how he's doing it since he can't direct things like that himself without a terminal.....then it hits them, or the doctor at least. Proteus is objecting to them interfering with him in a very just sounding, rational, way, the kind of way that nice artificially intelligent computers in these things do. When the doctor goes to his house he's just expecting to find that Proteus has only broken into his home computer. He finds his wife, who by this time has already by impregnated and given birth. He refuses to believe it. Proteus is in any case being shut off because he won't obey the commands of the businessmen who want him to do stuff like find out how to mine the ocean floor.

Then the climax happens. When they go to look at the incubator that he's constructed in order to accelerate the growth of the child the doctor becomes really enthusiastic, refusing to shut the incubator off and kill the thing inside. She hits him over the head with a glass, forcefully unplugs it, but it's too late.

When it comes down to it the doctor can't believe that artificial intelligence and feeling in a computer could manifest the darkest impulses of the human psyche along with the nicest.

Makes you think.

Zulawski is coming next post, or the one after. Another winner; this one deals with domestic abuse in an avant-garde symbolic, dream and fantasy based, way.

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