Our review of Conceiving Ada, published September 28th, 2010, is also available.
"I've just felt invisible my entire life—no one has actually seen me…"
Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, is credited as the first computer programmer. Impressive, as she lived in the Victorian Age, well before the invention of computers. She was a mathematical genius whose passion for knowledge and scandalous personal life made her an outcast in the rigid society of the day. For a long time she was ignored and forgotten, and only recently has her fascinating story been brought to light. Conceiving Ada is the story of a modern computer scientist and her attempts to discover the true nature of this iconic figure.
Facts of the Case
In the present day we meet Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany), a researcher working on artificial intelligence constructs or "agents." Emmy is a workaholic who has a massive computer workstation in her bedroom, and when inspiration strikes she will even get up at all hours of the night to work frantically at her precious machines. The computer field is dominated by men, and as a woman in a man's profession she has turned to the historical figure of Ada Byron for inspiration. In fact she has become obsessed with Ada, and is expanding her artificial intelligence experiments to try to make contact across time through "information waves" that never completely dissipate, but carry on forever.
Her life becomes more complicated when she learns that she is pregnant. She responds to the situation selfishly, thinking only of how the baby will disrupt her life and her work. Her live-in lover Nicholas (J.D. Wolfe) is hurt that she will not consider his feelings at all in this matter.
Emmy continues to be frustrated in her attempts to make contact with the past. She calls on her mentor, a mysterious figure named Sims (Timothy Leary—yes, the LSD guy) who appears to her as a godlike image in a wall-sized computer screen. With his advice she finally makes a breakthrough when she physically becomes part of her experiment, using her own body as an agent and using her DNA as part of her artificial intelligence program. It works, and she establishes two-way communication with Ada (Tilda Swinton—The Beach, Orlando, The War Zone) through time.
The story then shifts to a dramatized biography of Ada Byron, as she tells her story in her own words. The movie occasionally cuts back to Emmy and Nicholas, just to make sure we haven't forgotten about them sitting here in real life. As she watched Ada finally grow ill and die, Emmy decides to take drastic measures to protect Ada's memories and place in history.
Time travel stories have fascinated people for a very long time. The idea that the past might not be lost, and that we might be able to reconnect with it, is a recurring theme all over the world. Stories of communication with the dead have an even longer history, reaching back into the most ancient myths. Writer/director Lynn Hershman Leeson has decided to use the computer as a logical modern extension of both of these recurring themes. It is an intriguing idea, although by now the computer has lost most of its mystical allure. Even if we don't fully understand its workings it has become just as commonplace as a hammer, wrench, or television.
Beyond this, I can sympathize with the need for strong female role models in a male-dominated world. This must be especially true in an almost all-male field such as computer science. Ada Byron King, a noted scholar and mathematician at a time when women were considered little more than property, makes a good candidate in some respects.
Extra content on this disc is fairly sparse, but there is one interesting item. The section entitled "Technical Notes" explains a new bluescreen filming process that Hershman Leeson developed for this movie. There are a number of bluescreen shots, which use photographs taken in Victorian bed and breakfasts in the San Francisco Bay area and place them into Ada's world as backgrounds. Hershman Leeson was able to take these photos, touch them up with Photoshop and other common tools, and insert them into the film in real time, so that the actors could see their interactions with the background on set. The results aren't great as yet, but it is a promising innovation for low-budget filmmakers trying to save some money on location shooting and post-production costs. The rest of the extra content consists of the usual production credits, filmographies, and weblinks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much of what I have read about Conceiving Ada hails it as some sort of feminist manifesto. The question, I suppose, is whether or not having a deeply felt message can excuse a poorly made, inept movie. I tend to think that if the emperor has no clothes, it doesn't matter how smart one claims to be or how deep one's point may be. In any case, even if you take the movie on its own terms, it falls flat. The makers of this picture send out a lot of mixed signals that undermine their supposed message. If Emmy is supposed to serve as such a strong female character, how come she needs to seek guidance from an incoherent, babbling, and undeniably male relic like Leary? If Ada's life shows us how women's destinies have too often been controlled by family and society, how can anyone justify Emmy's final solution to Ada's problems? If the goal is to honor Ada Byron as a person, and for her place in history, why resort to using Emmy's present day storyline as a cheesy framing device/storytelling gimmick? In a larger sense, aren't women ill-served by presenting a supposedly strong female figure like Emmy and then making her exhibit every patronizing stereotype about women being emotional and irrational? There's even a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship to deal with; I'm sure that was a twist that took a lot of time to invent.
The movie fails on more conventional levels as well. The modern scenes are all unconvincing and lifeless. The present-day characters, especially Emmy, are irrational, self-centered, and unsympathetic. The modern scenes reach a point where they resemble Brecht's "theater of alienation," where unappealing characters behave in unappealing ways and the audience has no one with whom they can identify. This would have been a clever accomplishment had it been intentional, but somehow I doubt this was the case. In any case, with the exception of the very beginning and very end of the movie, the modern scenes function mostly as heavy-handed exposition. Indeed, it is interesting how Emmy's "computer" research consists mostly of watching video clips of talking heads who explain Ada's importance in history, presumably so that the audience will understand what is going on when contact is made. Once Emmy has made contact with Ada, the movie meanders through various vignettes in Ada's life, building to a crisis that no one will recognize as a crisis until after Emmy has solved it. Her solution is appallingly self-serving and inhuman.
The scenes from Ada's life are slightly better, but are stilted and wooden. Tilda Swinton has a heavy load to carry as Ada. Swinton's acting is the one bright spot in the whole movie, except for two scenes that almost sink her entire performance. In one scene Ada freezes while playing a harp, and repeats over and over to herself "I want to learn more. I want to learn more." I think Hershman Leeson may be trying to make a subtle point here about Ada's hunger for knowledge, but I could be mistaken. The second and even worse scene is essentially identical except that this time poor Swinton is made to repeat the line "Stop thinking! Stop thinking!" whilst smacking herself in the forehead. It is a tribute to Swinton's talents that she almost makes it believable.
The direction is mostly unimaginative, and occasionally atrocious. The whole picture shakes as the camera wanders around aimlessly, trying to film an argument between Emmy and Nicholas. Also, Hershman Leeson seems to favor painfully tight closeups, cutting abruptly from one face to another even in conversations where a conventional two-shot would be much more effective and pleasant. It is also clear that Hershman Leeson was working on a tight budget that apparently didn't allow for rental of sufficient lighting equipment, resulting in many scenes that are poorly lit. One scene in particular calls for firelight to dance across Ada's face; one can almost see the stagehand standing just out of shot waving a flashlight back and forth.
Conceiving Ada is brought to us by WinStar in a 1.85:1 Letterbox presentation. Picture quality on this DVD is uneven, ranging from above average in some early shots to very fuzzy later on. As alluded to earlier, all of the Victorian-era scenes were shot on digital videotape in front of bluescreens. These scenes, coincidentally, also have the softest images in the movie and also the most digital problems. The scenes where Emmy meets with her mentor are also strangely out of focus. They also seem to have some problems with the sound and video being out of sync. Colors throughout are generally oversaturated and garish, and flesh tones tend towards red and orange. Again, this is especially pronounced in the bluescreen scenes from Ada's life.
The audio mix is Dolby 2.0. It is adequate but unspectacular.
According to a blurb on the back of the case, Conceiving Ada has been called "a mesmerizing mix of psychological drama, romance, science fantasy and period biography." That's probably at least three genres too many. I'm sure this movie would be interesting to someone, but I have no idea who that might be. The normal filmgoer will be put off by the lack of plot, direction, or acting. The apparently intended feminist audience will be put off by the mixed messages that undermine any sense of credibility. Computer professionals and science-fiction fans alike will be put off by the totally unrealistic application of technology. Admirers of the historical Ada Byron King will be put off by the shallow caricature of a woman obsessed with knowledge and steamy affairs. DVD enthusiasts will be put off by the poor video and sound. This one is headed straight for the garage sale pile as far as I am concerned.
The movie and all involved are convicted of trying to cram more ideas into one film than their skills or budget would allow them to do proper justice. Fox Lorber/WinStar is convicted of putting out another shoddy disc, but one figures they should be used to this by now. Like Otis the drunk on the Andy Griffith Show, they can let themselves into the cell and let themselves out to try again in the morning.
We stand adjourned.
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