He was very tired. The solitude, after such a long time, had become a burden for him. Perhaps he was sick. The moxibustion session had gone from being an ancient technique connected to the acupuncture points to an incursion into the future of alternative therapies in which the ancestral overlaps an electronic existence. Covered in cables, as if almost a cyborg. Looking at the ceiling. His body operated upon by needles and electronic censors. He had thought that he would once again feel the touch of another person in a matter of hours. If he had just gone to the heart of the city, he would not have had to waste the opportunity to ascertain that he and his body were one and the same, and that only such first-hand evidence could – paradoxically – be confirmed by another man. And that was how he booked the hotel, arrived early, got ready, looked out the window, and a few hours later the stranger arrived. It could have been shiatsu or any other similar technique of healing by the touch of fingers, but what he longed for most was not there in the pressure of a thumb upon his back. Feeling the warmth of the hand of a person of whom he knew nothing other than a name, and comparing the excitement produced by the touch all over his body was a longing, an irrevocable desire that was difficult to satisfy in an existence governed by isolation.
The preceding paragraph is a disguised synopsis of this year’s film: Days (Rizi), by Tsai Ming-liang. In February, during the Berlinale, when we were not yet living on the planet of masks, that film, so austere and prodigious, that dispensed with words but in which everything was said, already summarised the future, or rather this perplexed endless present. And it did so even more than The Hole (Dong), whose remake had been practically rehearsed by hundreds and hundreds of societies between March and May. It was not a film about infections and incompatible biological transactions between the animal world and that of our species. The only animal in Rizi is a cat, barely noticeable in a formidable wide shot of a building. Nor can we even spy here the concealment of a face, this unexpected destiny by which the covering up of the epicentre of personality is prevented from showing itself in full, forcing one in daily interaction to guess what the word does not reveal in an urgent hermeneutic of the eyes, disrupted by the expressive absence of the mouth and cheekbones. An unusual discovery by which the face had been up to now like a sheet of paper covered with combined signs in which thoughts and feelings could be read, a codification whose operation was completely learned and where, the face being pushed to exist in a partial off camera space, the emission of gestural signs becomes another surface, more cryptic, perhaps less human, and in certain instances vulgarly unfathomable. So, what was Rizi putting into play?
The body and its evidence, the body and its inexorable destiny of loneliness, and also its existence reduced to bones and flesh, physical without metaphysics, in which the only promise to ward off the transitory passage through the world is the encounter with another living being that, through their own body, confirms a shared loneliness in contact. That Tsai chose to avoid the spoken and written word accentuates the physics of the film; that he has chosen solitary characters intensifies a condition of existence. Indeed, the empty world at the beginning of the pandemic, the depopulated world in which many are alone, locked up at home, was already involuntarily portrayed in this film that inaugurated the year of confusion.
It is that this year, 2020, will not be one like any other, and perhaps for reasons very different to those that have been discussed up to now. And for cinema, it is even less so like other years. Something has changed forever and for the moment the crudeness of this change can only be perceived: the premiere of Mulan in streaming, the film festivals being held from and on computers, the hundreds of debates and courses on Zoom. Signs to decipher.
But the future of cinema is not in these modifications alone. The history of the moving image continues on course and, in this sense, the music box that plays Chaplin’s song from Limelight – which the character interpreted by Lee Kang-sheng gives as an enigmatic gift to the masseur interpreted by Anong Houngheuangsy – is nothing other than the faint trace of a tradition that still persists in this century, without a roaring or arrogance, only as a sound (res)stored in an object of memory. Tsai is one of the few who refers to that tradition that knew days of glory. Every now and then, that tradition emits a sign of life.
At the end of 2019 an extraordinary book was published: Novacene. The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock. As you can guess, this is not a book about film, but rather artificial intelligence seen from a biological perspective. A magnificent writer as well as a visionary, Lovelock glimpsed a self-regulating mechanism in the biosphere in the long-lived stability of oxygen. From this regulating mechanism he postulated the Gaia hypothesis, with which he wanted to approach and understand the complex workings of the Earth’s ecosystems as if it were a living being. The emphasis on “as if” was disregarded by many lazy exegetes, and the hypothesis not only ceased to be the focus, but also it was used to reveal a new faith and the word Gaia served as a talisman to postulate spiritual fantasies about the Earth, literally at the antipodes of the very elegant empiricism in which Lovelock reasons.
In his book, Lovelock speculates on the future of intelligent life. He understands that the phenomenon of consciousness and intelligence, which has been only an evolutionary contingency, found its institution in the human species. Therefore, intelligent life was until less than a century ago an organic phenomenon, but, as is evident, inorganic intelligence has advanced ostensibly in recent decades. Lovelock believes that the advance in the field of artificial intelligence is such that our world, without machines, will become unsustainable.
The term “cyborg” is already of the past, both in science fiction literature and in films of the same genre. The metaphysical cantilever by which the difference between men and machines is insurmountable, because there is an ontological differential impossible to solve, is undoubtedly a superstition almost unnoticed when we examine the drifts and evolutionary leaps that are predicated by Lovelock’s ideas.
The term “cyborg” was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in the 1960s. In his book, Lovelock says, “It refers to a cybernetic organism: an organism as self-sufficient as one of us but made of engineered materials.” A bit further on in the text he adds, “I use it here to emphasize that the new intelligent beings will have arisen, like us, from Darwinian evolution. They will not, at first, be separate from us; indeed, they will be our offspring because the systems we made turned out to be their precursors.” Lovelock conjectures that inorganic intelligence will gradually replace the organic intelligence that belongs to us on the evolutionary path. Intelligent life as such will no longer be the prerogative of our species.
What does all of this have to do with the cinema? The filmmaker Florent Marcie has completed his newest film, entitled A.I. at War. What Lovelock imagines, here begins to be felt and take shape.
The work of this solitary filmmaker has been from the beginning a microscopic study of a phenomenon that is as old as it is always changing: war. Marcie was in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and recently in Syria. He always travels alone; he always records and edits without anyone’s assistance. He has filmed the conflicts of the wars of this century and in doing so he has spotted and noted a radical change in the meaning of warfare. Watching his films it is possible to conceive that there is a latent state of war going through a malaise that can no longer be symbolically ordered under certain political categories and under the conceptual jurisdiction of the Nation-State.
In his most recent film, Marcie includes a companion, named Zota. A small and complicated robot that he acquired in Malaysia, Zota’s program allows it, through the means of a sophisticated algorithm, to learn. The interaction between Marcie and Zota is of an almost unbelievable order, because the latter’s learning (she has a woman’s voice) is verified in the evolution of the story and because her eyes are also a camera. The reverse shots that Marcie is seen in are literally subjective to the robot. Is it a buddy movie?
In one of his returns home, Marcie notices that Paris has erupted. The yellow helmets confront the police in the mythical streets of the city. His aesthetic duty is to go to film the war, no longer in distant lands, but in the most familiar of territories: his city. In the midst of the turmoil, a bullet pierces the filmmaker’s cheekbone and he falls to the ground. The hole is deep. Blood is spilled. All this is seen because Zota continues filming and notices that her beloved programmer is badly injured.
In that unimaginable interaction a few years ago, one of the futures of cinema is encrypted. As has already occurred with montage in contemporary cinema, which begins to follow the circuits of associations of editors accustomed to associating and manipulating images with their hands and bringing together shots under an unstable sense of continuity, in the not too distant future there will be shots filmed and assembled by intelligent machines. Someday, moreover, a super intelligent machine will assemble 200 shots following an association pattern with unthinkable ramifications. From there a film will be born, and it will add something inconceivable in the imagination of the pioneers of cinema. And if it bears a signature, well, then there will be new discussions around the politique des auteurs.