With the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and Writer’s Guild strike, one thing to be considered is, What future in Hollywood can writers and actors look forward to? The trade papers say deals have been struck – compromise is immanent, and soon all parties in Tinsel Town can walk away from the table satisfied. But, verily, money and contracts are only part of the equation. The very souls of actors and writers, as well as the movie-viewing public is at stake. And, the bete noir wild card is artificial intelligence. The advent and ever-evolving use of A.I. motifs and CGI in films surely precipitated this year’s strike. From the strikers’ P.O.V., it demanded it.
So, what is at the heart of the question of creative purity in film, television, and other media — in Hollywood and beyond? It’s been sixty years or more since this kind of scenario has struck Tinsel Town. Rarely do the unions of both writers and actors join forces to just say “No” to the Hollywood studio machine. In this blogger’s estimation, it’s a question of artificial vs. spiritual intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence vs. Spiritual Intelligence
A few astute filmmakers have made movies based on this emerging conflict: the one pitting devices, programs, machines, and operating systems against human beings. It’s been ubiquitous for roughly ten years now (maybe more). Stanley Kubrick explored this in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly it has been presented in various guises, as the fundamental combatants in superhero and sci-fi films, but has it been explored enough, or to the depths demanded in our current-day miasma of convenient technology dependence and its resultant mayhem and degradation?
Writer, director, and producer Paul Schrader knows a thing or two about the struggle between spiritual and artificial intelligence in the arena of film-making. He is perhaps the most iconic figure — amongst knowledgeable cinephiles and film students, anyway — creating films that take on the challenge of asking, “Does Hollywood have heart and soul and spiritual intelligence, or not?”
Schrader is something of an elder statesman in the empire of American film. He has created a patchwork pantheon of remarkable and memorable images, characters, and theses in his fifty years since writing and selling his script for The Yakuza for the then-kingly sum of $300,000 in 1973. But, it was Taxi Driver (1976) that firmly established Paul on the stage of independent-spirited film-making. Edgy, searing, dark, and different, Taxi Driver takes passengers on a ride of moral chaos and spiritual bankruptcy and obsession, very much reflecting the mindset of its writer (and director Scorsese) and perhaps the zeitgeist of the mid-seventies in New York City.
Godfrey Reggio explored the concepts of spiritual intelligence vs. the artificial visually in his Qatsi Trilogy, with his image-and-music-only essays on the cost of believing in industrialism and technology over human or soul-level concerns. His images were compelling proof of how far we’d already fallen back in 1982 with Koyanisqatsi, his first film in that arresting series. He followed that first film with two sequels, completing the trilogy in 2002 with Naqoyqatsi, a film looking deep into the 21st Century’s crystal ball and asking, based on the glaring A.I. elephant in the room, “What lies ahead for humans in a silicon world?”
Alejandro Jodorowsky is another spiritual adept who made films of striking composition and theme that perhaps challenged filmgoers more than any other. Terence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Steven Spielberg (not just in “A.I.” in 2001) have all explored the big questions at the heart of this battle. Foreign film directors more than American ones seem to have shaken the tree with more vigor on this subject.
In recent history, screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman and (novelist-screenwriter) Chuck Palahniuk seem to be leading the charge against the easy acquiescence to the gradual and inevitable loss of our humanity to the mechanistic forces of the plastic, the artificial, and the fake. Novelist Philip K. Dick, perhaps the most translated and translatable writer to the big screen in the last forty-plus years, was obsessed with the question, “What makes us human?” and qualifies as one of the leading proponents in the vanguard of Spiritual vs. Artificial Intelligence.
Some may not be able to spot the subtle differences in hugely-contrasting themes some filmmakers present; the slight contrast between A.I. dressed-up to appear human, and the actual human which can sometimes come across as stiff and artificial. The lines have gotten blurry. The blurriest they have ever been, perhaps. We live under the specter of end-times consciousness as we are constantly bombarded by films celebrating the seeming-triumph of the A.I. will over human desires, will, and endeavors, with all-too-few squeaks of humanistic affirmation getting through amidst the barrage.
Spiritual Acting as Revisionist Concept
There have always been actors who were more in touch with their spiritual side than others. Some could argue that all acting is spiritual — a ritual, a consecration, a sacred performance of the rites of Thespia, devoted to the spirits of comedy and tragedy, and to cathartic transformation of all who participated. A psychological panoply of mythologies and metaphors, peopled by personas ready for great catharsis and personal transformation. The union of actors / performers and spectators was a sacred one to the Greeks, on up to places such as Ashland, Oregon, home of the largest celebration of Shakespeare outside London, England, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Was Shakespeare spiritual? You bet he was!
Not nearly the hedonist and decadent some would have pegged him as, old Will the Bard knew more deeply than perhaps any other playwright the power of cathartic transformation. No better personified than in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who ruminates on “death, the undiscovered country” and laments “the potent poison [that] quite o’ercrows my spirit”. Hamlet knew. Will our actors of tomorrow know, believe, and “look to it”?
Among contemporary adherents to the religion of Shakespeare, perhaps the chief disciple is the Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, who writes:
“A substantial number of Americans who believe they worship God actually worship three major literary characters: the Yahweh of the J Writer (earliest author of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers), the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark, and Allah of the Koran. I do not suggest that we substitute the worship of Hamlet, but Hamlet is the only secular rival to his greatest precursors in personality. Like them, he seems not to be just a literary or dramatic character. His total effect upon the world’s culture is incalculable. After Jesus, Hamlet is the most cited figure in Western consciousness; no one prays to him, but no one evades him for long either.”
What latter-day actors embody the quest for spiritual intelligence and the conveyance of it on the big screen, lighted stage, or in any dramatized media format? Some roles take the high road, but the great majority of them seem to embody the spiritual downfall of Man; I think of Ryan Gosling’s performance as “K” in Blade Runner 2049 (and the entire cast’s performances, for that matter)– a blatant paean to the scourge and question of the looming prominence of A.I. and the robot age. “You look lonely,” indeed, Ryan. But, there are many other examples of the spiritually empty actor/character, so, as Sartre put it, “If you are lonely when you are alone, then you are in poor company”.
So, it’s a desperate call for spiritually-intelligent dramatic performance in the offing of it in the great majority. Absence of a thing demands its presence.
What Hope in the Age of A.I. Looks Like
So, can we recapture the spirit of the age of independent, experimental filmmaking in A.I.-obsessed Hollywood and beyond? Especially those films and filmmakers who went — or go — radically out on the edge to show us something new? With all the derivative schlock out there permeating the cinema-sphere, the SAG-AFTRA strike having forced Hollywood’s gears to a grinding halt, it’s high time for new thinkers and creators of film to come out of their shells and present something new. Anything challenging to the current stultifying, comic book hero-obsessed milieu…and which looks like hope for the human soul. Answering that challenge is our creed at Golden Flower Network. What’s your creed? Let us know.